International Free Agent Rules Change Just in Time for the Cubs

When the Cubs signed Eddy Julio Martinez I was pretty ecstatic. Part of the reason was the Cubs actually did get a pretty good talent, worthy of the top of the first round of the draft according to Keith Law. The other reason I got excited is that the Cubs are not done trying to acquire as much high-end international talent as possible. Even though they are going to have to pay a dollar-for-dollar penalty for any prospect under the age of 21, there are still several prospects, mainly from Cuba, the Cubs could acquire over this winter and spring who might be better alternatives than a $150 million free agent.

In years past, most teams stuck pretty close to the July 2nd signing date to acquire talent in a given international-free-agent year. One of the things that changed this summer is that Major League Baseball is declaring players to be eligible free agents throughout the year. While MLB used to assign them to a given year, it now appears that international free agency could be near-instantaneous, not to mention continuous. For example, a player could leave Cuba today, go establish residency in Haiti or the Dominican Republic, and six months later the player could be able to sign for millions of dollars as a free agent. Ben Badler of Baseball America wrote,

“Now, it appears the registration bottleneck won’t be a factor, which could mean more young Cuban talent arriving faster to major league teams.”

By creating instantaneous free agents, teams can now move on them sooner rather than wait a calendar year. For the Cubs, this could not have come at a more advantageous time. The Cubs have already exceeded their pool for this signing period and must pay a dollar-for-dollar penalty. As a result, from July 2, 2016 to July 2, 2018, the Cubs cannot exceed $300,000 when signing players. Now as a result of the changes listed above, the Cubs could adapt a new strategy to deal with the influx of free agents who MLB has recently declared free agents. In fact, legally, the Cubs can sign free agents up to July 1, 2016.

Eddy 2016 1 (2)I think in the next two months, the Cubs should attack the international free-agent market in order to cull more of the high-quality prospects still available. Here are six possible players you should keep an eye on for the Cubs to possibly sign.

Yasiel Sierra is a 24-year-old right-handed pitcher who is not subject to signing restrictions. On Friday October 23rd, the young Cuban righty had a showcase and impressed with mid-90’s heat. Ben Badler wrote,

“His fastball sat in the mid 90s, peaking at 96 mph. He used his slider as his out pitch. All four of his strikeouts came on his slider, and a particularly tough 87 mph slider led to a broken bat groundout to end the second inning. He also showed one changeup.”

Because of his age, Sierra could be a great signing for the Cubs. He’d be in his prime and controllable for six years, something the Cubs say they value highly. Combined with regular free agency, he might be the best bargain of all.

The 6’2”, 200 lb 16 year old Lazaro Robersy “Lazarito” Armenteros Arango is already the stuff of legend. According to Jesse Sanchez of, Lazarito is ideally suited to a corner outfield spot but has played first and third. To date, he is not registered and is currently unable to sign. If he does become eligible, expect the Cubs to be one of the first teams to line up.

Vladimir Gutierrez is another right-handed pitcher who, at 21, is subject to international signing regulations. Badler has a nice description of a player who would be a work in progress:

At 6-foot-3, 170 pounds, Gutierrez has a long, lanky frame that screams projection, which should help him add to an 88-93 mph fastball. He complements his fastball with a true out pitch in his plus curveball […]

On Saturday, Gutierrez joined Jorge Soler’s former teammate Guillermo Heredia in a showcase, likely the first of many the next two months. A slick fielding center fielder, the 24-year-old Heredia is just learning to be a switch hitter in hopes of improving his chances to make it to the majors. He won two Gold Gloves in Cuba and while his glove is extremely advanced, his bat is still a bit of a question mark.

Jonatan Machado and Omar Estevez are the pair of 16 year olds who received exemptions from MLB that rewrote the rules for international free agency. Once they are ready to sign, possibly in the spring, they would have the best of both worlds with which to negotiate. They could play teams that are cashing in this signing period versus those that may be waiting for the next one.

Over at Baseball America, Ben Badler has a great list of just Cuban players (many still in Cuba) to keep a look out for (subscription required).

Changes in the Future

Once the Collective Bargaining Agreement is opened up in the winter of 2016, the IFA rules for may change yet again. Some think an international draft could be possible, some do not. With this year’s early exemptions, MLB is changing the game and the Cubs would be wise to adapt to those changes. The July 2nd signing date is likely to be a thing of the past and International Free Agency for players under the age of 21 could be a year-round thing.

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