Sanchez: Cuban infielder Andy Ibanez planning showcases for scouts this month

Ibanez at the 2013 World Baseball Classic. (Koji Watanabe/Getty)
Ibanez at the 2013 World Baseball Classic. (Koji Watanabe/Getty)

According to Jesse Sanchez, free agent Cuban infielder Andy Ibanez is planning to hold showcase events for scouts in Miami later this month. He was cleared to sign by MLB and the Office of Foreign Assets Control back in February.

Ibanez, 21, hit .283/.348/.419 with 60 doubles and 13 home runs in 242 games in the Cuban league from 2011-13 before defecting. He was on Cuba’s roster for the 2013 World Baseball Classic but rode the bench in the deference to their veteran infielders. Here’s a mini-scouting report from Ben Badler:

At 5-foot-11, 183 pounds, Ibanez has a thicker build for a middle infielder but he’s athletic and has good body control. With fringy speed and an average arm at best, Ibanez isn’t flashy, but he has a good internal clock and a high baseball IQ, fitting best at second base. Ibanez’s power is mostly to the gaps, projecting as a doubles hitters rather than a big home run threat, but what’s sold some scouts on him is his bat.

“He’s a strong guy who doesn’t have your prototype, ideal body for a second baseman, but he moves around well for his stature,” said another scout. “And he performs. He’s a good hitter. I liked his swing and the way he manipulated the bat.”

The Yankees have been rumored to have interest in Ibanez and I’m sure they’ll attend his upcoming showcases. They seem to go to all of ’em. Ibanez is no budding star like Yoan Moncada, however. He’s looked at as more of a solid player going forward. A complementary piece, not a centerpiece. Think Adeiny Hechavarria or Jose Iglesias, not Yasiel Puig or Jose Abreu. Then again, who knows. Cuban players have shown a knack for outperforming expectations.

Because of his age and limited experience in Cuba, Ibanez is subject to the international spending restrictions. The Yankees are free to sign him for any amount prior to June 25th, but, after that, they will only be able to offer him $300,000 as a result of the penalties from last July’s international spending spree. The Angels signed the less-heralded Roberto Baldoquin to an $8M bonus back in January, and I’m guessing it’ll take similar if not more money to get Ibanez.

As always, it makes sense for the Yankees to add talent whenever possible, and by all accounts Ibanez has some skills and will be able to help an MLB club in some capacity in the near future. The Yankees don’t have a long-term solution at second base — they might have one in Rob Refsnyder — and middle infield talent is hard to find in general. Of course, the Yankees always seem to stop just short of offering enough to sign a Cuban player. Enough to say we tried but not enough to get him. Until they buck the trend and sign one of these guys, I have no reason to think they’ll actually do it.

Isikoff: Cuban star Yulieski Gourriel wants to play for the Yankees, but won’t defect

Now here’s an interesting story. Cuban infielder Yulieski Gourriel, who has long been one of the best players in the country, wants to play for the Yankees because his favorite player is Alex Rodriguez, according to Michael Isikoff. Gourriel, however, is unwilling to defect and betray the government. He’ll only come to MLB if the U.S. lifts the embargo and the Cuban government lets him leave.

Gourriel, 30, played in Japan last season and was supposed to do so again this year, but the Yokohama BayStars terminated his contract last week, according to Ben Badler. Gourriel is reportedly nursing a hamstring injury and didn’t report to the team. Cuban players are allowed to play overseas during the Cuban league offseason, though the government negotiates the player’s contract and takes a nice big cut.

In 62 games with the BayStars last season, Gourriel hit .306/.349/.536 with 22 doubles and eleven home runs. He also hit .343/.432/.577 for Industriales in Cuba. Gourriel is a career .330/.412/.570 hitter with two MVP awards in parts of 14 seasons in Cuba. He’s been a beast. Badler (subs. req’d) called him the best player in the country last August. (Recent Dodgers signee Hector Olivera was sixth.) Here’s a snippet of the scouting report:

Gourriel is a lightning rod player for scouts, many of whom see him as a disinterested, Jekyll-and-Hyde player who can blow you away at times and make you scratch your head at others … Gourriel could step in and be an immediate all-star in Major League Baseball …  Gourriel has terrific bat speed, good hand-eye coordination and barrel control, which helps him make consistent contact. He does chase pitches at times but generally has a sound hitting approach, staying within the strike zone and using the middle of the field, with 65 raw power on the 20-80 scale.

Gourriel has played both second base and shortstop in the past, though he’s settled in as a third baseman recently. “Every time you see (Gourriel), you see something special,” said Rangers play-by-play man and Cuban baseball guru Eric Nadel to Isikoff. “He rises to the occasion in international tournaments. He’s no secret … He’s legitimately a Major Leaguer in any league.”

Back in December, President Barack Obama said he was taking steps to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, and reportedly the two countries started to discuss lifting the 50-year-old embargo in late-January. I have no idea if or when it will be lifted, and until it happens, the Yankees have no shot at acquiring Gourriel. “(We) are ready when they say we have permission to play. We are ready for the lifting of the blockade. Then we can come play,” he said to Isikoff.

I thought it was pretty neat Gourriel’s favorite player is A-Rod. They’re similar in a lot of ways — Gourriel is the biggest name in Cuba and he’s a very polarizing player, with lots of fans and lots of people who love to hate him. He’s already 30, so his best years are likely behind him, and since it doesn’t seem the embargo will be lifted anytime soon, it’s unlikely Gourriel will ever wear pinstripes. It sure would be fun though. He’d be one exciting player to follow.

Minor League Notes: Assignments, Spring Reports, Judge, International Spending

Pace of play clocks are up at PNC Field in Scranton. (RailRiders)
The new pace of play clocks are up at PNC Field in Scranton. (RailRiders)

The Yankees open the 2015 regular season tomorrow, and a few days later the minor league season will get underway as well. Triple-A Scranton, Double-A Trenton, High-A Tampa, and Low-A Charleston all begin their seasons this coming Thursday. Here are some minor league notes to hold you over until then.

Opening Day assignments for top prospects

The full minor league rosters have not yet been released and won’t be a few days, though Josh Norris was able to get his hands on Opening Day assignments for most of the Yankees’ top prospects. The list:

Norris says the assignments could change slightly before the start of the season, but for the most part they’re set. Sanchez is going back to the Thunder to continue working on his defense with coaches and ex-catchers Michel Hernandez and P.J. Pilittere, which I don’t love, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I assume Avelino, Katoh, and Mateo will rotate between second, short, and DH like Avelino, Katoh, and Wade did last year before Avelino got hurt. I’m little surprised Mateo is going to Charleston — he’s played only games in 15 rookie ball, that’s it — but the Yankees have never been shy about aggressively promoting their best teenage players. Otherwise these assignments are fairly straight forward. No major surprises.

Notes from the backfields in Tampa

Both Keith Law (subs. req’d) and Jeff Moore (no subs. req’d) recently posted a collection of notes after watching minor league games on the backfields all around Florida. Law got a look at Mateo, saying he likes “how well he keeps his hands inside the ball” and added he “liked the potential of the hit tool but was hoping to see more polish on both sides of the ball.” The polish will come. It’s only Spring Training and Mateo is still just a 19-year-old kid.

Meanwhile, Moore saw Judge, Bird, and RHP Bryan Mitchell. “What’s impressive is (Judge) seems to get a little better each time I see him. The at-bats have gotten tougher and more advanced, with a better plan each time out,” wrote Moore. He also said he sees Bird as “a potential regular first baseman” and his “power is very real, more real than he gets credit for.” As for Mitchell, Moore says his fastball/curveball combination “screams reliever, and possibly a darn good one.”

Law still ranks Judge 23rd in latest Top 50 Prospects list

Last week, Law released an updated ranking of the top 50 prospects in baseball (subs. req’d). There are only very minor changes from his top 100 list in February, with the most notable being the addition of Red Sox IF Yoan Moncada, who slots in at No. 16. Even with Moncada joining the list, Judge stays in the same No. 23 spot because he jumped over Rockies RHP Jon Gray, who hasn’t looked like himself this spring. Judge remains the third outfielder on the list behind Twins OF Byron Buxton and Cubs OF Jorge Soler. Law is the high man on Judge based on all this spring’s other top 100 lists. That’s cool with me.

Yankees spent $17.83M on international players in 2014

According to Ben Badler, the Yankees spent a ridiculous $17.83M on international prospects last year, easily the most in baseball. They spent more than the number two (Rays, $6.11M), three (Red Sox, $5.63M), and four (Astros, $5.42M) teams combined and more than the bottom ten teams combined ($16.9575M). Just to be clear, this is for the 2014 calendar year, not the 2014-15 signing period.

The Yankees handed out three of the five largest, six of the 14 largest, and 12 of the 40 largest signing bonuses to international prospects during the 2014 calendar year, according to Badler. We still don’t have a final number for the total bonuses the Yankees handed out during the 2014-15 signing period, but the total investment is clearly going to be north of $30M between bonuses and penalties. Most of that $17.83M last year was spent on July 2nd, the first day of the 2014-15 signing period. Now the Yankees just have to turn these kids into big leaguers and tradeable prospects.

Yankees release nine more minor leaguers

The Yankees have released seven more minor leaguers according to Matt Eddy: OF Yeicok Calderon, RHP Tim Giel, OF Robert Hernandez, RHP Stefan Lopez, RHP Matt Noteware, 1B Dalton Smith, and IF Graham Ramos. Dan Pfeiffer says OF Adonis Garcia was released as well, and OF Adam Silva announced on Facebook he was also released.

First things first: no more Yeicokshots!, sadly. Hernandez was signed in January, so his stint with the organization didn’t last long. Lopez led NCAA in saves in 2012 and had some potential, but he fell in love with his fastball so much in college that he lost all feel for his slider and became a one-pitch guy. The Yankees signed Giel, Noteware, and Ramos as undrafted free agents within the last two years to help fill out minor league rosters. That’s about it.

Old Timers’ Game coming to Triple-A Scranton

And finally, the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre franchise is holding an Old Timers’ Game on June 21st, reports Donnie Collins. The event will raise money for Parkinson’s disease research. “I expect the ballpark to be sold out — and standing room only. That’s the goal,” said RailRiders’ co-managing partner to Grant Cagle to Collins. A bunch of ex-Yankees will be in attendance — not sure who, exactly — to play in the Old Timers’ Game and/or mingle with fans during a meet-and-greet and autograph session. That should be fun.

Report: Dodgers agree to six-year deal with Hector Olivera

(Kevork Djansezian/Getty)
(Kevork Djansezian/Getty)

According to Jesse Sanchez, the Dodgers have agreed to sign Cuban infielder Hector Olivera to a six-year contract worth $62.5M. The deal includes a $28M signing bonus and is pending a physical, which is not insignificant. There are concerns about Olivera’s elbow ligament and he may need Tommy John surgery.

The Yankees scouted Olivera like everyone, and while we heard they had “strong interest” back in January, it had been quiet since. The Dodgers and Padres were considered Olivera’s most serious suitors with the Braves and Marlins also in on the bidding. Here’s a quick scouting report from Ben Badler:

At around 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Olivera is a physical righthanded hitter with a loose, quick swing and a good hitting approach. He showed good power for a middle infielder, and given that several Cuban players have transformed their bodies and increased their power since leaving the island, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Olivera did the same. His size, athleticism and plus speed (at least at his peak) made him one of the most well-rounded players in Cuba.

Olivera, who turns 30 next month, missed the entire 2012-13 season in Cuba with a blood disorder and hasn’t participated in many international tournaments since then. Although he has participated in showcase events in recent weeks, scouts haven’t been able to see much of Olivera in game action the last few years.

I’m not surprised the Yankees passed on Olivera and not because they are seemingly terrified of pricy Cuban players. A six-year contract for a 30-year-old is the kind of contract they avoided all winter. Add in that Olivera might have a bad elbow, Chase Headley just re-signed for four years, and Rob Refsnyder is knocking on the door at second base, and Olivera wasn’t a great fit for the Yankees and vice versa.

Reports: Hector Olivera declared free agent, may or may not have a damaged UCL

Depending on who you ask, Cuban infielder Hector Olivera may have a damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow, meaning he faces season-ending Tommy John surgery. Jeff Passan says “serious concerns exist” among teams while Olivera’s camp told Jesse Sanchez their client is fine. “Photos don’t lie. They always tell the story,” said one team official to Sanchez, referring to an MRI.

Olivera, who turns 30 in April, was cleared to sign by MLB and the Office of Foreign Assets Control yesterday according to Sanchez, so he can sign at any time now. Passan says it is believed Olivera has at least one offer worth more than $50M in hand, though the injury will change everything, assuming it exists. Olivera is considered the best available Cuba player on the market now that Yoan Moncada has signed.

Back in January we heard the Yankees had “strong interest” in Olivera, who is considered a better player than recently signed outfielders Rusney Castillo and Yasmany Tomas. Assuming he’s healthy, of course. Here’s a quick scouting report from December, via Ben Badler:

At around 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Olivera is a physical righthanded hitter with a loose, quick swing and a good hitting approach. He showed good power for a middle infielder, and given that several Cuban players have transformed their bodies and increased their power since leaving the island, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Olivera did the same. His size, athleticism and plus speed (at least at his peak) made him one of the most well-rounded players in Cuba.

The elbow is not the only physical concern with Olivera. He missed the entire 2012-13 season in Cuba with a blood disorder and hasn’t participated in many international tournaments since then. Scouts simply haven’t seen a whole of him the last few years. (He has been holding showcase events in recent weeks, which is when the UCL injury apparently occurred.) Here are Olivera’s stats from Cuba, via Baseball Reference:

Year Tm Lg G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2003 Santiago de Cuba CNS 132 32 38 6 3 1 11 5 0 7 20 .319 .367 .445 .813
2004 Santiago de Cuba CNS 298 47 92 10 4 6 35 7 7 12 32 .326 .362 .454 .816
2005 Santiago de Cuba CNS 77 296 42 66 8 4 3 35 5 6 35 24 .262 .351 .361 .712
2006 Santiago de Cuba CNS 89 409 72 113 15 1 6 32 7 4 28 26 .315 .370 .412 .782
2007 Santiago de Cuba CNS 84 394 91 114 25 3 10 45 21 1 55 28 .353 .467 .542 1.009
2008 Santiago de Cuba CNS 84 398 84 115 23 5 16 71 8 3 55 24 .346 .444 .590 1.035
2009 Santiago de Cuba CNS 89 411 76 111 34 4 14 54 0 1 56 29 .322 .415 .565 .980
2010 Santiago de Cuba CNS 86 394 83 110 25 1 16 70 2 0 37 21 .318 .390 .535 .924
2011 Santiago de Cuba CNS 60 264 48 73 10 0 17 42 0 1 44 22 .341 .462 .626 1.088
2013 Santiago de Cuba CNS 73 273 44 72 11 2 7 38 0 0 38 25 .316 .412 .474 .885
10 Seasons 642 3269 619 904 167 27 96 433 55 23 367 251 .323 .407 .505 .912

Two years ago the Phillies agreed to a six-year, $48M contract with Cuban righty Miguel Gonzalez before cutting it down to a three-year, $12M deal after concerns about his shoulder popped up, so Olivera would not be the first Cuban free agent to deal with an injury before signing. Position players typically need six months to rehab from Tommy John surgery, which is half the usual timetable for pitchers but still season-ending.

Olivera is both a second and third baseman, and while the Yankees have Chase Headley for the hot corner, they do need a long-term second base solution. The elbow injury could be an opportunity for New York to grab Olivera on the cheap, though there’s a lot of risk involved because Tommy John surgery isn’t a sure thing. If nothing else, there’s no reason for the Yankees to not kick the tires and see if a discount is in the cards.

Badler: Yankees have $2.26M spending pool for 2015-16 international signing period

Top 2014 IFA Juan DeLeon. (Photo via @BenBadler)
Top 2014 international signee Juan DeLeon. (Photo via @BenBadler)

According to Ben Badler, the Yankees will have a $2,262,800 spending pool for the 2015-16 international free agency period, which opens on July 2nd. The Diamondbacks ($5.39M) have the largest pool because they had baseball’s worst record last year and the Angels ($1.97M) have the smallest pool because they had the best record.

The Yankees far exceeded their spending pool during the 2014-15 signing period, and, as a result, they will be unable to sign a player to a bonus larger than $300,000 during the 2015-16 signing period (and 2016-17 as well). So they still have a full spending pool but the individual bonuses are capped. Got it? Good. (The $2.62M pool works out to 7.5 individual $300,000 bonuses.)

Teams are allowed to trade up to half their pool space — the pool is actually broken into unequal slots and the individual slots are traded, it’s not a lump sum of any amount — and since their bonuses are capped this year, it could make sense for New York to trade some international cash. Then again, it doesn’t have much trade value. The Marlins acquired a good Double-A bullpen prospect (Matt Ramsey) for a little over $1M in pool space last year, for example.

The $300,000 bonus limit isn’t much on the international market but the Yankees have shown they are very good at finding prospects on the cheap. Top prospects RHP Luis Severino ($225,000) and SS Jorge Mateo ($250,000) signed for small bonuses, as did fellow Top 30 Prospects SS Abi Avelino ($300,000), SS Angel Aguilar ($60,000), and SS Thairo Estrada ($49,000). The Yankees should still be able to find quality prospects, but they won’t be able to make competitive offers for the top talents.

Sanchez: Red Sox agree to deal with Yoan Moncada

(Jesse Sanchez)
(Jesse Sanchez)

10:43am: Brian Cashman told Dan Barbarisi the team made their “final and best offer” yesterday but were told by David Hastings, Moncada’s representative, it wasn’t good enough.

10:15am: The Yankees offered Moncada $25M and were willing to go to $27M, according to Sherman. So they were outbid by $4.5M, which is really $9M with the penalty. Though that assumes Boston wouldn’t have raised their offer. Either way, they bid just enough to not get him.

9:53am: Joel Sherman says Moncada is getting $31.5M. Add in the penalty and it’s $63M total.

9:12am: Once again, the Yankees did not sign a top Cuban free agent. Jesse Sanchez reports the Red Sox have agreed to sign 19-year-old infielder Yoan Moncada for a bonus in the $30M range. Including the tax for exceeding their bonus pool, the total investment is $60M up front.

The Yankees worked Moncada out privately three times, including twice last week. By all accounts the team loved his talent, so it seems they fell short financially, which is dumb. Hal Steinbrenner and the rest of the brass have been talking about building from within and yet they stopped short of signing a projected star.

The Yankees have not signed a top Cuban free agent since Jose Contreras more than a decade ago, and he blew up in their face. At some point they’re going to have to get back in the game though. They can’t ignore a talent source like that, especially since several top Cuban players have actually exceeded expectations (Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig, specifically.)

Because they exceeded their spending pool last summer, the Yankees will not be able to sign an international player for more than $300,000 during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 signing periods. Moncada was basically their last chance to land a top international talent for nothing but money for another two years.