For teams like the Cardinals, teams that do not get high draft picks, avoid giving up picks through free agent signings, and resist trading young players for talent, player development is paramount in building a successful team. The Cardinals have been very successful over the past decade because of that strategy. The strategy can become difficult if holes in the system form because solutions outside the organization are tough to find. The Cardinals currently lack power and they have questions about right field.Yasmani Tomas could be the answer to those questions, but his signing comes with risks.
Prior to 2014, the Cardinals had a problem as shortstop. After David Eckstein departed, the Cardinals went through a mix of a players. Cesar Izturis came in for a year on a fee agent deal. The Cardinals gave up a few relievers to get Kahlil Greene. Brendan Ryan's incredible defense came with inept offense as he rose through the system. Ryan Theriot (and his incredible logic) came through town for one season before the Cardinals replaced him with Rafael Furcal in a trade for a non-top-prospect in Alex Castellanos. Furcal signed a two year deal, but missed all of 2013 with injuries and Pete Kozma, the only shortstop the Cardinals have picked in the first round of the draft in the last decade, manned the position all season.
Entering last winter, John Mozeliak was faced with a difficult proposition. He needed to find a shortstop, but he was not willing to give up future production to do so. He acted early, paying a premium for the right-handed Jhonny Peralta coming off a suspension and passing on the left-handed Stephen Drew, who eventually signed a relatively meager deal with his former team, the Boston Red Sox. After one year, the Peralta decision has worked out well for the Cardinals, but committing more than $50 million to Peralta when there might have been cheaper options later was a very agressive move.
Just like shortstop last year, the Cardinals are faced with a similar situation in right field this winter. Randal Grichuk, or perhaps Stephen Piscotty, could man right field next season and both have more potential than Pete Kozma at shortstop. However, both players come with question marks. Grichuk has had trouble hitting right-handers throughout his professional career, and Piscotty did not show much power last season in Memphis. If the Cardinals choose to go outside the organization, their options are limited.
The domestic free agent market for outfielders is not a good one. Nelson Cruz, Melky Cabrera, and Michael Cuddyer received qualifying offers from their teams and none of those players appear worthy of giving up a first round draft pick in addition to the money required to sign them. Nori Aoki and Nick Markakis are nice players, but provide no power. Colby Rasmus and Alex Rios are coming off very disappointing seasons. If the Cardinals cannot trade for next season's rightfielder, the international market does provide an alternative in Yasmani Thomas.
Thomas, the 23-year old Cuban defector, is a free agent and brings tremendous power. After defecting in June, Ben Badler wrote about Tomas for Baseball America.
A righthanded-hitting corner outfielder, Tomas can hit towering home runs thanks to the strength from his thickly-built 6-foot-1, 230-pound frame. Tomas has 70 raw power on the 20-80 scale, and with Jose Abreu already gone, the only player still in Cuba with more raw power than him was Alfredo Despaigne. He has some experience in center field and is a decent runner for his size, but his speed is still below-average and he's going to be a corner outfielder in pro ball.
Badler did note some questions about Tomas' ability to catch up to fastballs and vulnerability to offspeed offerings. Badler was not the only one to do so. Kiley McDaniel wrote about both the positives and negatives for Fangraphs.
Tomas has a short bat path for a power hitter and quick hands that move through the zone quickly. The tools are here for at least an average hitter, but Tomas' plate discipline has been questioned and he can sometimes sell out for pull power in games.
Some scouts think it's more of a 40-45 bat (.240 to .250 average) that may keep Tomas from getting to all of his raw power in games, while others see a soon-to-be-24-year-old with the tools to hit and think the hot streak of Cuban hitters in the big leagues will continue with him.
McDaniel rates Tomas' upside (75th percentile projection) at .275/.350/.480. For a frame of reference, last season Justin Upton hit .270/.342/.477, good for a 133 wRC+ which placed him 12th in the National League. Keith Law put Tomas tenth in his annual free agent rankings and first among outfielders. However, he also noted that Tomas had the potential to be one of the worst offseason values at outfielder (along with Alex Rios and Nelson Cruz) if he approached his $100 million asking price.
Tomas is not as polished or as old as Jose Abreu and Rusney Castillo. He is not near as talented as Yasiel Puig. Many clubs have been linked to Tomas, but the Cardinals have not been asking them. The Cardinals last Cuban signee, Aledmys Diaz, is not in the same league as Tomas, and waiting until the demand dries up is likely not an option. The Cardinals have not been previously mentioned as a potential suitor for Tomas, but the team's situation changed drastically two weeks ago. Tomas is expected to sign soon so the Cardinals would have to move quickly.
Tomas comes with risks, having never faced major league pitching on a consistent basis. The string of Cuban successes is sure to run out at some point. Determining whether the music stops with Yasmany Tomas is a difficult decision to make given the investment involved. The Cardinals might find that the trade market holds the answer to the problem in right field, but if the Cardinals choose to go the free agent route, making a risky signing in Tomas is the team's best bet given the lack of other options.