Hector Mendoza, a talented 22-year-old Cuban pitcher who’s played in parts of four seasons in Serie Nacional (Cuba’s highest league), was officially declared a free agent by MLB on Tuesday.
Unfortunately, thanks to penalties for overspending in a previous year, the Chicago Cubs are restricted from spending more than $300,000 (in this and the upcoming IFA period which opens on July 2) on any one player who meets a certain set of criteria.
Put in simpler terms, the Cubs cannot offer a bonus greater than $300,000 to any player who is younger than 23 years old or has fewer than five years of professional experience, like Mendoza. (Note: the age limit raises to 25 in the next IFA period, per the new CBA – hence the Shohei Otani problem.)
And considering Mendoza’s pedigree as one of the best prospects in Cuba, he’s long been expected to command a bonus greater than $300,000. Thus, the Cubs – along with the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Giants, Rays, and Royals – had likely resigned themselves to the fact that they never had a shot at signing him.
Yesterday, upon officially declaring his free agency, Ben Badler reports that MLB announced Mendoza will be exempt from IFA bonus pool restrictions (as soon as he turns 23 years old) on March 5. He’ll be a totally free agent. But how? He only has four seasons in Serie Nacional.
Well, according to Badler, during his time in Cuba, the Cuban Baseball Federation loaned Mendoza to the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, where he pitched in small parts of two Nippon Professional Baseball league seasons. That, the Commissioner’s Office has determined, is enough to fulfill the five professional seasons criterium. An “unusual” path to totally free agency, as Badler puts it.
Obviously, that revelation is game-changing for the MLB teams that had their eyes trained on Mendoza, as well as the teams that thought they stood no chance of signing him. And, of course, Mendoza will experience the biggest (albeit, positive) implications, as up to ten more teams – including some seriously big spenders – might now be considered viable options and all teams will be free to spend as much as they like with fear of artificial future spending limitations.
So … will the Cubs be interested?
Well, there haven’t been any rumors yet connecting Mendoza to any specific teams (although I’m sure they’ll be trickling out shortly), but it isn’t hard to guess that they’ll be involved. After all, the Cubs long-term pitching needs are as obvious as anyone else’s and Mendoza happens to be a uniquely young, free agent pitcher available for just cash.
And his attractiveness as a player stretches beyond just his age, position, and expected acquisition cost … he’s also supposed to pretty darn good. Recently, Ben Badler ranked Mendoza as the second best pitching prospect and 12th best prospect overall in Cuba.
Interestingly, Mendoza’s been pitching as his team’s closer recently, but with more loosely defined bullpen roles in Cuba, that could mean 2-3 innings at a time. According to Badler, he’ll be considered as a starting pitcher when push comes to shove, and he has all the attributes to succeed in that role. To that end, however, you should know that he won’t be ready to immediately step into a big league rotation, but could spend some time in the Minor Leagues stretching out and determining his fit.
Mendoza reportedly throws between 90-94 MPH with good strike-throwing ability and fastball command for his age (ah … he has both command and control, a good sign for future success). He also uses a “solid-average” 76-80 MPH curveball that flushes plus at times, and an improving, but promising change-up, per BA. You can read a more comprehensive scouting report here.
[Brett: For those who’ve checked out his stats, understand that the majority of Mendoza’s professional innings so far came when he was a teenager, pitching in Cuba’s highest league. This is definitely one of those “don’t scout the stat line” situations, because I don’t think the stats will tell you much worthwhile.]
With his three average to plus pitches, Mendoza has the upside of a mid-rotation starter, with a big, projectable frame. And given the Cubs obvious needs in the rotation – both in near and long term – their interest in Mendoza might just become more obvious as the calendar flips to March.
So keep an eye out, because the Cubs may have just gotten a bit lucky and a new pitching prospect may have just become available for only money.