See Also: Despaigne To Play in Japan
After the arrival of so many Cuban players to the major leagues in the last few years, the level of impact talent still in Cuba has dwindled. Top talents such as third baseman Yulieski Gourriel and outfielder Alfredo Despaigne—who both signed to play in Japan with the understanding they would return to Cuba when their seasons end—have the potential to be immediate all-stars, but they show no signs they will ever leave Cuba.
There is one young player, however, that scouts have known about for years, and they might be able to sign him in the not-too-distant future.
That player is 19-year-old Yoan Moncada (also spelled Johan Moncada), a 6-foot, 210-pound switch-hitting infielder who’s the best teenager to leave Cuba since Jorge Soler, a player with exciting tools and dominance of the Cuban junior leagues on par with what Yasiel Puig did at the same age.
Moncada’s whereabouts are unclear, but it doesn’t appear that he’s in Cuba. In June, MLB.com reported that Moncada left the island. Talk within the industry has persisted that Moncada is out, though his situation is particularly sketchy, even by Cuban standards, with even people deeply connected to the Cuban baseball player market uncertain of where he is or who is handling him. The commissioner’s office also said it hasn’t received any word from Moncada.
Yet when Cuba used a team of its top young talent to play the U.S. college national team in a friendship series last month, Moncada was absent, and he isn’t playing in the country’s 23U league.
How good is Moncada? He has more upside than Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo, who just reached a $72.5 million deal with the Red Sox. He’s better than Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas, who’s in the Dominican Republic but is still likely several months away from free agency. If Moncada were eligible for the 2015 draft, he would be in the mix to be the No. 1 overall pick. Gourriel and Despaigne would be safer bets, but there’s no player in Cuba with Moncada’s combination of youth, tools and hitting ability.
Moncada generated excitement in the scouting community in October 2010 at the COPABE Pan American 16U Championships in Mexico, then again in August 2011 when he dominated the 16U World Championship in Mexico, where he earned all-star honors at third base by hitting .417/.563/.667 in seven games.
Back home in Cuba’s 16U national league that year, Moncada was the country’s top hitter, batting .500/.643/.918 in 158 plate appearances, leading the league in batting average, OBP, slugging, home runs (8) and walks (37) while going 15-for-15 in stolen bases.
Moncada stepped up to the country’s 18U national league in 2012, where he again led the league in batting average, OBP and slugging by hitting .434/.543/.648 in 152 plate appearances with a league-best 20 steals in 24 tries.
In 2012-13, Moncada made his Serie Nacional debut for Cienfuegos, where he was teammates with White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu and Dodgers shortstop Erisbel Arruebarrena. Moncada performed well for a 17-year-old, hitting .283/.414/.348 in 172 plate appearances with 13 stolen bases in 18 attempts. Moncada also made his mark at the league’s all-star game, where Cuba holds certain skill competitions in addition to a home run derby. Among the events are races to first base and around the bases. At the 2012-13 all-star game, Moncada won both races, beating Castillo, a 70 runner on the 20-80 scale, and Guillermo Heredia, a 60 runner who started in center field in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
After the season ended, Moncada joined the Cuban national team in the Netherlands in July 2013 to play in the World Port Tournament, though he only received sporadic playing time there. He was still young enough to play in the 18U World Championship that year in September in Taiwan, where he led the Cuban team in all three slash categories by hitting .375/.483/.542 in 29 trips to the plate.
This past season in Cuba, Moncada hit .273/.365/.406 in 195 plate appearances as an 18-year-old, spending most of his time at second base with occasional stints at shortstop and center field.
If Moncada is in fact out of Cuba, he would be subject to the international bonus pools. To sign him, however, a team will have to break their pool significantly, which means timing would have a critical impact on where he ends up. If Moncada can receive an unblocking license from the U.S. government and be declared a free agent by MLB during the current signing period, which ends on June 15, the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays would have an edge. Those teams already are in the maximum penalty range for the 2014-15 signing period by going more than 15 percent over their bonus pools, which includes a 100 percent tax on their pool overage. The penalty also prohibits those clubs from signing any pool-eligible player for more than $300,000 during the next two signing periods, which means that if Moncada becomes free to sign after June 15, those three teams won’t be able to sign him.