Peter Gammons: The Moncada Phenomenon and its Roots

(Start video at 4:30 for Moncada discussion).

It was easy to be engaged to the historic love affair between Cubans and baseball in the dozen days leading up to the Orioles visit to Havana in 1999. The playoff games between Las Isla and Industriales, with dancing girls on the dugouts and players throwing the ball around the infield and outfield after every strikeout, spiked bats and between-inning vaudeville infield routines, were baseball as fun, baseball as we played it when we were ten in a quiet, green setting in Nashoba Valley.

The day at one of their Soviet Block academies, accelerated sports and academics, showed off their youthful talent, especially a couple of 15-years olds whose skills never forgotten, roommates named Yulieski Gourriel and Kendrys Morales.

In a Havana street marketplace, there was a man selling Cuban baseball cards, printed four or five years earlier in Canada. Shuffling through the packs, I asked the merchant about cards for El Duque and others who had gone to the States. He took me around the corner into an alley. “This is the defector set,” he explained. $40.” Duque, Livan, many others. “Tourists love these,” he said. Jesse Helms forced these cards to be stopped after one year.

On a streetcorner in Havana, men gathered to argue baseball, recalling what it was like in the 1950’s when the city was the prize of winter ball, a time when a young infielder named Gene Mauch hung with a young Fidel Castro, leading to the final Little World Series played there, when Preston Gomez’s Havana team, with Tony Perez, beat the Minneapolis Millers, managed by Mauch, with a 19-year old left fielder named Carl Yastrzemski and a backup catcher named Haywood Sullivan.

Now, with the toolsets of American baseball in a lull and college baseball seldom producing the talent we saw 30 years ago in the golden era of Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, et al, and the rest of the Caribbean signings limited in bonus totals allowed for the projected dreams of 16-year olds, Cuba is the New Frontier. After signing Rusney Castillo, then watching him play in Puerto Rico, one Red Sox official said, “athletes like Rusney don’t play baseball in the States.”

Some Cubans, like Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes, have worked out very well. Some, like Castillo and Arizona’s Yasmany Tomas, may, as well. Teams closely monitored 29-year old infielder-hitter Hector Olivera this week and more than one high-ranking evaluator stamped him with “he is a major league player right now. When he is cleared by MLB, which most teams think will be in seven to ten days, Olivera will get a handsome payday from the Dodgers, Padres, Marlins, Athletics, Giants or someone else.

The new, new thing is Yoan Moncada, more than any teenager in recent memory. And, like the future relationship between MLB and Cuban baseball in the restoration of relations is unclear, exactly what Moncada is and what he is worth isn’t exactly clear.

He is 19. He has the body of a five star outside linebacker that announced for USC on National Signing Day. He is a switch-hitter who right now is a shortstop. He performed well two years ago in a tournament against two American high school pitchers who were top five round draft picks (go to Baseball America and read Ben Badler’s great piece).

“We keep hearing that he’s going to get a $35 to $40M bonus,” says one GM. “Now understand the cost. Whatever a club pays in bonus, it has to match in tax, and that tax has to be handed over to the Commissioner’s Office immediately, in cash. Then ask this question: where does this figure come from? The agent? Not likely, because he has handled this well. Is it speculation by the media? Is it planted by a team trying to scare off other teams?”

One of the game’s most respected evaluators, who has seen a lot of Moncada, has some reservations. “Look, he’s a good player,” says the executive. “But we’ve been scouting him in workout showcases, not games. Is he that much better than anyone in the US? Hard to tell. Is he a plus-plus runner? No. Is he a plus defender? No. His swing from the right side has a ways to go. He has a linebacker’s body, but that body really isn’t projectable. Is he a better prospect than the top position player in the States (Orlando HS SS Brendan Rodgers)? I’m not so sure. To play $70-80M for a kid who might be two years away from the big leagues is a lot of money. I saw a lot of Castillo, and Moncada doesn’t do as many things as he does.”

While Moncada showcased, scouts watched teenage righthander Yadier Alvarez, who hit 97. Two executives comped him to LaTroy Hawkins or Rafael Soriano.

Because Abreu, Castillo and Cespedes were older, they did not require a lof of time preparing for the big leagues. Castillo was in graduate school in Cuba and has already taken English lessons in Miami, so the cultural conversion should be relatively simple. Moncada’s case could be more complicated, especially with the money and notoriety he may face.

It doesn’t happen easily and quickly for U.S. kids out of the draft. That may have been the best pitching draft in the first round in the last decade. But two of the first three picks—UCLA staffmates Gerrit Cole (Pirates) and Trevor Bauer (D’Backs, traded to Cleveland) are, in their fourth full pro seasons at the age of 25, now seemingly are on the brink of being top-of-the-rotation, race-changing starters. The second pick, Virginia’s Danny Hultzen, will be working back from an inactive season because of shoulder problems; he’s already throwing 90 MPH, always could pitch and may eventually be a significant contributor to the Mariners.

Vanderbilt’s Sonny Gray, who fell to the 18th pick because so many teams still cling to the outdated fear of physical size, pitched superbly in the ALDS in his second full pro season, last year made 33 starts and threw 213 innings, and now, with a slider to go with his fastball and curveball, is being asked to lead the Oakland staff. UConn’s Matt Barnes and Kentucky’s Alex Meyer, the 19th and 23rd picks, should contribute to Boston and Minnesota in their fourth pro seasons. Of the high schoolers, Jose Fernandez made it big in his third pro year, at 20, and Dylan Bundy (Orioles), Bradley (D’Backs) and Joe Ross (Nationals).

Of the position players, Anthony Rendon of the Nationals was the sixth pick, and is now on the brink of stardom. George Springer was the 11th pick, and is a huge piece of the Astros rebuilding. Of the high school players, Javier Baez (9th pick) came up with the Cubs, and while showing power, had trouble making contact. The Indians took Francisco Lindor in front of Baez at eight, and while an elite prospect, is expected to spend much of this season in triple-A. The same goes for Boston switch-hitting catcher Blake Swihart.

If Moncada indeed gets a $35M signing bonus and his team immediately has to hand over another $35M to The Taxman, it will first be a phenomenon that becomes a media serial. However, pending further examination and evaluation, the need his skillset provides, like the $140M going to Castillo and Tomas, is reason for MLB to start addressing the need to attract young, athletic talent to baseball and free the sport from the year-round profit-taking that the showcase organizers take while further forcing kids—and, maybe more important, their parents—to be raised as one sport, one dimensional athletes who don’t compete in high school against elite football, soccer, basketball and tennis athletes.

It’s a shame that Yulieski Gourriel is playing for the Yokohama Baystars, not the Giants or Braves; but that’s part of political history, and nine years ago he could not defect, like his cousin Jose Iglesias. Now, those who defect can take advantage of a market starved for power and athleticism.

And years from now, hopefully Cubans will be ingrained in the American baseball culture, as are people from the Dominican, Venezuela, Aruba and Curacao. It will be fun, because there may be no baseball culture with more of a carnival feel than Cuba. It will be good because Cuba has long held the claim of having the world’s highest literacy rate.

The kids at that academy had two wooden bats, both Nellie Fox models, both pre-revolution. When Cuba won the Caribbean world series this week, Felix Perez, a Cuban who defected and now pitches in (and for) Venezuela, led the Venezuelan players to the Cuban dugout and gave the Cuban players uniforms, gloves, bats and other equipment. “Those Venezuelan players would have taken off their uniforms and gone back to their hotels naked to help the Cuban players,” said Alex Cora, who was there.

That is what baseball means, to Cubans and Venezuelans, Dominicans and people of many nations. Hopefully my scouting friends are right, and that Olivera is a big leaguer. Hopefully Moncada is what the hype says he is (and, remember, when Kendrys Morales turned 16 his body was a comp projection to Vladimir Guerrero).

The beauty of the World Baseball Classic is that it allows people from Nashoba Valley to Incheon, South Korea to the fishing shacks of Santiago, Cuba to appreciate all the different baseball cultures around the world, and respect them.

Comments

  1. Mike Towle says:

    Great piece. Peter really does his homework, and this gives nice insights into Cuban baseball.

  2. EddieD_Boston says:

    Amen.

    As an aside…

    When I hear people tell me baseball is dying, and that soccer will rival the Big 4 in popularity, I can’t help but think the DR, Cuba and Mexico are baseball mad and rumors of baseball’s decline are greatly exaggerated.