Beyond Cespedes, Six Cubans To Watch




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Yoenis Cespedes is the best Cuban player on the market, but he's far from the only one teams are scouting.

In recent years there has been a wave of Cuban defectors who have popped up on the radar, all with widely varying degrees of ability and track record.

Baseball America has records of nearly 30 Cuban signings in 2011—nine of whom were signed by the Cubs—and the majority of them signed for $60,000 or less. The only Cuban player who signed for more than $1 million last year was Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin.

Many other Cuban defectors have been waiting around for more than a year to sign. Some are asking for far more money than teams are willing to pay, often a sad case of players who owe more money to smugglers and other representatives than their bonus offers are able to cover.

The past couple weeks and the upcoming week are a busy time in Latin America for many international directors, team executives and some general managers who are in the Dominican Republic to evaluate players for July 2 and other prospects currently eligible to sign. Several of the top leagues and academies in the Dominican Republic are hosting showcases, while Major League Baseball is coordinating games on Friday and Saturday at the Mets' Dominican academy, where a team of several top July 2 prospects from Venezuela will play a team of Dominican prospects.

Yet teams are intently tracking the scores of Cubans who have shown up, sifting through the legitimate prospects and those who are, at best, organizational types.

As one international director joked, "We're scouting more Cubans in the Dominican Republic than Dominicans in the Dominican Republic."

Based on conversations with scouts and other team executives, here are six names other than Cespedes (and 2012 draft-eligible lefty Onelkis Garcia) that have been brought up the most.

Jorge Soler, of

When Alexei Ramirez defected from Cuba and signed with the White Sox in 2008, his skill level was advanced enough to jump straight to the big leagues. While Cespedes fits into a similar mold in terms of timetable (though there's some thought he may need a minor league tune-up), Soler is still a prospect who will need a few years to develop in the minors. He'll take longer to get there, but he's also one of the better young players Cuba has produced in recent years with the offensive potential to be an above-average right fielder.

Soler, a righthanded hitter who turns 20 on Feb. 25, excelled at the World Junior Championship in Thunder Bay, Ontario in August 2010. Soler and first baseman Guillermo Aviles were Cuba's top hitters for the 18-and-under team at Thunder Bay, where Soler hit .304/.500/.522 with nine walks (second most in the tournament) and only one strikeout in seven games. Soler, who is represented by Bart Hernandez, is in the Dominican Republic and does not have his residency yet.

Listed at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds at Thunder Bay, Soler stands out for his thick, physical build and strength. Power is Soler's best tool, as he shows great bat speed, the ability to hit balls out to all fields and the potential to hit 25 home runs per year. While scouts like his power and some like his swing, he bars his front arm and the stiffness in his stroke is a concern for some scouts. Scouts have offered differing opinions on his ability to hit breaking balls, but he has a history of laying off pitches outside the strike zone in international competition and has more on-base potential than Cespedes.

Soler is athletic for his size and there are reports of him running the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds—a time that grades out as well above-average speed—but several scouts have said he's really an average runner at best, running better underway than down the line. Soler was a tall, slender guy back in 2008 when he played third base for Cuba at the 16U COPABE Pan American Championships in Mexico, but he's blown up physically since then. Depending on how much bigger he gets, there's a chance he could end up at first base down the road, but he should be able to handle right field for the near future. Scouts are mixed on his outfield instincts but he does have an above-average arm. He would likely begin his career at one of the Class A levels.

Gerardo Concepcion, lhp

Concepcion, 19, was the rookie of the year in Cuba in 2010-11, when he posted a 3.36 ERA in 101 2/3 innings pitching for the Industriales. While his ERA ranked 11th in the league, he averaged just 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings with 53 strikeouts and 43 walks, though he was facing much older competition in Cuba. He defected last June in the Netherlands at the World Port Tournament, though he didn't pitch there.

Concepcion is a slender 6-foot-2 with long arms, sloped shoulders and an athletic, wiry build that could have some projection remaining. He has advanced feel for pitching for his age and has shown the ability to pitch with his fastball to both sides of the plate, though he doesn't have the stuff to miss many bats. At times his fastball ranges from 88-92 mph, though some scouts have said they've seen him dip to 86-90 mph at times.

Concepcion has had success in Cuba by being able to change speeds to keep hitters off balance. Some scouts like Concepcion's mid-70s curveball, which shows good depth at times, but others say it gets loopy. He throws slightly across his body, which provides him with a little deception, but it's a concern for some scouts who think his mechanics hamper his ability to get to the front side of his delivery and show consistency with his breaking ball. Concepcion also throws a changeup (some scouts have called it a splitter), though like many young pitchers it's still a work in progress.

While some scouts view Concepcion's upside as a No. 5 starter, others see a bit more, though with his present stuff it's hard to project more than a back-end starter for now. Concepcion, who became a free agent earlier this month, would likely begin his career at one of the Class A levels.

Armando Rivero, rhp

Rivero and Concepcion were teammates with the Industriales in Cuba in 2010-11, but while Concepcion was a starter, Rivero worked out of the bullpen. Rivero's power played well as a reliever, as he posted a 3.06 ERA with 38 strikeouts and 21 walks in 47 innings in his final season in Cuba.

Rivero, 23, has a thin 6-foot-3 frame and pitches off of a plus fastball. He throws around 91-93 mph and has topped out at 96. His mechanics have some funkiness in the back with a slight hook, but some scouts say the ball comes comes out cleanly in the front from a low three-quarters arm slot. His best secondary pitch is a quality splitter with some late tumble.

Some scouts have said Rivero throws both a curveball and a slider, while others think it's two different versions of the same pitch. His breaking stuff is behind his splitter, flashing solid-average every once in a while but it's often a 45 on the 20-80 scale with more side-to-side action because his low slot makes it hard to stay on top of the ball.

Scouts don't want to limit Rivero to the bullpen just because he was used that way in Cuba, but many of them believe he best profiles as a middle reliever. Once he signs, he could start in Double-A.

Henry Urrutia, of

Urrutia, 24, is the son of Ermidelio Urrutia, a former Cuban national team outfielder who played in the 1992 Olympics and several other international competitions. From 2006-2010, Emilio was a manager in Serie Nacional for Las Tunas, the team Henry played for from his debut season in 2005-06 until his final season in 2009-10. Henry Urrutia batted .397/.461/.597 in 305 at-bats with 12 home runs and more walks (32) than strikeouts (23) his last year in Cuba, tying for ninth in the league in OBP.

A 6-foot-3, 180-pound switch-hitter, Urrutia is a corner outfielder with a solid, level stroke that produces line drives, with a better swing plane from the left side. He has solid bat-to-ball ability and average power. While there's not much projection remaining, Urrutia's body does have some room to fill out, so he could add more pop, but he doesn't have prototypical power for a corner outfielder. He's a good athlete for a corner outfielder and just around an average runner. He could begin his career in Double-A.

Omar Luis, lhp

Luis is a crafty lefthander who does it more with savvy than stuff, but he figures to draw some level of interest based on his accomplishments during international tournaments. The 19-year-old was the ace of Cuban junior and youth national team pitching staffs before he defected.

When he was 15, Luis pitched an outstanding game against Team USA's youth national team at the 16U COPABE Pan American Championships in Mexico in 2008. Though the Bryce Harper-led U.S. team won 3-1 in extra innings, Luis threw eight shutout innings with six strikeouts, two walks and just three hits allowed.

He pitched more recently at the 18U World Junior Championship in Thunder Bay, Ont., where he earned an all-star nod as the tournament's best starting pitcher. He threw 137 pitches in a complete-game shutout with 10 strikeouts against Canada, then threw 145 pitches in another complete game to beat Team USA 3-2, allowing two runs, 10 hits and two walks with five strikeouts.

Listed at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds at Thunder Bay, Luis has a stocky body, though a few scouts have remarked that he has improved his conditioning. Some scouts have described Luis as a junkballer with excellent pitchability. His fastball ranges from 86-92 mph, but he's able to locate it down and to the corners with some sink and tail. Luis drops down to an unconventional low three-quarters arm slot, but he varies his arm angle and finds ways to fool hitters. He uses a 73-78 mph curveball that flashes average against both lefties and righties, and he'll mix in a quality backdoor slider and a mid-70s changeup as well. He does have a head whack at the end of his delivery that concerns some scouts. He could probably start out in low Class A.

Adonis Garcia, of

A 26-year-old righthanded hitter, Garcia made his Serie Nacional debut in 2004, but he struggled for his first few seasons. He broke out as one of the league's better hitters in 2008-09, when he batted .355/.426/.613 in 282 at-bats for Ciego de Avila. He hit .334/.397/.623 in 308 at-bats in his final season in 2010-11 before he defected. His cousin, 23-year-old outfielder Yem Prades, signed with the Royals last year for $285,000 and played for high Class A Wilmington.

MLB ruled in August that Garcia would not be eligible to sign for six months because he submitted fraudulent residency paperwork, so he could become available at some point in the near future. Though only 5-foot-7, 180 pounds and lacking any standout tools, the righthanded-hitting Garcia has surprised some scouts with his performance this winter for Aragua in the Venezuelan League. After hitting .270/.313/.461 in 152 at-bats during the regular season, Garcia has batted .382/.440/.579 in 76 at-bats in the playoffs, leading postseason batters in hits and ranking second in total bases.

Garcia shows some feel for hitting and surprising power for his size, but it's hard to project a big league role for him. He's played some at second and third base, but he's played mostly left field in Venezuela. He's around an average runner and could start out in Double-A or Triple-A.