This offseason, a larger crop of Cuban defectors than in recent years may be available for major-league teams to sign. Outfielder Yasmany Tomas, infielders Jose Fernandez, Hector Olivera, Yoan Moncada and Yozzen Cuesta, and pitchers Misael Silverio and Diosdany Castillo, could all be free agents. Some may not be available for the start of the season as it takes time to get cleared by the Office of Foreign Assets Control. The Nationals, who haven’t had much success with Cuban defectors, have kept an eye on the current group of players and have varying interest in each of them.
Tomas, who has reportedly been cleared by the OFAC, is considered the best player of the bunch. The stocky 24-year-old’s price tag is said to be close to $100 million because of his power potential, and power is hard to find. But the Nationals don’t need an outfielder. In the majors, they have Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth, with top prospects such as Michael A. Taylor and Steven Souza Jr. looming, and other prospects lower in the minor leagues. The Nationals feel comfortable with their outfield depth throughout the organization.
The Nationals also feel good about their infield depth, especially about prospect Wilmer Difo — but it is a thinner position of depth, notably at the higher rungs of the minor leagues. The Nationals also have a void at second base to fill, with Anthony Rendon likely to stay at third base. So the Nationals, as they do with many international free agents, have done their due diligence on Cuban defectors who play the infield.
Nationals talent evaluators have scouted the three infield free agents who have experience at second base: Fernandez, Olivera and Moncada. According to some free agent lists, Fernandez is considered the better player because he is more polished (he hit .326 last season in Cuba and .393 the year before) but is older (26) and doesn’t hit for much power. Fernandez has reportedly defected but hasn’t been surfaced nor been cleared to sign. Olivera, 29, has more power but is older and has a history of injuries.
Moncada, however, maybe the most intriguing. He is 19, a toolsy switch hitter, is listed at 6 feet 2 and 205 pounds, has established residency in Guatemala and is awaiting clearance to sign, according to a MLB.com report. (It is unclear when Moncada would sign.) Moncada mostly plays second base but can fill in at shortstop. He starred for Cuba’s top teams for 15 and 16-year-olds and at the U-16 IBAF World Baseball Championships in Mexico. And because he is under 23 and didn’t play in a Cuban professional league for five or more seasons, he will be subjected to the international signing guidelines.
The Nationals have been most interested in Fernandez and Moncada. Fernandez has performed at a higher level in Cuba but Moncada may fit their needs more. The Nationals believe he has a higher ceiling and his age is a plus. Moncada is holding a showcase in Guatemala for scouts of all major league teams on Nov. 12 and both Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals’ director of Latin American operations, and Deric Ladnier, a top scout, are expected to attend.
Evaluating Cuban players is also hard. Scouts get a good feel for players by watching workouts and tournaments, but getting a handle of a player’s makeup and background is most difficult. The Nationals finished second to the Reds in the Aroldis Chapman sweepstakes in 2010. The Nationals were also interested in Adeiny Hechavarria, and liked Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Abreu. But their biggest foray into the Cuban market — signing Yunesky Maya to a four-year, $6-million deal — turned out to be a bust.
The Nationals are expected to remain interested in the current Cuban infield defectors but only if the price is right. The recent success of Cuban defectors — Yasiel Puig, Abreu and Cespedes — have pushed price tags higher, too. (See: Rusney Castillo’s $72.5-million contract with the Red Sox in August.) The Nationals have remained conservative and judicious in the international market, compared to teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Rays and Cubs, who have spent lavishly on prospects.