Don’t Sleep On Andy Ibanez, The Next Cuban Bonus Pool Buster

Yoan Moncada is getting the majority of the attention—certainly in the public eye—when it comes to the Cuban market. Deservedly so. He's a premium prospect that every team would love to add to their system.

For more immediate impact, there's Hector Olivera, who ranked as the No. 6 player in Cuba in August before he fled the island the following month. Olivera, a Cuban second baseman who turns 30 in April, attracted hundreds of scouts to a showcase last week and is a favorite among many in the international scouting community who have evaluated him for years.

There has been less public focus on 21-year-old second baseman Andy Ibanez, but teams are well aware that he's the next top Cuban—he ranked as the No. 8 player still in Cuba in Baseball America's rankings in August—who will likely force a team to break its international bonus pool to sign him.

When he was a teenager, Ibanez was one of the top players in the Cuban junior leagues while playing for Isla De La Juventud. As a 16-year-old in the country's 16U national league in 2009, the righthanded-hitting Ibanez led the league in batting average (.458) and slugging (.703), drawing 19 walks with four strikeouts in 143 plate appearances. His 18 stolen bases (in 20 tries) tied for the league lead and his 13 doubles ranked second.

Ibanez went on to play for Cuba in the 16U World Championship that year in Taiwan, then the next year went to Thunder Bay in Canada to play in the 18U World Championship, where he was teammates with Jorge Soler and two of the other more promising players still in Cuba, Lourdes Gourriel and Guillermo Aviles. In 2011, Ibanez was one of the top hitters in Cuba's 18U circuit, batting .378/.493/.514 with three home runs, 23 walks (including 13 intentional walks, tied with Aviles for the league lead) and nine strikeouts in 138 plate appearances. He ranked eighth in both batting average and slugging, while his 14 steals (in 19 attempts) tied for second. For comparison, Roberto Baldoquin, who just signed with the Angels for $8 million, batted .256/.333/.384 in 97 plate appearances that season in the same league.

After establishing himself as one of Cuba’s top prospects in the junior leagues, Ibanez made his Serie Nacional debut in 2011-12. He had primarily played shortstop up to that point, but he moved over to second base and won a Gold Glove there during his rookie season. He spent three seasons in Serie Nacional before he left the island.

2012 18 .278 .312 .383 295 36 82 18 2 3 36 11 53 2 4
2013 19 .300 .361 .441 290 37 87 29 0 4 29 27 38 6 5
2014 20 .267 .377 .435 280 33 62 13 4 6 32 33 28 6 5
*Ages listed are as of Jan. 1.

Ibanez left Cuba at a young age and never had a chance for a breakthrough season in the country's top league, but major league scouts and Cuban baseball officials were well aware of his talent. At the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Ibanez was the youngest player on Cuba's roster. I was there in Japan to watch the Cuban team, but looks at Ibanez were mostly limited to infield and batting practice. With Jose Fernandez at second base, Ibanez wasn't going to get any playing time, and while Fernandez has experience at third base as well, Cuba was set there with Yulieski Gourriel, so Ibanez only got one at-bat in the WBC.

"Ibanez, he can hit," said one scout. "He was probably one of the best hitters on the (WBC) team, he just was not playing."

Later that summer, scouts got to see more of Ibanez at the World Port Tournament in the Netherlands. Ibanez hit well there, going 9-for-15, with all of his hits going for singles, including a 3-for-5 showing in the championship game victory.

After a solid 2013-14 season, Ibanez was a notable absence from the Cuban roster built around young players that hosted Team USA's college national team in July 2014. He wasn't listed on Isla De La Juventud's roster when that was released before the season began in September, and it became clear that Ibanez had left the country.

Now Ibanez should be close to signing with a major league team. He has his residency papers and MLB has declared him a free agent, he's just waiting for the specific license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) that the commissioner's office requires Cuban players to have before signing. He had two open showcases in the Dominican Republic on Dec. 2-3 and Jan. 16-17, with private workouts as well.

At 5-foot-11, 183 pounds, Ibanez has a thicker build for a middle infielder but he's athletic and has good body control. With fringy speed and an average arm at best, Ibanez isn't flashy, but he has a good internal clock and a high baseball IQ, fitting best at second base. Ibanez's power is mostly to the gaps, projecting as a doubles hitters rather than a big home run threat, but what's sold some scouts on him is his bat.

"He's a strong guy who doesn't have your prototype, ideal body for a second baseman, but he moves around well for his stature," said another scout. "And he performs. He's a good hitter. I liked his swing and the way he manipulated the bat."

Ibanez, who turns 22 in April, should start his career in the minors, probably with a high Class A or Double-A affiliate. Since Ibanez is probably another year or two away from being in the picture at the major league level, it's hard to predict where he will end up signing. He won't cost Moncada money, so the dollars shouldn't be prohibitive for most clubs, but he's a better prospect than Baldoquin.

Ibanez won't bring the potential star power that Moncada offers, but he's still one of the top international players on the market.