Question: why are dancing sharks the number one thing in my news feed the last couple days? That seems dumb.
Well, okay, fair enough. It doesn't seem dumb when you just say, "Dancing sharks,"; that actually seems like exactly the sort of thing I want to see. Once I figured out it wasn't actual dancing sharks who have learned to walk on land, twirling their way through a rhythmic orgy of bloodshed, then it started seeming dumb.
Cuba has been in the news lately. Thawing relations, ballplayer defections, and a decrepit former dictator trying to send a message by releasing photos that prove he's alive. Which, I suppose does in fact send the message he's alive, but not so much with any of the other political motives being ascribed to the move. So, maybe a partial victory?
But I'm not here to talk about former infield prospects who went on to establish communist regimes in Cuba; rather, I'm here to talk about a current infield prospect spawned by that selfsame country and regime, who will now try to play his trade in the more capitalist lands of the U.S. (No word yet on his future plans for regime establishment.)
I speak, of course, of Yoan Moncada, the 19 year old (and this is a legitimate 19, not Livan Hernandez coming to the Marlins at 21 with two high-school aged children), shortstop prospect set to possibly become the next Cuban superstar to make his way to the major leagues.
In case you hadn't heard, Moncada has been officially declared a free agent as of yesterday afternoon, making him eligible to sign with any MLB club who would like to pony up the dough to bring him in. My colleague Craig Edwards wrote on Monday about the financial and signing-bonus minutiae involved in possibly signing Moncada; I will thank Craig for wading into the rather gross waters of MLB's various CBA-related shenanigans, thus saving me from having to hold my nose and jump into those waters.
However, I will give you the Cliff's Notes version, as well as the even-more-succinct summary of the facts. If you sign Moncada for a big-ass deal this year, you don't get to buy any fancy international players over 300K the next couple years. You can still sign lower-priced international free agents; you're just prohibited from targeting the high-dollar guys. There is also a 100% penalty on the money being paid to the player, because the team paying it is going over their bonus pool allotment. The even-more-succinct version: it kind of doesn't matter, because if you believe Moncada is worth signing, then the money is simply the cost of acquisition and there are no players coming on the international market in the next two years who should give you any pause about investing in what Moncada could be.
Rather than the facts and details of possibly signing Moncada, I thought I might give a quick look at what such a signing would mean for the Cardinals' farm system, as well as the immediate and longer-term future at the major league level as well.
First, the player himself. Yoan Moncada is a switch-hitting shortstop who stands 6'0" and weighs in at around 210 pounds. Now, the first thing that might jump out a bit is that second number. Even at six feet tall, you don't see a ton of shortstops built like Moncada. He's already thick and mature through his torso, and plenty of scouts will fret aloud about what might happen if he fills out any further, gets any bigger, and slows down any more. There is danger of that, of course; guys built like running backs at 19 are prone to being built like fullbacks at 23 and, hmm. Okay, I need some way of cleverly working Outback steakhouse into this sentence here, essentially going running back 19, fullback 23, Outback 28. But I'm struggling to find the right way to say that. It would probably work better as like an infographic, with three drawings of an increasingly thick and eventually dumpy-looking individual, labeled beneath each panel as, "Age 19 -- Running Back," "Age 23 -- Fullback," "Age 28 -- Outback." The man in the last panel, of course, would be 35 pounds overweight and wearing either something banal, like a slightly-too-tight polo shirt, maybe in powder blue, and pleated khakis, or else something vulgar like a garish Hawaiian shirt that somehow manages to never approach kitsch or campy fun but rather stays squarely in the realm of miserable, enforced gaiety inhabited by work-party middle managers, team-building retreat camp supervisors, and the unhappily sober.
Wait. What? What the hell am I talking about? I feel as if I may have just had a stroke. Sorry about that, everyone.
Anyhow, what I'm saying is Yoan Moncada is already filled out at 19, already put together in a muscular way that bespeaks positions other than shortstop, and there are those who worry he'll get bigger and slower as he moves into his twenties. Personally, I'm not as concerned as some others, because a) he is not so much simply thick as he is ripped, very much in the Yasiel Puig sense of things, body-type wise, and b) we have seen in the past that Cuban players in particular, and players from other countries in general (I feel uncomfortable making the generalisation that it's primarily Latin countries known for this, while Asian players are generally just too small and not strong enough, rather than not in great condition, but that's kind of where we are), are often not privy to top-quality nutrition and training regimens in their homelands, and suddenly improve their fitness levels significantly once they enter professional baseball under the auspices of an MLB club. I'm not sure Moncada could get in much better shape than he is, but I could see him cutting that 210 to ~200 once he gets into pro ball here and his team's nutritionists get their hands on him.
And also, let's face it: we have, playing for the Cardinals right this minute, perhaps the greatest reminder in all of baseball to be very cautious of those easy, body-type-based scouting reports. Jhonny Peralta does not look at all like a shortstop. He also just happens to be one of the best shortstops in the game.
The tools for Moncada are remarkable; he is a true five-tool player the likes of which you don't see all that often. I didn't make that Yasiel Puig comment a moment ago as just a throw-off comp to another Cuban player; the physical tools Moncada has demonstrated to date are very much comparable to his older countryman. Puig is bigger, and a bit stronger, but Moncada has better feet in general, and specifically in the field, as evinced by his position, far further up the defensive spectrum than Puig's. Yoan Moncada has the physical ability to be an absolute monster in the big leagues; the fact he has so much professional experience already at 19 is just icing on the cake.
Which isn't to say, of course, that Moncada is necessarily a plug-and-play solution in the majors right away. It's part of where things would get very interesting for a team like the Cardinals, if they were so inclined as to try and make a long-term investment in Moncada for the future. The Cuban leagues, once considered on par with Triple A ball in America, have seen a notable downturn in quality over the past few years, and are probably more in the range of High-A right now. Of course, considering how successful guys like Puig, Jose Abreu, and Yoenis Cespedes have been in transitioning to the big leagues (though Cespedes' flaws have shown up in very much the exact way many scouts were afraid they would), I would argue trying to apply a one-to-one conversion against players is not a great way to judge them; rather, it's probably best to stick a big quality of competition penalty on all Cuban players but pay far more attention to the scouting reports.
Moncada isn't going to be big league ready immediately. To my mind, he probably needs two seasons in the minors, which would put him on track to hit the majors either for a September callup in 2016 or an in-season in 2017. Which, of course, is extra interesting because the Cardinals have a shorstop, the aforementioned cautionary tale against body-based scouting, whose contract expires after 2017.
On the other hand, most of the scuttlebutt around Moncada suggests he isn't really a shortstop long term. He's got the arm for third and the feet for second, but the range and size just aren't ideal for a guy playing short. Still, there's reason to believe he could start his career at short, and then make the move either to the hot corner or the keystone sometime in his mid-20s. Which would still be fantastic for the Cardinals, since that would be roughly 6-7 years from now, putting them past the Peralta deal, past Kolten Wong's cheap years, and into the twilight of Matt Carpenter's career. My point is, I think there's a chance Moncada could play shortstop long enough for the Cardinals to the point they could move him elsewhere painlessly.
Which brings me to the subject of organsisational depth. Yoan Moncada is a shortstop prospect, a hugely talented one, and would immediately be slotted at probably Double A, or perhaps stashed in Extended Spring Training to get in a bunch of extra work and then placed on a team. The point is this: he would likely fit somewhere in the upper levels of the minor leagues right now. Here are the legitimate prospects the Cardinals have in the high minors right now: