Moncada Madness Will Kill Another Cubs Advantage

In a way, the Theo Epstein era in Chicago really began rolling in July of 2013. Sure, he had already presided over Cubs baseball operations for more than a year and a half. And yes, by that point, the regime had already pulled off a series of foundational moves, like the trade for Anthony Rizzo, the signing of Jorge Soler and the drafting of Kris Bryant.

But at his core, Epstein is a believer in stewardship, in building endless pipelines of high-ceiling talent. To that end, his most forward-thinking of moves came in that summer of 2013, when the Cubs, along with the Rangers, hijacked the international amateur market. Epstein and Co. would not only extend their $3 million spending limit to $5.5 million through a series of ingenious player-for-slot-money trades; they’d blow through that cap, to the tune of $8.22 million.

As a result, the Cubs would land both Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres, ranked respectively by Baseball America as the No. 1 and No. 3 prospects on the market. They’d also manage to sign several other valuable lotto tickets, namely Jen-Ho Tseng, Jefferson Mejia and Erling Moreno.

The splurge wouldn’t come without a penalty though, because by breaching the limit by an excess of 15 percent, the Cubs would take on a 100 percent tax on their overspending. More severely, they would be limited to just $300,000 in the 2014 international amateur market.

Epstein and Co. weren’t fazed by the one-year freeze-out. They understood that picking off the top prospects on the market every other year would yield exponentially higher-quality talent than shopping in that market every single year within a constrained budget. So they committed full tilt to that 2013 international amateur market, content with essentially sitting things out in 2014 and making it rain again in the summer of 2015.

Pretty slick, right? Major League Baseball thought so, as did virtually every owner of smaller-market teams. So, the league would do what it always does when presented with an owner-angering market inefficiency: make things harder on the smart guys with money exploiting it.

MLB didn’t hesitate to act, taking that one-year penalty for overspending in the international amateur market and making it two. Now, the league thought, the rich teams will think twice before throwing anywhere near $10 million at the market in a given year.

Except they wouldn’t. Just a few months ago, knowing fully well that they’d be hit with the two-year hammer, the Yankees went five times over their spending allotment by going on a binge that netted the Nos. 2, 6, 7, 9, 16, 18, 22, 24 and 28 prospects available. The Red Sox and Angels would blow far through the cap as well.

So the league would go a step further, deciding that if teams weren’t being deterred by draconian penalties on overspending, maybe it could just make scouting more difficult. With a single, unannounced memo, MLB would inform all teams that it had placed new limits on the time prospects could spend at their international complexes, among other crackdowns.

The move reportedly infuriated the Cubs, who in just the past few years had opened a gleaming academy in the Dominican Republic with the intention of not just scouting teens as thoroughly as possible, but molding them through standardized instructional training.

It’s against that backdrop that we enter Moncada Madness.

On Tuesday, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported that 19-year-old switch-hitting Cuban shortstop Yoan Moncada, considered one of the most talented teenage prospects to ever come out of Cuba, could attract bids of $30-40 million when he hits the market. And since Moncada is under 23 years of age and has played in a professional league fewer than five years, the team that lands him will incur that 100 percent tax, potentially exploding the cost for the super-prospect to an insane $80 million.

To put that in proper context, the most any team has ever spent on a single prospect in the present international amateur market came just last week, when the Angels signed 20-year-old infielder Roberto Baldoquin for $8 million. So, if Moncada is cleared to enter the market anytime between now and the 2015 cutoff, there will be nothing to stop the Yankees from essentially deciding, Hey, screw it. We’re forced to sit out the next two years in this market anyway. We have money. Let’s blast the bazooka, right damn now.

Or, just for fun, let’s say Moncada doesn’t sign with anyone by that 2015 cutoff. That would push him into the 2015 class, when the Cubs return to the market without any hard restrictions. What would stop the Cubs, who value the perpetual collection of young talent as much as any organization in baseball, from aggressively outbidding everyone else for the rights to Moncada?

Obviously, the unprecedented price tag for the teenager could be prohibitive; the $40 million Moncada could command (plus that brutal overage tax) would dwarf the $2.8 million the Cubs paid for 16-year-old Eloy Jimenez. But Moncada is 19, a far more stable age to grade and project, and the Cubs have already shown they’re willing to plunk down tens of millions for a young bat, evidenced by the $30 million the club committed to then-20-year-old Jorge Soler.

There’s also the issue of spending priority. Would the Cubs really need to sink that kind of money into another impact infield prospect? Why not spend that cash elsewhere? That’s probably how the organization really does see it, but there are worse things you could do with $60-80 million than using it to secure one of the rarest commodities in the game. But, again, this is largely just an exercise to highlight that no MLB restrictions would stop a big-market team like the Cubs from poaching the best available prospect outside the U.S.

You can see now why MLB isn’t going to let this party keep rolling. If international amateur free agency is simply a three-year cycle of the league’s richest teams rotating turns at opening their money spigots for prospects, then the rest of the league will be crying foul, and loudly.

From there, it’ll be just a matter of time until the rules for the market change shape drastically, whether that means the soft cap on spending becomes a hard cap tied to record, whether that 100 percent overage tax becomes 200 percent, or whether MLB goes nuclear and establishes a traditional worst-picks-first, best-picks-last international draft.

So, whether or not the prodigiously talented Yoan Moncada is pushed back into the 2015 market and the Cubs do somehow jump into that bidding war, consider this fleeting window of time as the good old days, when Theo and Co. could reliably stock the system by swarming the market every couple of years for the brightest prospects outside the U.S.

Consider these the days before Moncada Madness ripped yet another exploitable avenue from Theo Epstein’s hands.

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