Yoan Moncada fits with Red Sox plan

The Yankees probably had the biggest need for Yoan Moncada. The Dodgers probably had more money to dangle in front of him. The Padres offered a clearer path to playing time. Yet it’s the Red Sox who have reportedly, and perhaps surprisingly, come away with the much-ballyhooed Cuban for $31.5 million, snatching their second prodigious talent from the island in the past six months.

Sure, the Red Sox had been linked to Moncada for a while, for obvious reasons: They have deep pockets and they had already incurred the penalties for outspending their bonus limit for this year’s international free agents. But Boston is ripe with young talent and has the non-first-base portion of their infield locked up for at least the next five years. Of course they’d be in the bidding to drive the price up for the rival Yankees, or to nab Moncada if his asking price was less than it seemed. But Moncada’s $31.5 million (really $63 million once the bonus-overage tax is assessed) deal is in line with the $30-$40 million (really $60-$80 million) range we’ve heard floated for months now. In fact, reports indicate that Boston only beat out New York by about $6.5 million (about $13 million including tax). The Sox made sense as participants but never really made sense as the prohibitive favorites, yet here we are.

But if we look back on Red Sox GM Ben Cherington’s time at the helm, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised after all. Moncada doesn’t have an obvious path to playing time and the Red Sox have “too many players” and it’s going to take a while for all of this to sort itself out. But Cherington doesn’t seem to give a damn; the Red Sox supposedly had a logjam at a few positions before the additions of Rusney Castillo last summer and Moncada, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval this offseason. Their only significant subtractions? Yoenis Cespedes and Will Middlebrooks. Under Cherington’s watch, it would appear as though talent—at least offensive talent—reigns supreme.

The implications are fascinating and far-reaching, from how teams are gaming the international bonus system to how prospects are valued to how the Sox are attempting to build a steadier organization after their worst-to-first-to-worst run. But we’ll dive more into what this signing tells us about Cherington and the Red Sox in a bit. First, let’s look at what the Sox just landed for $63 million.

You don’t need to go deep into Moncada’s scouting profile to understand what he could offer the Sox. The general consensus seems to be that he’s not a shortstop, but he could play second or third base or, for a team like the Red Sox, shift to an outfield spot. The ability to stick in the infield is a big draw, but the real calling card is Moncada’s offensive potential, which could border on superstar level. To the chagrin of those of us who try and temper expectations, he’s even been compared to Chase Utley and Robinson Cano. Hyperbolic comparisons aside, the overall package has most major prospect sources citing him as a top-eight to top-15 prospect.

The complexities of the international bonus penalties mean this doesn’t completely answer the question of “what would a top-10 prospect get on the open market,” but it’s probably the closest we’re going to get for a while. What we can say is that the Red Sox, an organization with an already strong farm system, an already robust payroll, and a big club that looks to be competitive in 2015, were willing to spend $63 million on an asset that likely won’t contribute to their cause immediately and may never make a meaningful impact. It’s a fascinating way for a team with financial might to flex its muscles—more on that later—and it gives the already deep Red Sox impressive flexibility moving forward.

The obvious question upon seeing the Moncada-to-Boston news is “where will he play?” Speculating on how Moncada will eventually see a path to playing time is a fool’s errand, but sometimes fool’s errands are fun. Let’s assume for a second that Moncada is ready sometime between mid-2016 and early-2017, that he’s best used as an infielder and that the Sox won’t make a major, core-shaking trade (though they very well could). We’ll also assume David Ortiz records at least 425 PA and that, consequently, his 2016 option vests.

Shane Victorino is coming off the books after 2015, as is Mike Napoli. That’d leave the Sox with the following significant offensive pieces under contract for next year:

  • Catchers: Christian Vazquez, Ryan Hanigan, Blake Swihart
  • Infielders: Allen Craig, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, Pablo Sandoval, Yoan Moncada, Garin Cecchini, Deven Marrero, Brock Holt
  • Outfielders: Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts, Daniel Nava, Jackie Bradley Jr.
  • Designated Hitter: David Ortiz

That’s 17 players for what figures to be 13 roster spots, including some fairly expendable assets, which already proves that this isn’t quite the crunch some are making it out to be. Maybe you move Sandoval to first base and let Moncada play at third. Maybe Ramirez’s transition to left field goes poorly, and you push him to first and let Moncada roam the outfield for a bit. Hell, maybe 2015 is the year age finally starts to put a dent in Ortiz, and you find a way to rotate all four players between DH, third base, left field and first base. Options abound.

There’s another future in play that’s less exciting, and that’s the one in which not all of these guys pan out. Sure, Bogaerts was/is a “can’t-miss prospect,” and Betts looks ready to settle into a long career as an above-average player and Moncada is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Yet the odds of all three blossoming and reaching their best projections are slim, and by 2017 or so maybe we know Bogaerts isn’t who we thought he’d be or Betts is more average than special. Maybe Moncada is a footnote in baseball history, the guy whose signing killed the J2 system and funded the international draft but who never learned to adjust to big-league pitching.

Even if we put on our Red Sox-colored lenses and assume that everyone pans out and the rich are getting richer and Moncada simply has nowhere to play early in 2017, the “logjam” isn’t an issue. He’s signed to a minor-league deal—not a major-league one—meaning the Red Sox lose nothing by stashing him in Triple-A. If has has to wait for major-league playing time until mid-2017 (gasp), he’d be all of 22. Unless Moncada himself busts—always a possibility—there’s no downside for the Red Sox here.

Finally, there’s also that pesky trade scenario—I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but the Red Sox lack an ace—that could clear things up in a hurry. Maybe the Sox cave and trade away Betts or Bogaerts to land Cole Hamels, or as part of a larger deal for Stephen Strasburg. It might be easier for them to pull the trigger on such a deal now. The possibilities, short of Clayton Kershaw, are seemingly endless.

Viewed in this light, Cherington’s trigger-happy ways when it comes to acquiring Moncada and offensive talent in general make a lot more sense. Having too many good players isn’t a real problem, and while the Moncada signing could be a prelude to a Betts-or-Bogaerts-for-pitching swap, it certainly doesn’t have to be.

Even after dispelling the logjam argument, Moncada may still seem like something of a luxury acquisition to the Sox; an asset any team would want, but maybe a piece that the Red Sox don’t need. When you view Moncada’s signing as part of what might be crystallizing as Cherington’s overall strategy, the need for Moncada and Moncada-like players becomes more apparent.

Indeed, the main conclusion we can make about Cherington’s strategy as a GM in the wake of the Moncada signing—and really the last seven-plus months as a whole—is that his mantra appears to be “acquire talent first, worry about fit later.” The Red Sox were a poor offensive team halfway through 2014, and Cherington promptly acquired Cespedes, Castillo, Ramirez and Sandoval, positions be damned. We’ve yet to see how all these pieces fit together, but PECOTA projects the Sox to finish first in the majors with 795 runs scored. Maybe a veteran will be unhappy with his playing time or a prospect will be blocked for a few months, but in the grand scheme of things, the Sox can live with that if they’re beating opposing pitching into a pulp.

That mantra may come with a pretty big caveat, though: it might only, or at least mostly, apply to offensive players. As Marc Normandin at Over The Monster pointed out, the Sox spent $255.5 million to add Castillo, Ramirez and Sandoval even before the Moncada signing. Their reported $135 million offer for Jon Lester aside (and Normandin provides evidence for why that offer was likely an aberration), Cherington’s biggest splurge on pitching has come in the form of Ryan Dempster, who was signed for a cool $26.5 million back in 2013. It’s a bit early to definitively say that Cherington refuses to play in the high end of the market for starters, but the evidence is trending that way.

And hey, maybe that’s not the best way to make use of his resources. Maybe doubling- and tripling- and quadrupling-down on offense and settling for a middle-of-the-pack rotation (736 RA, per PECOTA) will prove to be Boston’s undoing. If so, we’ll all look back and criticize Cherington for building only half of a team.

But thanks to the construction of a monster offense and a monster farm system, the options at Cherington’s disposal for acquiring pitching seem limitless. Maybe he still pulls off a trade for Hamels before Opening Day. Maybe he grabs Hamels or another free-agent-to-be at the trade deadline. Maybe he goes after a higher-risk option, like a Cliff Lee, in order to avoid depleting his core; he doesn’t need to spend to get an arm.

Or, he could break character and open up the checkbook for pitching next offseason, when the top-tier starter options aren’t limited to a class of Lester and Max Scherzer. Because of young players like Bogaerts and Swihart and Betts, and now Moncada, he has the long-term financial flexibility to do so.

How he uses that flexibility is likely to make or break Cherington’s tenure. He’s got young offensive talent. He’s got one of the game’s best farm systems. He’s got more financial freedom coming in the near future. And it’s becoming pretty clear that he has a plan.

There are many valid paths to roster construction, and there have been plenty of very successful teams built on the backs of incredible pitching. But as offense, and especially power, becomes harder to find, as pitchers go down with injuries left and right and as evidence mounts that aging curves for hitters are changing, it makes sense for not just a team, but really an entire organization, to focus on offense, and particularly young offense, first. The Cubs seem to have largely taken a similar path for their rebuild, and Boston’s and Chicago’s front offices share just a bit of history.

Yes, Moncada signing with the Sox is an example of the rich getting richer. It also offers an interesting window into how, at a time when the payroll gap between big- and small-market teams is shrinking, one of said big-markets is looking to maximize its might.

At the very least, may be it can help Cherington end the roller coaster ride that his first three seasons represent, and put Boston on a more sustainable, linear path to success.