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The Cardinals should bid big on Luis Robert

A perfect storm seems to be forming that could allow the Cardinals to add a top prospect

Colorado Rockies v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images

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

Luis Robert is all the rage right now. If you’re not aware, Robert (pronounced in a way that rhymes with “Stephen Colbert”) is the latest Cuban sensation to leave the island in search of a MLB career. He’s 19, and was the leading the Cuban league in OPS at the time that he defected.

Because of the convoluted nature of MLB rules, the Cards are in a unique position to sign him, and according to MLB Trade Rumors, they are interested. The Cubs, Dodgers, Red Sox, and Yankees, four clubs known to spend big on international prospects, will be unable to sign him, as they went over their spending limits in recent years. The Royals, Angels, Diamondbacks, and Rays are in the same boat. The Cardinals are over their limit in the current year, and thus have a high incentive to sign him. The Astros, A’s, Braves, Padres, Reds, and Nationals are also all over the limit, and represent the main competition the Cardinals will face. Those in the know believe Roberts will be able to sign in the current int’l signing period, which ends June 2nd. If he doesn’t though, then the CBA’s new rules will take affect, massively hindering Robert’s ability to land a big payday. For more, check out The Red Baron’s explanation last month when he wrote about Robert, notably before it was cool to do so.

The scouts have great things to say about Robert. According to MLB Trade Rumors, an unnamed international scouting director called Robert “a five-tool guy that can be in the big leagues soon.“ Another goes even further, saying “the best player on the planet, and that’s no exaggeration.” When the Baron wrote on Robert, he explained that he loathes comping prospects to a player with the same ethnicity, but found Yasiel Puig to be the best comp for Robert. While the wheels have come off for Puig recently, there’s no denying the superstar-level tools he possesses.

Chief Fangraphs’ prospect guru Eric Longenhagen comps Robert physically to Royals outfielder Alex Gordon. Here’s a blurb from a great article you should check out in full:

He has plus bat speed, advanced pitch recognition and generates contact to all fields. He walked three times on Wednesday and also showed the ability to make adjustments in the middle of at-bats.

Plus bat speed is something the Baron has noticed that the Cardinals go after. I’m no scout, so I don’t have strong feelings on any of my own observations. I can say though, that he has performed very strong at every level he’s played at, despite being very young for the level. Baseball America gave a great run down of his performance in his latest season (no paywall). He owned a .401/.526/.687 slash line in 232 plate appearances before defecting. Had he accumulated a qualified amount of plate appearances, he would have led the league by a wide margin in OBP and SLG%.

Succeeding against much older competition is nothing new to Robert. At 14, he dominated Cuba’s 16 and under league, as well as the 18 and under league as a 15 year old. That’s important to me, because I’ve recently found age to be a pretty big indicator of success for prospects in the minor leagues. I can’t say to what extent that’s true in Cuba of course, but it does seem like a general rule that should apply to at least some degree in all situations where a prospect is playing against much older competition.

In another great article from Baseball America, this one coming out just a few days ago, Ben Badler made the claim that Robert would be ready for A-ball, either High or Low-A (and presumably, Full-season A as well). Here’s where I decided to do some research, using the leaderboards at Fangraphs. From 2006 to 2012, 3,280 players took at least 100 plate appearances at High-A. Here’s how often every age group did on average, in terms of average WAR produced the next four years, and what percentage of players generated at least 1 WAR the next four years:

Getting to High-A at 19 is pretty elite, as only 1% to 2% of High-A players are 19 or younger historically. However, I’m not sure when his birthday is. If he turns 20 before July 1st, that means this is his age 20 season. After that, and it’s his age 19 season. 20 year olds make a pretty small minority as well, and do differentiate themselves from the older majority. Really, we should probably just think of him as being in-between 19 and 20.

The 2.1 WAR for 19-year olds may not sound all that great, but High-A is pretty far away from the majors, enough so that it’s unlikely anyone would accrue as much as three years of service time by then. Double it to 4.2, and that’s probably pretty close to what you would expect a 19 year old High-A player to produce in his team control years. In the latest off-season, ignoring inflation and Net Present Value (most of which will cancel each other out), that comes out to about $33M in value, all just from his age and where this particular scout would expect him to be placed in the minors. That also doesn’t take into account what the team would pay him over those years, though of course that’s suppressed heavily while under team control.

Here’s a top 10 of those 45 players who had 100 plate appearances or more at High-A between 2006 and 2012.

And here’s a top 10 for the 20 year olds:

A lot of star power there. In terms of overall value, this is what we’re dreaming for out of for Robert wearing the Birds on the Bat. It’s extremely rare to make High-A as an 18 year old, with only ten players doing so in our sample. Robert is too old of course, but 2016 first round pick Delvin Perez has an outside chance at doing so, as 2017 is his age 18 season. That elusive group averaged over 6 WAR the next four years. If you’re interested, here are those ten players:

An alternative way to look at it would be by where Roberts might place on a Top 100 prospect list. The Point of Pittsburgh did some excellent work on the average Surplus Value at different ranges of a top 100 list, using Baseball America since they’ve been around the longest. Here’s a table showing the values for 2016, before another year of inflation occurred:

Factoring in an extra year of inflation, a top 50 rank would make him worth at least $40M according to TPoP’s analysis. A top 25 rank would justify matching the cost paid to Yoan Moncada by the Red Sox two years ago. That’s a price that was justified by the market afterwards, as Moncada was the main piece in bringing in three very cost-effective years of Chris Sale this off-season for the Sox. I should mention that only half the totals I’m quoting would go to Robert’s group (and did go to Moncada), as the other half would be going to MLB as a tax for going over the limit.

There’s also just the fact that the ways to spend money on talent are constantly shrinking. The international market is one of the last ways in which teams are able to spend a lot of money on prospects, and that’s set to change in the new CBA. The Cardinals might as well spend it while they can. While I recently found the price of a win in the last off-season to be $9M, here’s a graph that gives a lot of reason to believe that teams could be spending a lot more:

This comes courtesy of great article by Nathaniel Grow a couple of years ago. This really emphasizes that even though players keep making more money, the owners are taking more and more off the table. In that sense, it’s a lot easier to justify a one time big purchase for what looks like a special prospect.

Again, I am by no means a scout. I’m the numbers guy. However, the guy is getting rave reviews from scouts, and backs it up by dominating competition much older than him. The team could see a hole in its system a few years down the road, thanks to the fact that they don’t pick until the back half of the third round this year. Pairing Robert with Perez in the low and middle minors creates quite a bit of upside in a system that never gets to pick near the start of the round, and keeps the Cardinals’ draft and development machine churning. There’s probably not a better time to make this move than now.