Yoan Moncada: The next big (and expensive) Cuban slugger

On Tuesday, the Diamondbacks announced they’d signed Cuban right-handed pitching prospect Yoan Lopez to a contract that includes an $8.25 million bonus. This is the largest signing bonus given to an international prospect since Major League Baseball instituted new rules governing these signings in 2012, and signing Lopez means that Arizona is accepting the penalties that go along with blowing past the allocated bonus pool it was given. 

But $8.25 million won’t stand as the record signing bonus for very long. It won’t even be the largest signing bonus by a Cuban named Yoan, because Lopez’s record is going to be shattered in a few months by Yoan Moncada, a 19-year-old who is being billed as one of the best prospects to come off the island in a long time. Here is what FanGraphs lead prospect writer Kiley McDaniel wrote about Moncada in his original profile back in October.

"Moncada is 19 and packs a lot of tools into his 6€’1/210 frame. He’€™s a plus-plus runner with above average raw power from both sides of the plate and the tools/skills to stick in the infield, possibly at shortstop. Moncada is the quick-twitch type with big bat speed that clubs covet and his track record of hitting at big tournaments and in Cuba’€™s professional leagues is excellent considering his age."

Additionally, Ben Badler of Baseball America has written that if Moncada was eligible for the 2015 draft, he’d be in the mix to be taken No. 1 overall. This is not the kind of prospect who hits the open market very often, and naturally, all of the big-money organizations are reportedly interested. McDaniel has previously reported that the Red Sox and Yankees are "heavy favorites", while MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez has put the Dodgers in the mix as well. With those three teams potentially engaging in a bidding war, Moncada is likely set for the kind of signing bonus that will make Lopez’s deal seem like an afterthought. 

But the fact that Moncada is 19 means that we can’t simply take the figures that other notable Cuban defectors — such as Jose Abreu, Rusney Castillo, or Yasmany Tomas — have received. In each case, those players signed for something in the neighborhood of $70 million, but because they were all at least 23 years old, they were not subject to the international bonus pools and were free to sign major-league contracts. In other words, the White Sox didn’t cut Abreu a check for $68 million; they signed him to a contract with guaranteed future salaries. The team that signs Moncada won’t be able to sign that kind of contract, as players 22 and under have to be signed to minor-league contracts, and the entirety of their compensation has to be paid in a signing bonus. 

And whatever bonus Moncada agrees to, the signing team will then have to pay an almost equivalent fee to the commissioner’s office as a tax for ignoring its bonus pool allocation. The tax is levied as 100% of the amount that teams go over their allotted pools, which ranged from approximately $2 million to $5 million this year; most of the teams rumored to be in on Moncada were given bonus limits of close to $2 million, and they’ve already signed other players with some of that money. Or, in the Yankees case, they’ve already blown away that limit, spending $30 million to sign more than a dozen international prospects last summer. So, they’ll be paying a dollar for dollar tax if they sign Moncada, automatically doubling the cost of whatever they offer him as a bonus. 

So, what kind of offers are we going to see, given that the signing bonus will only represent half of the cost of signing him, and that the money will have to be paid up front? McDaniel has heard industry speculation putting the expected price between $30 and $40 million, but I think we can look to recent history and perhaps find evidence that we should expect the bidding to run quite a bit higher than that. The comparison? Yu Darvish’s contract with the Texas Rangers. 

While the posting system that was in place between MLB and Japan’s NPB at the time of Darvish’s availability isn’t exactly the same as the one that Moncada will be signing under, the posting fee isn’t effectively all that different from the tax that teams will have to pay to sign Moncada. The Rangers were able to sign Darvish to only a $56 million contract because they first paid a $51.7 million posting fee to acquire his rights, so the Rangers’ total acquisition cost was nearly double the amount Darvish received, just as it will be with whomever signs Moncada. In order to secure Darvish’s rights, Texas effectively paid $107 million in guaranteed money, and that was three years ago; salaries in baseball have only gone up since that deal was completed. 

The comparisons aren’t perfect, as Darvish was immediately ready to step into a big-league rotation and become one of the game’s elite pitchers, while Moncada is likely to need several years in the minor leagues before he’s ready to make an impact. But then again, we know Darvish is this good only in retrospect. At the time, he also was a significant risk, a prospect not too dissimilar from other live arms who had dominated inferior competition in college or the minor leagues. And then there are the risks inherent with being a pitcher. Major-league teams offset those risks by paying pitchers less than position players, so if Moncada was the hitting equivalent of Darvish as a prospect, we’d perhaps expect him to blow past the $107 million in total costs. 

So there are differences that make the comparison imperfect, but those differences fall on both sides of the equation. Moncada’s youth and the fact that he’s a position player perhaps argue for an even higher payout, while his delayed timetable and the fact that all of the money will be due up front suggests that maybe Darvish’s acquisition cost would be too high for Moncada. Maybe these variables don’t exactly even out, but I’m thinking they probably come closer than assuming that Moncada is going to sign for anywhere close to half of what Darvish got three years ago. 

Without access to inside information, and with the caveat that this is entirely wild speculation on my part, I’ll guess that he’s going to end up commanding a $50 million bonus when all is said and done, pushing the total acquisition cost to $100 million when the taxes are figured in. Winning teams don’t get high draft picks, so this is a unique opportunity for the biggest spenders to land a talent that might be equivalent to the top pick in the draft. With the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers being run by analytically-oriented front offices that place a huge value on internal development, I don’t expect any of the three to let Moncada go without a fight.