First Pitch: Have the Pirates Found the New Cuban Market?

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.


  • If the NL is truly likely to add the DH after the 2016 season, that makes the value of Pedro Alvarez and even more so an aging Neil Walker increase. My thought, however, is that it makes paying for Cutch’s late career years look more reasonable.

  • There probably aren’t 5 hitters in the KBO that have major league potential. But South Korea has nearly 5 times the population of Cuba. Now that they understand that it’s a viable career option, I suspect that 10 years from now there will be a lot of Koreans playing baseball in North America.

  • The only reason I still watch baseball is because I am a lifelong fan. If I was a youngster trying to find a new sport to watch baseball with it’s widespread use of the oh so boring sabre and advanced metrics in game I would run as fast as I could to another sport. Now tim is suggesting that baseball will become even more vanilla with the use of a dh in both leagues. That would be enough for me to close my book on baseball and take up another hobby.

  • Daryl Restly
    July 25, 2015 10:57 am

    As far as Tim’s comments regarding the implementation of the DH rule in the NL;

    There was an article on recently which suggested that in the very near future the new MLB commish Manfred could be looking at putting a franchise back in Montreal. In the ESPN comments section, I suggested that MLB should have a radical realignment, if the league ever expanded again by two franchises. I looked at each team, as far as who their rivals were currently and who they’d like to gain as regular rivals. Here is what I came up with. I did not label either league National or American League. Essentially what I did was I placed all fourteen teams that are in the Eastern Time Zone in one league. I added two cities to those 14. Those two cities were Montreal and Charlotte, North Carolina. I felt both cities would make ideal expansion cities as far as MLB is concerned. The remaining 16 teams I placed in the opposing league. From there, I broke each league of sixteen teams into four divisions of 8 teams. I could have broken it down into 8 divisions of 4 teams but decided to stick with four divisions.

    League A

    Division 1

    Boston Red Sox

    New York Mets

    New York Yankees

    Philadelphia Phillies

    Baltimore Orioles

    Washington Nationals

    Toronto Blue Jays


    Division 2

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    Cleveland Indians

    Detroit Tigers

    Atlanta Braves

    Tampa Bay Rays

    Miami Marlins


    League B

    Division 1

    Chicago Cubs

    Chicago White Sox

    Milwaukee Brewers

    St. Louis Cardinals

    Kansas City Royals

    Minnesota Twins

    Houston Astros

    Texas Rangers

    Division 2

    San Diego Padres

    San Francisco Giants

    Los Angeles Dodgers

    Los Angeles Angels

    Oakland Athletics

    Arizona Diamondbacks

    Colorado Rockies

    Seattle Mariners

    By having radical realignment, I felt that MLB and the MLBPA would both be happy to cut down on the amount of travel for the players (MLBPA) as well as the costs associated with travel (MLB owners). As I mentioned already, I put all the teams in the Eastern Time Zone in one league. But you may or may not have noticed that I was able to put all 8 teams in the Central Time Zone in one division, while putting the remaining 8 teams from the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Time Zones in a division of their own. I do realize that a team such as the Pirates would in some respect lose some rivalries such as the Brewers, Cubs and Cardinals. By the same token, the Pirates would also gain the Indians, Tigers, which are in closer proximity to Pittsburgh than Milwaukee, Chicago or St. Louis.

    As far as scheduling, this is the way I broke it down:

    Interleague Play:

    Each team would play a 3 game series against every team in the opposing league. Half of these games would be home contests while the other half would be on the road. This amounted to 48 games (3 games X 16 teams in the opposing league = 48 games). These series could be alternated yearly so that every other year you visit a team in the opposing league. To reiterate, 24 of these 48 games would be at home, while the other 24 would be on the road.

    Intraleague Play – Interdivision Rivals:

    Each team would play a total of 6 games against each team in the opposing division within their own league. Three of these games would be on the road while the other three would be at home. This amounts to 48 games (6 games X 8 teams = 48 games).This type of setup for teams within your own league but outside your own division would remain constant from year to year. Again, to reiterate, there would be 24 games at home and 24 games on the road.

    So far, I have accounted for 96 games in the regular season.

    Intraleague Play – Intradivision Rivals:

    Each team would play a total of 8 games against each of the seven other teams within their own division. This would amount to 56 games, with 28 of those games being at home and 28 being on the road. Again this setup for Intraleague Play – Intradivision Rivals would remain constant from year to year.

    This would allow for a 152 game regular season, shortening the season by 10 games. This shortening of the regular season could also potentially allow for baseball to be readmitted as a Summer Olympic sport featuring MLB talent every four years. I know MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has suggested the possibility of shortening the season back to 154 games.

    As far as the DH rule, I would suggest under the radical realignment that I have suggested that MLB allow the home team manager to decide whether they want to play with or without the DH when they turn in their lineup card. As time would go by, I’m sure most teams would simply adopt to using the DH, though there could potentially be some strategy involved by forcing the other team to have their pitcher take at bats or having a weak fielder play the field just so that his bat can stay in the lineup.

  • Kang has been a godsend for Bucs this year. His success will undoubtedly open some doors for other KBO players, but I think it’s a bit premature to call it another Cuba. Cuba has been producing MLB Star performers long before the current crop mentioned in the article.

    As for the inflammatory DH in NL comment, I won’t be the least bit surprised if Tim’s prediction comes to fruition. Offense is sluggish in today’s MLB and adding the DH would be viewed as a positive by those who think the game needs more runs.

    One positive byproduct of the DH would be an increase in the odds of re-signing Cutch. The DH would make it easier to justify paying an aging player top dollar as their legs start to go.

    • The sad thing about the DH is what is lost by way of strategy and tradition across the board. Call me old school, but I will never forget the emotion in the park when AJ knocked the ball into the bleachers, and when Liriano lined that ball into the right field corner. I also look forward to seeing Gerrit Cole step in there and try to mash the ball. If we lose that NL baseball will be a lesser game, in my opinion. A commissioner with guts would study the whole issue and reevaluate, but I am afraid it is too late.

      • I don’t think its too late by any stretch of the imagination. Plenty of people feel as you do.

      • My problem with the DH is two fold: one, I seriously doubt that it makes any difference in attendance when you factor in market size, so I really don’t like that whole argument (the more runs equals more fans thought train). The other reason is that, one of the beautiful things about baseball is that it is a game of exceptions (the argument that a pitcher getting a hit is not the norm but rather the exception). It’s a game where the best hitters fail 7/10 times. Adding legislation to crank the score up doesn’t necessarily Make it more exciting as a whole. A 3-2 game with AJ Burnett getting a key hit (or heck, even more unrealistic, how about Brent morel?) Is every bit as memorable as a 9-7 game where a washed up DH who can play 1/2 baseball goes 5/6 with 5 rbi. Just my opinion.

      • Walton Cook
        July 25, 2015 1:13 pm

        Totally agree. I want to watch good hitting pitchers bat not an aging player as their legs go out. I agree with Bob Walk: NO DH.

    • It isn’t just the sluggish offense that is driving the DH theme, though that is the main argument being used. There are also the facts that many inside baseball hate the inequities that the AL teams have when playing in NL stadiums, the fear of injuries to pitchers, and the Players Union seeing more jobs. John Smoltz has the best idea, go back to strictly separate regular season schedules and DH in AL parks for the WS. He is of the opinion both the All Star Game and the WS have been diminished by Interleague play, and I believe he is right.

      • I agree with Smoltz. And more games within your league makes the wildcard race more fair.

        Leaving the Pirates out of it, consider the Cubs. They’re competing right now for the second WC spot with the Mets and Giants while playing a much tougher schedule in the NL Central. Getting rid of interleague games would mean more games against the other divisions in your league to help balance the schedules.

        • This is a very good point that nobody really talks about. A DH that can’t play in the field reminds of the guys who compete in long driving competitions, not to mention how it bastardizes the strategy of baseball.

      • Yung-Han Chang
        July 25, 2015 12:28 pm

        unfortunately baseball brought it upon themselves when they moved the astros. I think the 5 team division is much more fair than the old system intradivisionally. With 15 teams in each league, someone would always have an off day with no interleague. This would lengthen an already long season. And no one wants another expansion franchise let alone 2.

      • The issue is you need two more teams, I don’t like inter-league play but it is here to stay with 15 teams in each league.

        Player’s Union biggest issue is the declining share of revenue going to players, I think they miscalculated and thought stricture draft limits and international limits would increase their share but it hasn’t.

        Adding a DH to NL would superficially accomplish that goal, teams are smarter, they know free agents are poor investments, I think need to target some of baseball’s more ingrained structures, like years of control and arbitration amounts, adding the DH isn’t going to drive up the share of revenue going to players.

        • Excellent point. Last I read, player share was around 42%, which is less than NFL, NBA, NHL. I imagine in the next go-around, “years of control” will be a sticking point and owners may have to capitulate to 5 years instead of six. That would do more for players than keeping the DH.

    • Scott, to your last point, it’s worth noting that of the top six DHs (qualified), three still get the majority of their PAs as fielders (Cruz, Bautista, Encarnacion) while three (Fielder, ARod, Kendrys) make their living as primarily DHs – and are the only three primarily DHs with a wRC+ over 100.

      As the DH is used more and more often to simply rotate players to provide some rest, it won’t be long until the extinction of fat or otherwise limited mobility guys who can hit. As roster construction of an AL team certainly allows for carrying a hitting specialist (or a pinch runner), the only reason for not doing so must be that there aren’t many guys who are true hitting specialists that provide a clear advantage over guys who also play defense.

      And if DH is adopted league-wide, I would mourn the death of the sacrifice bunt and small ball.

  • OT… I just have to express this because, well,.. I just do. As great as the content is here at PP, I’d like to thank the commenters for adding value, even the ones I’ve had battles with.

    I pay for this subscription and my wife pays for the other local pay site. I can’t tell you how often I have to resist logging on over there with her ID and just ripping into people with insanely stupid comments.

    I like the owner of the other site. Have met and spoken with him a few times and the guy knows his stuff even if one doesn’t always agree with him. However, the baseball IQ from subscribers over here is a bazillion light years ahead of that other site. They are, for the most part… morons.

    So even if I disagree with your comment, let it be known that I probably think you’re smarter than 95% of the folks over there.

    • Sports debate should be light and fun. Anyone who gets too worked up over it needs to reassess their priorities IMO.

    • I’ve read this site since the beginning and do not belong to the other. I am so glad that I subscribed and still reading here. I am not one to make many comments but also noticed the civility of the comments here. That is why I invested…money well spent!

    • I feel the same way…the collective baseball IQ here us relatively high and I love being a part of the commenting community.

    • He heh…that’s why I won’t pay over there. It isn’t the money in one sense, but I refuse to pay to have my intelligence insulted by so many. There are people on this site that I disagree with, and then there are some moronic comments at times. But neither make up the overwhelming majority of the comments, and the contributors are excellent in my opinion. FWIW,that’s the way I see it.

    • That is why I enjoy the PBC Asylum so much. We may have disagreements here and there, but they are VERY learned people over there. We have Twitter feeds, links, etc.

      That site and here are ALL I need for Pirate news.

      (of course, the down side is EYE am on both sites….lol)

  • “(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).”

    Thanks. You just ruined my weekend. And it’s only 6:30am.

  • The Pirates have developed a very strong reputation for finding talent. It does not always work, but it is a game of percentages, and the Pirates success ratio has been solid, and better than most. Good examples are Marte, Polanco, Kang, and Cervelli, and I doubt there is any team in baseball with more young, strong prospects in the upper levels of the minors. P, C, 1B, and SS were a problem just a few years ago, and now they are positions of great strength.

  • Darkstone42
    July 25, 2015 2:48 am

    Because Park is older and doesn’t hit for the average Kang did in the KBO, teams might be hesitant to really pounce on him. It could keep his price down in the area where it makes sense to make a play for him. It will definitely be harder, though, than it was with Kang, and I’m glad we picked Jung-ho first.