Venezuela was a key source of talent for the Diamondbacks not too long ago, with Miguel Montero, Gerardo Parra, and now Ender Inciarte coming up through the system after signing as amateurs (David Peralta has a different kind of story). More recently, the D-backs have wholly failed to make a strong push for international free agents. Consider this: when in the spring Baseball America sorted out the signing organizations of former international free agents listed in their Prospect Handbook, they credited the D-backs with just five signees (headed by Jose Martinez), despite the fact that most organizations had at least nine. And, parenthetically, the classes of some of the teams keeping the D-backs company seemed to have better prospects, like the Cardinals (Oscar Taveras, Carlos Martinez), Orioles (Eduardo Rodriguez, Scharlon Schoop), and Astros (Michael Feliz, Teoscar Hernandez).
Fast forward to this year’s international signing period in July, and of the “notable” signings tracked by Baseball America, the D-backs had just three (Marlon Arroyo and Remy Cordero, both of the Dominican Republic, and Wei-Chieh Huang of Taiwan). None were in BA’s top 30 available. Part of the lack of success was due to the Yankees’ system-busting approach that saw them hoard picks this year while forfeiting the ability to sign any international amateur for more than $250,000 for the next two years. Maybe there’s some recent bad luck involved (especially in Prospect Handbook valuation), but I think we can safely say that international signings have not been a strength for the club of late.
It’s not for complete lack of trying. On the professional side, the club did bid for Masahiro Tanaka last year, and while the D-backs’ reported offer fell far short of that of the Yankees, the $120M they put on the table (in addition to a $20M posting fee) does look aggressive in the context of past contracts for Japanese players. And you can excuse the D-backs for not being one of the several clubs in on Cuban Jose Abreu last winter; the team did have some guy coming off of an MVP-ish season at first base.
The stars could be aligned, however, for the D-backs to add an international free agent this winter, or even within the next month or so. The United States Office of Foreign Assets Control has reportedly cleared Cuban outfielder Yasmani Tomas (called “Yasmany Tomas” by many reliable outlets), meaning that when MLB declares him a free agent, he could sign immediately.
But back to the D-backs. Recently, we’ve heard that the club will be on the hunt for a power-hitting outfielder and starting pitcher this winter (no, this post wasn’t written in 2013). It’s not a stretch to suggest that the acquired hitter could be a third baseman, especially if a shortstop is traded; of free agents, however, only Pablo Sandoval and Chase Headley offer much in the power department (unless the D-backs wish to reunite with Mark Reynolds…).
Corner outfielders? The D-backs could bid for the cranky-bodied Mike Morse, the not-young Nelson Cruz, the quite-old Michael Cuddyer (#visionsofKubel), or the quite-older Alfonso Soriano. But other solid options like Norichika Aoki and Melky Cabrera probably aren’t going to raise the team slugging percentage. So despite the presence of Mark Trumbo, if there’s an upgrade, it may come out of left field.
Way out of left field. Old enough to not be subject to the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s restrictions for international free agents, Yasmani Tomas is still young enough that if he received a now-standard six or seven year deal, he wouldn’t necessarily be sliding down the aging curve by the deal’s end.
He also fits what the D-backs believe they need: he’s got power to offer. In 549 at bats between the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons, Tomas hit 35 bombs in Serie Nacional; that rate tapered off in a slightly shorter 241 at bat season 2013-2014, with just six. Overall, Tomas had a .506 slugging percentage in Cuba. That’s not against MLB competition, but when Tomas was playing in his first Serie Nacional season, he had just turned 18 years old.
Basically, Tomas may have a long-ish swing, is used to facing softer velocity, and struggles against breaking pitches. The long-ish swing could leave him vulnerable up and in. But when in doubt, bet on talent — and talent sometimes looks like Tomas’s 70 grade power.
He might also be attainable: the Yankees could be out of the bidding (supposedly, but I don’t buy it) and the Mets definitely will. The Dodgers, Red Sox and Cubs already have Cuban outfielders in existing outfield logjams. And Tomas is also not viewed as can’t-miss, with some literal miss to his game. That could take “smart money” teams like the Athletics and Rays out of it. I haven’t seen any team-specific speculation at all, but I think teams not typically expected in these free agent competitions could figure prominently. Maybe Marlins? Or we might see the Giants or Padres enter the bidding. The Tanaka bidding got out of control and out of reach for Arizona, but the Tomas bidding? Maybe not so much.
He could be a “smart money” spend: Signing premium free agents means paying top dollar (indeed, more than anyone else was willing to spend) for a player who is likely to start a path down the aging curve before the end of the deal. Not so with the 23-year-old Tomas (who turns 24 in November). Trading for an impact offensive player often costs an arm and a leg, as the D-backs organization is now acutely aware. And signing Tomas wouldn’t even mean forfeiting a draft pick, as may be the case for the teams that sign Nelson Cruz or Melky Cabrera.
Signing Tomas could also be a trendy — and responsible — choice of a new D-backs front office. The organization’s financial constraints are real, and there are hard limits to what can be spent on international amateurs and Rule 4 draftees. Spending on Tomas is one of very few ways that the D-backs can add talent without subtracting either other talent or another opportunity. And wouldn’t the new GM want to put that kind of stamp on his new organization?
The D-backs happen to have the cash: The D-backs had their highest Opening Day payroll in their history this year, at over $112 million. There are no indications that next year’s payroll will surpass that, but there is also money off of the books. With Martin Prado and Brandon McCarthy gone, the D-backs have just $67.25M committed next year in guaranteed contracts. Add arbitration salaries for Mark Trumbo, David Hernandez, and possibly Cliff Pennington and Nolan Reimold, and that number could rise to the $80M range. First-year eligibles Wade Miley and Addison Reed could eat up another $6M or so, and the team still has an army of players making the major league minimum in 2015.
In other words, even if the front office just goes back to 2014 levels, there’s about $20M-$25M to spend (per year) this offseason. It seems likely that Tomas will make more than Rusney Castillo on a yearly basis (eliminating Castillo’s $100,000 2014 salary and spreading out his signing bonus, he’s making just over $11M per season). Would Tomas require $15M a year? Jose Abreu is guaranteed more than $11M per season, on average (he can opt into arbitration if he wants), but even if Tomas isn’t quite the prospect that Abreu was, it seems like perception of the propriety of spending on Cuban free agents is changing.
Even at $15M per year, however, Tomas could still be a savvy move for the new D-backs front office (if it’s in place in time to enter the bidding). Just reading the tea leaves, Tomas seems like a fit for the D-backs, in part because he’s not too good. Tomas offers a rare chance to pick up a player entering his prime on a deal that at least has a chance of being valuable. I wouldn’t put the chances of the D-backs actually signing him higher than 25% or so, but considering I gave the team a 3% chance of getting Masahiro Tanaka… that’s saying something.
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