Top signing: RHP Juan Carlos Paniagua, Dominican Republic, $1.5 million.
Six-figure signings: SS Frandy de la Rosa (Dominican Republic), SS Danny Gutierrez (Venezuela), RHP Ramon Valera (Venezuela), RHP Wagner Disla (Dominican Republic).
Notable Cuban signings: OF Jorge Soler, LHP Gerardo Concepcion.
The Cubs had an eventful year internationally, signing one of the top Cuban prospects, one of the most overpaid Cuban prospects, a Japanese professional free agent and two of the top international free agents from the Dominican Republic.
They also shuffled around their international decision makers in their first season under president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. In August, they fired vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita, who had signed a four-year extension in September 2011 before Epstein and Hoyer took over. Fleita had previously run the Cubs Latin American scouting and was still involved in those operations, especially with Cubans. Louie Eljaua, who had been a special assistant to the general manager, became the team’s international scouting director after the season. Paul Weaver, who had been the international director, was named an international crosschecker and coordinator for the Pacific Rim. Jose Serra remains as the organization’s director of Dominican operations.
It was no surprise when the Cubs signed Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler. The organization had been connected to Soler long before he had been eligible or even legally allowed to sign. Once Soler became eligible to sign in June, the Cubs officially signed him to a nine-year, $30 million contract with a club-record $6 million bonus. Somehow Soler was able to quickly obtain a visa, while the other Praver Shapiro Sports Management clients who claimed permanent residency in Haiti like Yankees lefthander Omar Luis and Orioles outfielder Henry Urrutia have been stuck in visa limbo.
Soler, 20, is one of the top young players to come out of Cuba in years. Though he left Cuba before he had a chance to do anything in Serie Nacional, he performed well on Cuba’s junior national team and was a standout in Cuba’s junior national leagues. In Cuba’s 16U national league in 2008, Soler hit .300 and slugged .518 in 156 plate appearances for La Havana, leading the league in walks (36) and tying for the lead in home runs (five). Two years later in Cuba’s 18U national circuit, Soler hit .343/.526/.537 with 20 walks and 15 strikeouts in 97 plate appearances for La Havana. He lead the league in OBP, OPS and walks and ranked fourth in slugging. Soler also excelled at international tournaments. Scouts watched Soler at the 16U COPABE Pan American Championships in Mexico in 2008, then two years later he dominated at the 18U World Championships in Thunder Bay, Ontario in 2010.
Soler is 6-foot-3, 205 pounds and impressed scouts with his bat speed, plus-plus raw power, strike-zone judgment and hitting ability, although not all scouts were sold on his bat. Some scouts felt Soler’s righthanded swing had an arm bar and some stiffness to it, but others saw him dominate in games. He runs well for his size with average speed and a strong arm in right field. Soler came up as a third baseman in Cuba but played outfield in Thunder Bay. Some teams thought his defensive routes needed a lot of work and his lack of focus in the field turned some off as well, but he has the tools to be a quality right fielder if he can make adjustments. He’s slated to report to low Class A Kane County.
The Cubs have been one of the most active teams in the Cuban market, but they haven’t seen much return on their investment. Their five-year, $6 million deal (including a $3 million bonus) with agent Jaime Torres for Cuban lefthander Gerardo Concepcion was immediately seen as a major overpay for a player some teams saw as having the upside of a fifth starter. Concepcion, 20, posted an unseemly 7.39 ERA with more walks (30) than strikeouts (28) in 52 1/3 innings over 12 starts for low Class A Peoria. He was getting hammered especially hard in the first inning of games, so the Cubs changed his approach to where he threw an inning in the bullpen before each start, which didn’t do much. Then he got mononucleosis and was shut down at the end of June. After the season, the Cubs removed him from the 40-man roster and he cleared waivers.
Concepcion was the rookie of the year in Cuba in 2010-11, when he had a 3.36 ERA in 101 2/3 innings for Industriales that ranked 11th in the league, though he did it with just 53 strikeouts and 43 walks. After defecting in June 2011 at the World Port Tournament in the Netherlands (he didn’t pitch there), Concepcion worked out for teams in the Dominican Republic, where he showed an 86-90 mph fastball that occasionally ran up to 92. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound lefty had shown good feel for pitching for his age in Cuba, but any command he had disappeared in the Midwest League and scouts’ concerns about his inability to miss bats proved accurate. His curveball has good depth at times but it gets loopy, and because he throws slightly across his body, some scouts think that makes it hard for him to get out on his front side and deliver a consistent breaking ball. His changeup, which some scouts called a splitter, is a below-average pitch. While the Cubs typically signed several Cuban players every year prior to the arrival of Epstein and Hoyer, they didn’t sign any other Cuban players after Concepcion besides Soler.
The Cubs also signed 32-year-old Japanese righthander Kyuji Fujikawa to a two-year deal worth $9.5 million, including a $1 million bonus, with a vesting option for 2015. Fujikawa, who signed as a free agent, was one of the top relievers in Nippon Professional Baseball over the past several seasons for Hanshin. He is Chicago’s No. 9 prospect, with his full scouting report available here.
Juan Carlos Paniagua benefited twice from Major League Baseball ruling him ineligible to sign for one year, all without ever changing his date of birth. Paniagua signed with the Diamondbacks as Juan Carlos Collado for $17,000 in May 2009, then pitched in the Dominican Summer League in 2009 and part of the 2010 season on a pending contract. In 2010, MLB terminated his contract and declared him ineligible to sign for one year due to fraudulent paperwork.
While he was ineligible to sign, Paniagua’s fastball rose from touching 92 mph to hitting 98 mph. He changed his name from Collado to Paniagua, kept the same date of birth (April 4, 1990), then signed with the Yankees for $1.1 million in 2011. MLB ended up terminating that contract as well for what it deemed to be falsified documents and declared him ineligible to sign for one year. When he was trying out for teams again, Paniagua sat at 93-95 mph and showed an improved slider. Once he became eligible to sign on July 19, he landed a $1.5 million bonus from the Cubs using the same name and same date of birth he used to sign with the Yankees. MLB ended up ruling that Paniagua’s age was undetermined, the Cubs decided to proceed with the contract, he received his visa and he made two appearances in the Rookie-level Arizona League before joining short-season Boise for the playoffs. Since he signed after July 2, his bonus will count against the Cubs’ 2012-13 international bonus pool. His bonus was the biggest of the year for a Dominican pitcher and the third-highest of any international amateur player signed since July 2.
Even though at 22 he’s two weeks older (or maybe more) than Starlin Castro, Paniagua is still a talented prospect. At 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Paniagua has long, slinging arm action and a fastball ranging from 93-98 mph. When he went to Boise, the Cubs saw him touch 100 mph on one pitch. His second-best pitch is his changeup, which has splitter-like action at times. He throws both a slider and a curveball, with the slider the more advanced of the two. His slider improved during his second MLB penalty, but he still has a tendency to overthrow it and get on the side of the ball at times. He needs to learn to harness his stuff, so his command and pitchability are behind where they should be for his age, which isn’t surprising given his unique development path. He may end up in the bullpen, but mostly he needs to face professional hitters first for the Cubs to know more about what they have. After going to the Cubs’ Dominican winter program, Paniagua will probably head to low Class A Kane County to open the year, although high Class A Daytona could be a possibility.
Chicago’s biggest signing among players who became eligible to sign last year on July 2 was Dominican shortstop Frandy de la Rosa (video), who trained with Valentin Monero and signed for $700,000. De la Rosa, who is from Santo Domingo and turned 17 in January, is 6-foot-1, 170 pounds with a short, simple swing from both sides of the plate. He has quick hands, good bat control and a knack for putting the barrel to the ball, with more line drives than power right now. He stood out among Cubs position players at the team’s Dominican instructional league, even with more advanced players like Marco Hernandez in attendance.
De la Rosa doesn’t have a ton of tools, as his below-average speed and arm strength had even scouts who liked him projecting him as an offensive-oriented second baseman. He did show signs of improvement with his arm and hands as July 2 approached, then continued to get better defensively and show a stronger arm during the Cubs’ winter program.
Ciro Barrios has signed several players with the Cubs out of his Venezuelan program, including Mark Malave, Carlos Rodriguez, Angel Mejias and Willson Contreras, among others. The Cubs went back to Barrios for two more players in December, giving $185,000 to shortstop Danny Gutierrez and $170,000 to righthander Ramon Valera. Gutierrez, 17, signed as a shortstop but has been playing second base and the outfield. He stood out for his hitting, with a quick bat, good balance and a knack for putting the barrel to the ball with good extension through the zone. His bat is ahead of his glove, with an arm that fits better at second base than shortstop. Valera, 18, throws from an unconventional low three-quarters arm slot that borders on sidearm with a fastball and slider that both grade out as fringe-average pitches.
Dominican righthander Wagner Disla trained with Victor Baez and signed for $100,000 in August. Disla, 17, seemed to tire as July 2 approached, but at 6-foot-4, 180 pounds there’s plenty of projection left on his 85-89 mph fastball with his size and the way his arm works. He shows good feel for his breaking ball, which may be his best pitch.
Due to their lack of pitching prospects, the Cubs have spent the past year targeting young pitchers. They added Dominican righthander Luis Hernandez for $80,000 in August. Hernandez, who turned 18 last month, is 6-foot-5, 210 pounds with a fastball up to 91 mph and some feel for his secondary pitches, giving him a chance to be a starter. Oscar de la Cruz, 17, is a 6-foot-4, 200-pound converted shortstop from the Dominican Republic who hasn’t been pitching long, but his arm works cleanly and he’s hit 91-92 mph after signing for $85,000 in October. Dominican lefthander Jose Morel, an $80,000 signing in August, is starting to fill out his projectable frame (6-foot-6, 205 pounds). Morel, 18, has been up to 89 mph with feel for a curveball and a changeup that he just started throwing.