Luis Robert, one of Cuba’s best young prospects, is out of the country. Due to Major League Baseball’s new international rules, the timing of when Robert gets cleared to sign will have significant ramifications on how much he will get paid and which teams will be able to sign him.
Robert is a 19-year-old outfielder scouts have followed since he was 15. While departures have drained Cuba’s talent pool in recent years, Robert was one of the five best players in Cuba. With a strong, powerful build at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, Robert stands out for his physicality, athleticism and performance record, both in Cuba’s youth national leagues and in Serie Nacional. His bat speed and raw power from the right side are plus, with the speed to play center field at least for now, though as he fills out he could end up in a corner. There is some swing-and-miss in his game, but at the time he left Cuba, Robert was leading the league in OPS.
What will dictate Robert’s future goes beyond his talent. Robert left Cuba in November. Soon after his departure, MLB and the union agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that overhauled the international signing rules. The rules from the previous CBA remain in effect until the current 2016-17 international signing period ends on June 15. Until then, international amateur players like Robert are subject to bonus pools, though teams are allowed to exceed their pools and pay penalties (in both future signing restrictions and tax money), something many of them have done.
Before Cuban players are eligible to sign, they must obtain residency in a country outside of Cuba, then wait for the commissioner’s office to clear them to sign. That timeline can vary significantly among players. If Robert is cleared to sign by June 15, there’s no true limit to what he can sign for, though teams that exceed their bonus pools essentially have to pay double since they have to pay a 100 percent pool overage tax. The top bonus for a Cuban prospect this signing period is the $11 million the Padres paid lefthander Adrian Morejon, followed by $7 million each for Padres outfielder Jorge Oña and Reds shortstop Alfredo Rodriguez.
But if Robert isn’t cleared to sign by June 15, he will be subject to the more restrictive hard cap of the new international signing rules. After June 15, there is a two-week “closed period” in which no players are allowed to sign, with the 2017-18 signing period opening on July 2. During the 2017-18 period, the aggregate bonus pools will increase, but teams are prohibited from exceeding their pool allotments. Most teams get a $4.75 million bonus pool, while some of the smaller market and smaller revenue clubs get either $5.25 million or $5.75 million to spend. Teams can trade for up to an additional 75 percent of their original pool allocation, so a club that starts with $4.75 million could trade for up to $8.3 million, while a club with $5.75 million could move up to a little more than $10 million.
The timeline will be critical for Robert and the teams looking to sign him. The Astros, Athletics, Braves, Cardinals, Nationals, Padres and Reds have all exceeded their 2016-17 bonus pools already. If MLB clears Robert to sign by June 15, those clubs would make the most immediate sense to sign Robert. If Robert doesn’t get cleared during the current signing period, those teams would be effectively eliminated from signing Robert, since they will be unable to sign any player subject to the international bonus pools for more than $300,000 beginning on July 2.
What makes things even more complicated for Robert is that other teams have already committed large chunks of their 2017-18 bonus pools to other international players eligible to sign on July 2. So if Robert doesn’t get cleared until after June 15, several teams that have been aggressive on the international market for 2017-18 would have less money available in their pool to offer him.
The Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Royals won’t be signing Robert regardless of when he’s cleared to sign because they won’t be able to sign anyone for more than $300,000 during either the current signing period or the next one as a penalty for exceeding their 2015-16 pools. The White Sox, a team that has had success in the Cuban market and has typically pursued players with similarities to Robert, are one other club that has not exceeded its bonus pool that sources have pointed to as a possible landing spot for Robert.
While the circumstances surrounding Robert’s timetable will make him one of the biggest stories to watch on the international market over the next five months, he leaves Cuba with an impressive track record. During the current 2016-17 season in Cuba’s top league, Serie Nacional, Robert batted .401/.526/.687 in 232 plate appearances with 12 home runs, 38 walks (10 intentional) and 30 strikeouts with 11 stolen bases in 17 attempts. Despite leaving in season, Robert tied for third in the league in home runs and ranked fifth in stolen bases. Had he accumulated enough plate appearances to qualify, he would have led the league in both OBP (by 49 points) and slugging (by 91 points).
Dominating a league is nothing new for Robert, who excelled in Cuba’s 16U national league in 2012 when he was 14, then the next year played in the country’s 18U league as a 15-year-old, batting .325/.420/.475 in 146 plate appearances and tying for the league lead with 21 stolen bases. In the 18U league again in 2014, Robert batted .380/.530/.570 in 134 plate appearances, tying for second in home runs (three) and stolen bases (17).
Scouts have followed Robert at international tournaments since he was a 15-year-old at the 15U World Cup in Mexico in 2012. He was the youngest player on Cuba’s 18U World Cup team in Taiwan, then as a 16-year-old in 2014, Robert played in the COPABE 18U Pan American Championship and tied Oña for the most home runs (4) in the tournament. He was the best player on Cuba’s 18U World Cup in Japan in 2015 and earned all-star honors as he batted .406/.457/.875 in eight games.