A lot has changed on the international market in recent years. And with the Cubs in and out of the penalty box, it’s often tough to keep up to date with the current rules. However, instead of going over the full set of changes from the latest CBA, let’s just talk about what’s important to the Cubs right now.
Starting on July 2 (the new International Free Agent period), the Chicago Cubs will officially come out of the “penalty box,” a state in which they’ve been restricted to IFA signings of no more than $300,000/player for the last two years.
This is extremely important because, as we’ve pointed out, the Cubs haven’t been able to maximally do their thing on the international market for two seasons now – and that happened to line up with the 2016 draft (Cubs had no first or second round picks), the 2017 draft (when they had the lowest first round pick of any team), and trades of Jorge Soler, Gleyber Torres, Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Jeimer Candelario, Isaac Paredes, and many others.
Put differently, the Cubs graduated/traded away all of their top prospects during the two seasons when it was most difficult to improve in the draft and nearly impossible to get top level talent internationally. So, yes, it’s a big deal.
But unlike the last time the Cubs were unrestricted in International Free Agency (IFA), they can’t just spend as much money as they want and pay the penalty later. Now, teams have hard-capped bonus pools from which they can doll out their signing bonuses. A team can trade for more bonus pool space, but they can not give out more money than their pool. The Cubs’ current pool for the 2018-2019 IFA period is $4,983,500 – you can check out every team’s pool here.
All of that is important to keep in mind, because a new, big-time international free agent is on the way, and he could be the best in a while.
According to Baseball America’s Ben Badler, who is very knowledgeable on the international market, center fielder Victor Victor Mesa (yes, Victor Victor) is leaving Cuba and is looking to sign with a Major League club. Mesa, according to Badler, has star potential, and is the best young Cuban prospect to become available since Yoan Moncada (who signed for $31.5M back before the hard caps were put in place).
As far as a comparison goes, Mesa, 21, is likened to the No. 5 overall prospect in baseball, Victor Robles. He’s a premium defender, with 70 speed and “at least” a 70 arm (on the 20-80 scouting scale).
During the 2016-2017 Serie Nacionale season (Cuba’s highest league), Mesa slashed .354/.399/.539 over 70 games, with more extra base hits (27) than strikeouts (19) and 40 stolen bases. That was 40 stolen bases in 70 games, yo.
Perhaps the most exciting part of Mesa’s arrival onto the scene is that, according to Badler, he could start out as high as Double-A. In fact, Badler seems to believe that, if he were in the upcoming draft, he’d be a candidate to go first overall (and would definitely not make it out of the top 10). So, yes, he’s a very big prospect becoming available *right* when the Cubs will finally be able to spend some money.
But there are some logistical issues here.
First, Mesa still needs to be cleared to sign by MLB and that might mean he won’t be eligible as soon as the July 2 period opens. In fact, it could be a lot longer than that: “He could become eligible to sign during the next period that starts July 2 or the following period that starts July 2, 2019, depending on when he is declared a free agent,” wrote Jesse Sanchez (MLB.com).
Although waiting is not necessarily an issue by itself, it presents challenges when trying to coordinate your spending, given that many other IFA deals are agreed to long before a given period opens up. For example, back on April 24th, we talked about how the Cubs were linked to three of the top international prospects, including the top pitcher in the class, and their eventual signings (which are more or less guaranteed at this point) could eat a big chunk of the Cubs’ bonus pool.
Theo Epstein could always trade for more bonus pool money – whichever team does sign Mesa probably will – but that obviously comes at a cost and it might have to be done before they even know if he’ll be available. Plus, the Cubs can’t trade for unlimited extra cap space. The rules limit the additions to 75% of the current pool – so the Cubs could trade up to $8,721,125 and not a penny higher – whereas other, smaller market teams will start out with a larger bonus pool than the Cubs, and can also trade for more additional space than the Cubs. Depending on how the rest of their signings play out, things could get tricky in a flash.
But that’s all a bit too much to worry about for right now. Instead, just know that a big-time Cuban free agent prospect is on the way and the Cubs will probably have the interest, need, and ability to get him. Until he’s officially declared eligible to sign by MLB, however, the Cubs (and we!) will just have to go about our business and hope for the best.