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Luis Robert and Investment Opportunities

The Cardinals are heading for a fallow period in terms of bringing in amateur talent. They may have a chance to do something about it in the meantime, though.

President Obama Attends Tampa Bay Devil Rays v Cuban National Team Baseball Game In Havana Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: This piece orginally ran in the offseason. Robert is now a free agent-CJE

I admit, when the final decision regarding the punishment for the Cardinals’ hacking scandal came down, my personal biggest reason to groan inwardly — and outwardly, probably — was the fact my job of writing about the 2017 draft, already compromised by the Redbirds’ forfeiture of their first round pick, was taking a second, even more enormous turn for the worse. Writing about a club whose first pick will be in the middle of the second round is tough enough to get up for; writing about a club not picking until the middle of the third is edging into territory I would rather not contemplate.

Once I got over my own personal tragedy, though, I was struck by just how difficult an uphill climb Randy Flores will now face in just his second year on the job, and in a more general sense how tough a spot the Cards now find themselves in as far as talent acquisition for the system goes. They have a farm system which is currently very much on the upswing, but are going to lose out on the three best chances they would otherwise have to add domestic talent in 2017, and due to their largesse on the international market this year, will also be unable to sign any of the big-ticket names from out of the country, either.

Now, admittedly, the new CBA rules regarding the international signing period are going to have an effect on how the market itself works, and the fact every team is working with very nearly the same pool of money is likely going to lead to some compression in the bonus range. Thus, it’s possible that being limited to spreading around smaller bonuses over the next couple seasons may be less of a disadvantage than it might otherwise have been. Still, being limited is being limited, and for the near future the Cardinals are going to be limited. When you combine the two things, the draft forfeiture and the capped international spending, it’s going to be much tougher for the Cardinals to add any premium minor league talent over the next one to two years than it would be under other circumstances.

In fact, I would hazard to say that the Redbirds are in as tough a situation as any I can think of for the next two years. You know how we fairly regularly grouse and grumble about the lack of elite, high-end talents in the Cards’ minor league system? Well, don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

There is, however, a small loophole in that darkness, and it’s the thing I wanted to write about today. While the Cardinals will be severely limited soon in their ability to pay out bonuses to international players, they are not, right now.

Up until the 15th of June of this year, any and all international amateur signings will fall under the current signing period, rather than the next one. And in this current period, the Redbirds are one of seven clubs to have already exceeded their bonus pool. What that means for the current period is that those seven clubs — the Cardinals, as well as the Astros, Athletics, Braves, Padres, Nationals, and Reds, will have to pay a 100% tax on any further international signings, but face no actual cap on their spending.

I’m sure everyone understand the incentives at work here; those seven clubs all have a certain level of urgency now to spend now, rather than spend later, simply because they will be unable to spend later. If there are any international players who become available (specifically, any under 25, which is the new cutoff age for international players to no longer be subject to the cap, meaning we’re not going to see Shohei Otani for quite a while still), between now and the 15th of June, there should be a bidding war amongst that group of seven, while they’re still allowed to spend freely.

What the Cardinals have that none of even those other clubs facing down a hard cap on individual bonuses in the near future, though, is what we began this column talking about: a complete lack of early draft picks in the upcoming draft. Thus, while all seven of those teams are likely incentivised to spend between now and the middle of June if any talents shake free, the Cards should literally be desperate to snatch up any and all talent they can before the sanctions all fall into place and the farm system sees its inflow pipe slow to a trickle.

Enter Luis Robert Moiran.

Presumably, there will be a handful of very talented young international prospects who will become eligible to sign contracts between now and the middle of June. Birthdays happen, and as youngsters in various Latin American countries pass the age threshold, they will be able to sign with major league clubs. The Cardinals would do well to throw some extra money around to bring a couple more of these players into the system. Just pick the toolsiest kids you happen to see, and go over the top to sign them. Your poor choice of scouting director is going to cost you in terms of your competitive ability; the best way to blunt that impact will be by spending to paper over the hole it’s going to leave.

So far as I’m aware, though, there is only one real bona fide star player who could potentially be hitting the market between now and the date when the market rolls over to the next signing period, and that is Luis Robert. Robert is a Cuban outfielder who fairly recently declared his intentions to come to America, and is trying to beat the clock to get cleared by the commissioner’s office before that June 15th deadline.

Why would he be so desperate to get cleared and signed before June 15th? Well, simple: because if he is signed prior to the 15th of June, he falls under this past year’s rules, and is free to sign with any club that is not currently prohibited from signing any big bonus international players for any amount they’re willing to give him. Admittedly, that means the market would essentially be limited to the seven teams I’ve already listed, as well as teams who haven’t yet exceeded their bonus pool but might be willing to, and the team signing him would have to pay that 100% tax (thus doubling the cost to the team), when they did sign him.

However, if he is unable to get cleared until after that deadline, then he would be blocked completely from getting more than about $10 million. That’s the maximum amount that a club can possibly trade for under the new international signing rules set to go in effect as of the next signing period. Clubs have a hard cap somewhere between $4.75 and $5.75 million, and can then trade for up to 75% more with other clubs willing to part with some of their bonus pool money. That means the absolute maximum a team will be able to spend on an international free agent under 25 beginning on the 15th of June this year is $10.06 million. So a player like Robert, potentially worth a big payday, even with a club basically paying a dollar for dollar tax on signing him, could get $15-20 million now, or a hard capped $10.06 million on the 18th of June.

And here’s the thing about that: even if a club were to go completely out of their way to trade for every last drop of pool money they could, it’s honestly a little tough to see a club being willing to throw their entire bonus pool for a given year at one player. Sure, if it was a surefire star I’m sure some club would be willing to sacrifice the rest of the class, but it’s very hard to justify buying just one big lottery ticket when there are tons of lower risk but still potentially high payoff bets to be placed. You had better be extremely certain that one player is a can’t-miss prospect, and there are going to be very few players who fall under the criteria of the international signing bonus rules who qualify as 100% can’t-miss prospects.

As it stands now, clubs likely have already allocated a decent chunk of whatever bonus pool they’re going to have to spend in 2017-’18 to the amateurs they’ve been scouting for the last couple years. The system in place encourages clubs to scout these players as young as twelve, and establish relationships with their buscones, or trainers, in order to have a leg up on signing the kid. Breaking those handshake agreements because a Cuban outfielder has shaken loose could have long-term negative repercussions for a team doing so, and so there’s a very real chance that Robert, upon entering the market after June 15th, could be facing an even more restricted spending environment than might otherwise be the case, simply because clubs have already scouted and decided on certain other players.

And yes, it’s a problematic system. The alternative, though, was the international draft, which presents a huge litany of other issues. So, you know. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

But what of Robert himself? I’ve talked about his situation, and why he and his camp will be pushing hard to try and get in under the wire for the current signing period, rather than waiting for teams to be under much more stringent spending limits. What kind of player is he, though, and why might he be worth a big signing bonus?

Well, to begin, Luis Robert is 6’3”, 185 lbs, bats right, throws right, and his last name is pronounced Roh-Bair. The Moiran I’ve seen placed both at the end and in the middle, but he seems to go by just Luis Robert most of the time, and I honestly don’t know enough about naming customs among Cubans to fully understand why the difference.

You all know that I try, very hard, to make cross-racial player comps whenever I can. It’s too easy to look at a player, say oh, that guy looks like this other guy when I look at him, so I’ll just say that. I try to dig down and make sure I’m making a comp based on tools and skills and style of play, rather than just the fact these two guys look kind of similar.

In the case of Robert, though, it’s hard not to make a Yasiel Puig comparison, simply because physically their profiles are so similar. Robert is currently a little leaner than Puig, but at the time Puig was coming out of Cuba initially he was also less bulky than he is now. The frames, though, are very similar, as are the raw tools.

Robert has plus raw speed both in the field and on the bases, and has played mostly center field in Serie Nacional, as well as in the youth leagues there in Cuba, but as he matures I think he most likely slows down to a right field pace. That being said, there’s the potential for him to be a true impact defender in right (or left, but he’s got the big arm that screams right fielder), on the order of, well, Yasiel Puig.

In the batter’s box, it’s big power potential and a solid feel to hit, with at least average contact ability. He hits with an extremely simple lower body action, similar actually to that employed by his countryman and current Cardinal farmhand Randy Arozarena, in which he rotates his front leg back slightly and then barely steps at all as he plants and swings. It’s not my favourite swing trigger, and Robert looks like he’s a little more on his front foot on some swings than I would prefer, but he’s also nineteen. There is time for slight refinements to help him stay balanced.

The speed/power combo could make Robert a perennial 20/20 player, if the contact proves good enough to allow him to take advantage of his prodigious physical tools. Overall, he’s the kind of player who could impact the game across the board in every way, offensively and defensively. Will he get there? Only time will tell, but it’s worth pointing out Robert has been one of the best, it not the best, players in Cuba the last couple years, and while the league is obviously watered down since the glory days before defections began sapping the talent level, Robert is still a teenager and dominating the highest level of the game in his home country.

Robert isn’t the only player I feel like the Cardinals should be targeting between now and the time when the international period rolls over and they enter the penalty phase. Any and all talented youngsters who shake loose should be fair game for the Cards. But a guy like Robert is a somewhat more rare commodity, and considering the circumstances, it’s likely there will be only 7-9 teams bidding for his services. And while yes, all 7-9 of those teams will, for one reason or another, be motivated to try and get a signing done, none of them will have quite as much motivation as the Redbirds.

The Cardinals, beginning in June of this year, will be banned from signing expensive internationals for two years. They will have no high draft picks this year at all to try and add to an emerging but still-unfocused farm system. If Luis Robert is cleared to sign before the 15th of June, no club in baseball should have more incentive to try and get him signed than El Birdos.

After all, it might be their last bite at the big-ticket apple for awhile.

via a man to whom I am very grateful for the video, but who has an Asian name I cannot begin to decipher: