International Reviews: Chicago Cubs
Total 2017 signings: 41.
Top 2017-18 Signing: RHP Florencio Serrano and SS Luis Verdugo, Mexico, $1.2 million each.
The Cubs were in their second and final year of being in the penalty box during the 2017-18 signing period, meaning they couldn’t sign any player for more than $300,000.
Well, sort of.
Nearly every player signed out of Mexico is already under contract with a Mexican League team. When a major league club signs a player from one of those Mexican League teams, only the amount that goes to the player—typically 25 percent of the deal—counts against the club’s international bonus pool.
Not only that, but for teams under the penalty that are limited to signings of no more than $300,000, only the amount that goes to the player counts toward that $300,000 maximum. Since many players get just 25 percent on their deals, that means a team under the penalty can pay up to $1.2 million to sign a player from a Mexican League team.
Between their penalty situation and what the Cubs felt was a strong year for prospects in Mexico, the Cubs made an aggressive push in Mexico last year and signed several players for more than $300,000, including one of the top pitching prospects on the international market in 18-year-old righthander Florencio Serrano. Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, Serrano pitched for Robstown (Tex.) High as a freshman in 2016. Serrano’s parents were both born in Mexico, and after his freshman year, Serrano moved to Mexico and joined the Tijuana Toros. While Serrano was old enough to sign as an international player before last year, he had to wait until July 2 since he hadn’t previously been registered to sign with MLB.
Serrano is 6 feet, 175 pounds with strong legs and a low-90s fastball that has reached 95 mph, with quick arm speed and a chance to throw harder. He has good feel for a potentially plus slider that he can use as a putaway pitch along with a changeup that’s effective for his age. Serrano has the repertoire of a starter, though there is some effort to his delivery, which is why some scouts saw risk that he might eventually wind up a reliever. He’s going to extended spring training and will make his pro debut this summer in the United States.
The Cubs also paid $1.2 million for Luis Verdugo, a 17-year-old Mexican shortstop from the Mexico City Red Devils. Verdugo was 15 when he played on the Mexican junior national team at the COPABE 18 Pan American Championship in 2016. He spent 2017 playing against older competition in the Mexican Northern League, where he hit .271/.328/.318 in 118 plate appearances.
A wiry 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, Verdugo is a defense-first player with slick actions and a knack for slowing the game down. Verdugo has secure hands, his feet work well and he has a nose for the ball with a good internal clock. He has a funky throwing motion but his arm strength is solid-average and could be plus. Even though he’s a fringe-average runner who doesn’t have the first-step explosiveness some scouts prefer in a shortstop, his actions and feel for the position should allow him to stay there. Verdugo has a whippy righthanded swing that stays compact in BP but tends to get long in games. While Verdugo’s glove is ahead of his bat, he made progress as a hitter last summer. Mostly a singles hitter for a while, he got stronger and started driving the ball with more authority, even driving the ball out of the park occasionally during BP, with a frame to grow into 10-15 home runs.
Another Mexican shortstop, Reivaj Garcia (or Javier, spelled backwards), signed for $500,000 from the Yucatan Lions in August shortly after his 16th birthday. Garcia is an instinctive, fundamentally sound player for his age. A wiry 6 feet, 175 pounds, Garcia has hit well in games from both sides of the plate. He doesn’t strike out much, with a line-drive approach and occasional doubles power, and he’s an adept bunter already. He’s an average to a tick better runner with a chance to stick at shortstop. His overall game savvy and awareness helps everything he does play up.
Another Mexican player the Cubs signed from Yucatan was lefthander Saul Vazquez on a $450,000 deal in August. Vazquez, 17, is 6-foot-2, 180 pounds with a fastball that has reached 92 mph and the physical projection to grow into an above-average fastball. He shows good feel to spin a curveball, which he can land for strikes and is more advanced than his changeup. Vazquez has a frame that bodes well for his durability, with good athleticism and clean arm action.
Mexican righthander Manuel Espinoza signed with the Cubs for $400,000 in July. Espinoza has advanced pitchability for a 17-year-old. He’s a wiry 6 feet, 175 pounds with good arm action, throws frequent strikes, and changes speeds well to keep hitters off balance. Signed throwing 86-89 mph with good movement, Espinoza has since reached the low-90s. His breaking pitches are more advanced, with a curveball and slider that both flash average with the potential to tick up. Espinoza and the rest of the Cubs’ Mexican signings could all debut this year in the Rookie-level Arizona League.
Fabian Pertuz, a 17-year-old Colombian shortstop, signed for $300,000 in August. Pertuz is 6 feet, 160 pounds and hit well in games in Colombia, with a line-drive stroke and gap power from the right side. An average runner, Pertuz is a high-energy shortstop who likes to make the flashy play, though like a lot of young shortstops sometimes he can try to do too much and will have to play more under control. Pertuz has the actions and arm strength for shortstop, though depending how much bigger he gets, second or third base could be options down the road. Pertuz went to Arizona last fall for instructional league, and with the Cubs adding a second AZL team this year in addition to their two DSL teams, they should have opportunities for Pertuz, Verdugo and Garcia to get regular reps at shortstop somewhere. Pertuz trained with Orlando Cabrera.
Dominican outfielder Alexander Ovalles, a 17-year-old who got $300,000 in July, is one of the better hitters the Cubs signed last year. Ovalles is a 6-foot, 180-pound lefty who has hit well against live pitching, spreading line drives to all fields with gap power. Ovalles has high overall game awareness and his instincts are evident in the way he plays center field. Ovalles is an average runner, so there’s some risk he may end up in a corner, but his defensive instincts are advanced enough to give him a chance to stick in center. Ovalles trained with Amauris Nina.
The Cubs signed 21-year-old Cuban catcher Alexander Guerra for $300,000 in September. Guerra performed well in the Cuban junior leagues and played abroad in tournaments as a teenager. Guerra has a heavy frame, signed at 5-foot-11, 245 pounds (though he’s since lost 10-15 pounds) and relies on his strength more than bat speed to generate power, with questions on how well his hitting will translate against better pitching. Guerra has a lot of work to do to stay behind the plate, both with his receiving and with his conditioning to improve his mobility and agility. He could head to short-season Eugene or low Class A South Bend later this year.
Brailin Pena, a 16-year-old Dominican outfielder, signed with the Cubs for $225,000 in July. He’s a 5-foot-11, 160-pound lefty with a similar skill set to Ovalles, hitting well in games with a line-drive stroke and gap power. He’s a tick above-average runner with good defensive instincts. Pena trained with Eddy Fontana.
Cubs Begin To Build Their Next Young Core
While the Cubs' farm system is not anywhere near as well stocked as it was four years ago, it did yield multiple bright spots in 2018.
Venezuelan shortstop Nestor Heredia signed for $200,000 in October after training with Roberto Vahlis. Heredia, 17, is a below-average runner with an average arm, so he’s unlikely to stick at shortstop, with third base or possibly second being potential destinations. Some scouts were intrigued by the possibility of putting the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Heredia behind the plate, though the Cubs plan to use him as an infielder. Some clubs saw a higher swing-and-miss rate with Heredia, but the Cubs were drawn to Heredia for his bat after seeing him perform well in games from the right side of the plate, showing over-the-fence power already along with a patient approach.
Widimer Joaquin is a 17-year-old third baseman the Cubs signed for $200,000 in July. He’s 6-foot-2, 180 pounds and stands out for his raw power from the right side, driving the ball out of the park in BP with the frame to increase his power even more once he fills out. It’s a power-over-hit profile, and while Joaquin has the hands for third base, he could end up in the outfield depending how much bigger he gets. Joaquin trained with Nube.
The Cubs in July gave $180,000 to Jorge Remon, a 17-year-old righthander from Panama. Remon is a projectable 6-foot-2, 160 pounds with a lively fastball that has reached 91 mph. Remon’s arm works well and he repeats his delivery well for his age, which helps him throw a lot of strikes, and the movement on his fastball helps him get swing-and-miss on that pitch. Remon throws a slider and a changeup, with his slider the more advanced pitch right now.
Orlando Zapata trained in the same program as Heredia and the Cubs signed the two of them the same day in October, with Zapata landing a $160,000 bonus. Zapata is an athletic, 5-foot-9 lefthanded hitter with plus speed. He has minimal extra-base pop but he doesn’t strike out much, putting the ball on the ground and spraying the ball to all fields with a sound grasp of the strike zone. Zapata is a versatile defender who will likely split time between shortstop, second base and center field.
Dominican lefthander Misael Garcia, 16, signed out of Nolan Pena's program for $150,000 in July, but his stock has improved since then. Leading up to July 2, Garcia was 6 feet, 170 pounds and was throwing in the mid-to-upper 80s. He’s grown taller and added strength (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) and now has touched 92 mph. Garcia is a good strike-thrower and has advanced feel to spin a curveball that could develop into an out pitch.
The Cubs also signed 17-year-old Dominican outfielder Jonathan Rodriguez for $150,000 in July. Rodriguez has a physical, athletic frame (6-foot-2, 190 pounds) and above-average speed. His size and speed stick out when he’s running around in center field, where he has a slightly above-average arm that could tick up to plus as he fills out. Rodriguez isn’t a pure hitter, but he’s shown solid instincts for his age and the ball jumps off his bat well from the right side.
Dominican righthander Willy Cabrera, a 17-year-old signed for $125,000 in July, has a large, physical frame (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) and throws his fastball with good downhill plane. He has reached 93 mph and should be throwing in the mid-90s at some point. Cabrera has a mature ability to change speeds on hitters, with the ability to miss bats with both his slider and changeup. Cabrera has the repertoire, delivery and durable build to project as a starter. He trained with Jonathan Tejada, known as "Poto."
In August, the Cubs signed 17-year-old Dominican outfielder Carlos Morfa for $125,000. Morfa stands out for his combination of strength and athleticism in a 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame. His righthanded swing is crude and he needs to improve his plate discipline, but he makes loud contact when he squares it up and at times manages to connect with pitches when he does chase. His outfield actions also look raw, but he runs well for his size and has a solid arm. Morfa trained with El Niche.