Yankees Close On Cuban Defector

The Yankees had an active summer on the international front, and that aggressiveness hasn’t stopped, even though the organization currently does not have a director of international scouting.

Mark Newman, the Yankees’ senior vice president for baseball operations,
confirmed the Yankees were close to signing Cuban defector Juan Miranda, an outfielder/first baseman. Newman said an ESPN Deportes report that Miranda already had signed for a major league contract worth $2 million was premature, but said Yankees GM Brian Cashman was in negotiations to sign Miranda for the Yankees.

While ESPN Deportes calls Miranda 23, several Cuban sources have the former Pinar Del Rio player with a 1981 birthday (some have a March birthdate, some April), which would make him 25. In two seasons for Pinar Del Rio in Cuba’s Serie Nacional (2002-2004), Miranda batted .303 over 459 at-bats, hitting 27 home runs and adding 28 doubles. He also controlled the strike zone, with a combined 73-87 walk-strikeout ratio.

Miranda defected in February 2005 with a group of six players that ended up in the Dominican Republic. The group was in custody in the Dominican Republic and in danger of being deported back to Cuba when former Reds pitcher Jose Rijo intervened and got the players released from custody. Miranda lived and worked out for a time at Rijo’s academy.

While there’s no record of Miranda playing in major international tournaments such as the Olympics or World Cup, he was a teammate of Jose Contreras’ on Pinar Del Rio and played for Cuba’s national team in regional events. He was an alternate on the 2004 Olympic roster but didn’t make the final cut for that gold-medal team.

One international scout contacted late Monday night said Miranda is built like Ray durham physically and liked his power potential, but cautioned against letting the size of Miranda’s contract dictate his prospect status.

“He has strength and he hits the fastball middle-in,” said the scout, who’d seen Miranda in an admittedly short look of about five at-bats. “He had trouble with teh breaking ball away. From what I saw, that’s a pretty large amount of money.”

ESPN Deportes quotes an unnamed Yankees official as saying Miranda is a quality hitter who projects to hit for average to above-average power, but details on him remain somewhat sketchy.

The Yankees reportedly gave another international player $2 million this year, but reports on Jesus Montero have not been good ever since the Yankees signed him for that amount in July. Montero has been dogged by rumors that he fudged his age or worse, and sources had indicated for weeks that his contract was under review by the commissioner’s office at the Yankees’ request.

Newman confirmed that the Yankees and Montero, a Venezuelan catcher with prodigious power potential, had “long, involved” negotiations. He would not comment on the value of Montero’s signing bonus, but said one source’s information–that Montero’s bonus had been restructured to $1.3 million–was not correct. His only on the record comment was that “there is no age issue” with Montero, who struggled in the Yankees’ fall mini-camp.

Another source within the industry confirmed the Yankees have reported Montero’s bonus with MLB twice–first at $2 million, and more recently as $1.6 million.

Newman confirmed a final rumor, that the Yankees had a second righthander who has had to have elbow surgery after pitching in Hawaii Winter Baseball. First it was 2006 ninth-round pick Mark Melancon. Now, 2004 third-round pick Chris Garcia has had elbow surgery to reinforce a torn ligament, a surgery similar to that performed on Mariano Rivera when he was in the minor leagues.

“He will not pitch in 2007; the goal is 2008,” Newman said. “It would really be pushing it to have him come back by instructional league next year.”

Garcia ranked as the Yankees’ No. 6 prospect on a list that already has changed dramatically with the injury to Melancon (No. 9) and the acquisition of Humberto Sanchez and Kevin Whelan from the Tigers in the Gary Sheffield trade. The 21-year-old missed much of the 2006 season with an oblique strain. He also pitched 21 innings in HWB, striking out 23.

Two other Cuban defectors are in the news. Righthander Yoslan Herrera (at times spelled Yuslan) arrived in Pittsburgh over the weekend to take his physical with the Pirates. Baseball America reported Herrera had agreed to a major league contract, pending a physical, with the Pirates last month.

Outfielder Ryde Rodriguez hopes to follow in his countrymen’s footsteps and was working out for scouts in Nicaragua after defecting. He’d been wowing scouts with all five tools on display in workouts. One scout told BA’s Chris Kline that Rodriguez has above-average speed, 70 raw power and switch-hits. His workouts have been interrupted by a hamstring pull.