There was a time not too long ago when spending big money on Cuban ball players was seen as a risky move. These were guys who had never seen a pitch in Major League or Minor League Baseball, and yet were receiving tens of millions of dollars.
But soon enough, those deals weren’t seen as risky any more. After guys like Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, and Jose Abreu had success in the majors, the Cuban market started emerging as something of a guarantee. Suddenly, Cuban players were getting just as much as established Major League players.
Consider the following: The Red Sox recently paid Yoan Moncada, a 19-year-old Cuban infielder, $31.5 M to sign with them. Since Moncada is 19 years old, that means he counts towards their international bonus pool, which is nowhere near that amount. This means that Moncada’s bonus counts double for the Red Sox, since any amount over the pool by that much gets a 100 percent tax. So the Red Sox essentially paid $60 M or more for a 19-year-old who is now putting up a .772 OPS in Low-A ball this year.
Meanwhile, Francisco Liriano was coming off two fantastic seasons with the Pirates. He ranked 18th out of 84 qualified pitchers in xFIP between 2013 and 2014, posting a 3.26 xFIP. Just one of the names immediately behind him in those ranks: Cole Hamels. And Liriano only got $39 M guaranteed, which is more than Moncada received, but less than what the Red Sox paid to get Moncada.
Yes, there are plenty of factors here, such as the age, injury history, and inconsistent performances for Liriano. There’s the young age for Moncada, plus the fact that his contract eventually buys 6+ years of MLB service if he works out. But the Red Sox paid $20 M more for a 19-year-old Cuban player, compared to what Liriano received as one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball the last two years. That is crazy, and a sign that the Cuban market is not offering any values at all.
It makes you wonder where the next Cuban market will come from. And coming into the season, the Pirates were hoping they had found that market when they signed Jung-ho Kang to a deal that paid $11 M guaranteed over four years, not counting the $5 M posting fee. Paying $16 M total over four years isn’t unreasonable. That’s about the average salary in baseball now, and Kang barely needed to be worth a full win above replacement to be worth that. But if he could exceed that, then the Pirates might have been able to replicate the early days on the Cuban market.
So far, it is working out that way. As Pete Ellis wrote today, Kang has been stepping up in a big way this year, and has been answering all of the questions about whether he could make the jump to the majors. After tonight’s game he has a .289/.365/.419 line in 285 plate appearances. He was already worth a 2.0 WAR prior to tonight’s game, with a little over two months remaining in the season. The conservative estimate for one win above replacement on the open market is $6 M. Granted, Kang wasn’t on the open market, but he’s already produced enough value to cover his $11 M, and by the end of the year he will probably have enough value to pass the $16 M that the Pirates paid for him. And he still has three years to go on his deal.
Kang was the first hitter to make the jump from the KBO. His success might inspire Byung-Ho Park to make the jump next year. Park is another power hitter in the KBO who is on the older side, and plays first base. After the success that Kang is having, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see teams jumping in the Korean market in a big way by paying the maximum posting fee of $20 M. Current MLB rules say that anyone who pays the $20 M can bid on the player, but only the team that signs him gives up their posting fee.
It will be interesting to see how the success from Kang impacts Park. It will also be interesting to see whether the Pirates go after Park, since they have a need for a first baseman until Josh Bell arrives (and I wouldn’t be surprised if the DH is added to the NL after the 2016 Collective Bargaining Agreement, so planning ahead for that possibility might not be a bad idea…sorry traditionalists).
But forget about Park for now. The Pirates already have Kang. They were the first to take that dive into the hitting friendly KBO and see if their best hitters could play in MLB. So far, the experiment is working out in a big way, giving the Pirates the biggest steal of the year. If the KBO ends up being the next Cuban market, then at least the Pirates found out about it before the popularity explodes.
**Polanco Stays Short, Goes Deep in Pirates Victory Over Washington. Pete Ellis with the live report from tonight’s game, detailing what worked for Gregory Polanco.
**Prospect Watch: Tarpley Continues Strong Pitching, Bell Homers. The new features for the Prospect Watch hit a snag tonight, and the debut was delayed for another day. I’m hoping we can get it working for tomorrow night, as I’m really excited by the new changes.
**Jung Ho Kang is Turning Into a Huge Steal For the Pirates. Here is Pete’s article on Kang, referenced above.
**It Doesn’t Sound Like a Trade For a Reliever is Close. Updating the rumors from Thursday, it appears that the Pirates were after Steve Cishek, who was traded to the Cardinals.
**Morning Report: Andrew McCutchen Vs Barry Bonds. John Dreker takes a look at the on-field comparison of Andrew McCutchen and Barry Bonds early in their careers, and finds that it’s a lot closer than you’d think.