In just 10 days, on July 2, something magical happens: the Chicago Cubs come out of the International Free Agency (IFA) penalty box, at which point they’ll be allowed to sign international free agents to deals larger than the $300K limit they were held to over the past two years.
And when that period opens up, you can very much expect them to go as big as they’re permitted, which may even include trading for additional pool space now that bonus pools are hard capped. More on that in a moment.
Before we get to what might happen in ten days, I do want to remind you that the Cubs haven’t been entirely sidelined the past two years. They’ve added plenty of international players to deals worth $300K or less as well as many others worth more thanks to a Mexican loophole in the IFA system (needless to say, the Cubs international efforts were heavily focused on Mexico over the past couple seasons because of it) so that’s good.
And it may have been an especially timely effort to take advantage of those particular rules, because they will soon be changing one way or another:
Sources: Major League Baseball has banned teams from signing players affiliated with Mexican League teams, citing "corruption" and "fraud." Inside how after a year of negotiating, MLB's desire for "a fair, organized and transparent system" came to this: https://t.co/euBnfIfJCv
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) June 22, 2018
That story will play out over the coming weeks, and we’ll see if and how the Cubs – who’ve undoubtedly invested heavily in Mexican scouting operations and relationship-building for the long-term – will be impacted. Things are just too murky to predict right now on that front.
Fortunately, the Cubs are out of the penalty box, and, regardless of what happens in Mexico, they can do quite a bit more in the traditional Dominican and Venezuelan IFA markets.
At Baseball America, Ben Badler can see the writing on the wall for the Cubs: “With the rest of their handcuffs coming off starting on July 2, the Cubs will be in heavy on pitching and athletic, middle-of-the-diamond position players. For some scouts, Venezuelan righthander Richard Gallardo is the top 2018 pitching prospect available, with a fastball up to 93 mph, a sharp curveball and the ability to fill up the strike zone.”
Badler reports that Gallardo – again, arguably the top pitching prospect available – is likely to sign with the Cubs, but isn’t expected to get their biggest bonus. Instead, that distinction will go probably go to Jose Lopez. Lopez is a center fielder from the Dominican Republic with plus speed and a strong arm. According to Badler, he might earn as much as $1.5M. Other relative big-timers like shortstop Rafael Morel (could take as much as $800,000) and left-hander Joel Machado have also been connected to the Cubs.
But here’s another reminder for you: Unlike the last time the Cubs had the handcuffs off, so to speak, they cannot simply spend as much as they want. As of now, they have a $4,983, 500 bonus pool. They can sign any one player for as much as they want (up to that amount) or split it up between multiple guys, but they cannot go a penny over … unless.
Although these bonus pools are hard-capped, teams can trade for additional space (up to 75%) from other organizations. Thus, the Cubs can theoretically increase their pool up to $8,721,125 and use it to sign more players. While I don’t necessarily expect them to max out their 75% additional pool space, I do expect them to max out whatever pool they end up with. And, yes, I imagine they’ll look to add some space before it’s all said and done.
Why? Well, while I think they’ll be able to accomplish what they want with the bonus pool they were given (many deals are already in place, even if not officially), this year’s class could have a special late-entry: Victor Victor Mesa.
According to Badler, Mesa is the best Cuban prospect since Yoan Moncada came to the states, and guess what? He’s recently out of Cuba and looking to sign with a Major League club. And unlike some of the other IFAs the Cubs have been attached to, Mesa is an immediate threat to become a top prospect in all of baseball.
Here’s what Badler had to say on May 16: “Mesa, 21, is a comparable player to Nationals center fielder Victor Robles, the No. 5 prospect on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list. He’s a premium defender in center field who at his best has shown 70 speed and at least a 70 arm on the 20-80 scale. He gets quick reads off the bat and takes sharp routes to cover plenty of ground in center field and make highlight-reel catches, winning a gold glove award in Cuba when he was 17.”
If you can find a way to get that guy in your system without having to trade away significant assets, you do it. And that’s especially true for an organization like the Cubs, who are sorely lacking in true impact prospects (and especially on the positional side).
The tricky thing for the Cubs is that Mesa will likely require a big signing bonus and teams usually pre-commit their dollars to other players (like the ones we discussed above). Because Mesa wasn’t a lock to come over this period, most of the Cubs funds were probably allocated elsewhere, and, thus, they’d need to trade for additional pool space to cover the rest.
But, again, if they think they have a chance at Mesa, they’ll work a trade in for additional space before the time comes. Well, fingers crossed.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.