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Cuban OF Luis Robert: Could Astros Land “Best Player On Planet”?

An American League team’s international scouting director calls highly-touted and scouted 19-year-old Cuban outfielder Luis Robert, “the best player on the planet, and that’s no exaggeration.” This, from Mark Polishuk’s February 26 MLBTradeRumors.com article. 

Luis Robert signed with the Chicago White Sox on May 20, 2017.

See Robert signing eligibility April updates toward bottom of article.

Say what you will about that unnamed scouting director’s assertion; you’d probably be right. Another unnamed international scouting director (this time, a National League one) tells MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez that Robert is second only to OF/P Shohei Ohtani on the list of baseball’s best international talents, referring to Robert (in a more measured assessment) as “a five-tool guy that can be in the big leagues soon.” 

Whether the Houston Astros take a dive into the international pool to bid on Robert depends on a lot of factors, as I’m guessing it does for any of the other nearly dozen teams drooling at his projections.

Related: Luis Robert MLB Comp: Astros’ 1970s Star, César Cedeño

Some Background

Robert defected from Cuba in November to pursue a career in MLB, and established residency in Haiti, according to Sanchez.

The St. Louis Cardinals have expressed considerable interest, recently, in the tightly-wound, muscular 6’3″, 205-pounder, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold. Cards scouts were present at a late February workout in the Dominican Republic featuring the power-hitting speedster.

Video: Watch Robert discuss his progress (with English subtitles), and watch him hit at that recent Dominican workout

Back to the Astros

And, none of that takes into account the desire (or lack of same) to even go after Robert as an organizational asset.

Last July, the Astros made a splash by signing the 32-year-old infielder, Yulieski Gurriel, to a five-year, $47.5 million deal. Gurriel had spent a decade as the national face of Cuban baseball before defecting, and declared a free agent by MLB.

Related: Astros Sign Gurriel…Now What? and Astros 2017: The Power of Gurriel

Robert was positioning himself to take Gurriel’s spot as Cuba’s baseball mega-star, before making his decision.

“I know I had a lot of people supporting me and watching me and hoping I would be the next star, but I made a decision,” Robert said in his native Spanish, recently. “Gurriel made his decision, and I think it was to prove that he could play at a different level and be challenged again. I can understand that.”

Who Is He and Why Does It Matter?

From the Jesse Sanchez piece: “This is why international scouts love Robert: The teenager starred for Cuba’s 16-and-under league as a 14-year-old, and began playing in the 18-and-under league at 15, hitting .325 and leading the league with 21 steals his first year. He sported a .383 batting average in the league at age 16 and hit four home runs in the COPABE 18U Pan American Championship in 2014. He later was named to the all-tournament team in the 18-and-under World Cup in Japan in 2015.

“Playing for Ciego de Avila in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, the island’s top league, Robert hit .393 with 12 home runs and 11 stolen bases last season. He was also part of the Cuban team that played against the Canadian-American League (in 19 games) last summer.”

So, clearly, he’s good, and apparently, he’s seen the spotlight, and been able to perform at elite levels in multiple venues under intense scrutiny, the likes similarly available in most Major League cities.

If the stars aligned, and the Astros wanted to and were able to sign him, he’d probably start at Houston’s short season Single-A Tri-City ValleyCats in the New York-Penn League, whose play starts June 19. Another option could be the Advanced-A Buies Creek Astros in the Carolina League.

Gurriel was rushed through nearly the entire Houston organization, last summer, of course, because of his age and experience, and the correct perception that he was eminently capable of helping the big league team now. Gurriel began at the Astros’ rookie league level, and ascended to Triple-A in the span of 15 games, to the tune of about two weeks, total!

Robert, of course, would need the time and seasoning given to virtually any high school draft pick, to not only improve his game, but acclimate himself to a new country, learn the language, and to digest the coaching and culture of American baseball and his new organization.

The Astros’ Ace in the Hole (and Front Office)

Key to signing Gurriel (by his own admission) was the knowledge that Luhnow, having been born and raised in Mexico City, knows Spanish fluently. This, apparently, is an asset not shared by many (if any) other GMs.

Should it come down to it, Luhnow’s ability to speak directly to Robert, in his native language (and not through an interpreter), might be the one Luhnow lays down as his trump card.

Of course, that (along with the notion that following his older brother to Houston would be a draw) was supposed to be the rationale for Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. to sign with Houston, as well. Instead, Gurriel, the younger, opted to sign with Toronto last November.

A Couple of Laps Around

Baseball America lists Houston’s international bonus pool for 2017-18 as $4.75 million, but the team is under the penalty, having outspent their bonus pool allotment last year. Houston will be in its first penalty year (some teams are in their second). According to BA, “Teams that exceeded their bonus pools to incur a penalty will still be unable to sign any player for more than $300,000 during the 2017-18 signing period.”

Houston and $300,000 would not be nearly enough to lure the likes of Robert, who looks to be a rare and coveted talent around whom many teams will flock.

Polishuk, though, wraps up the situation neatly: “Eight teams (the Cubs, Dodgers and Royals, as well as the Angels, Diamondbacks, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees) are currently under the $300K limit for past excesses of the spending cap, with the latter five teams regaining their full spending eligibility on July 2.

“So Robert would have a larger market for his services if he is named a free agent sooner rather than later, not to mention the fact that he is likely to score a bigger contract while the old international signing rules are still in place.  The new rules, as negotiated in the new collective bargaining agreement, place a stricter signing cap on international players and go into effect for the coming July 2 class.”

Image result for luis robertMARCH 30, 2017 UPDATE: 

Astros scouts joined other teams’ in the first open showcase by Robert in the Dominican Republic. According to Baseball America, Houston officials had Robert in a private workout the week of April 3, 2017.

APRIL 18, 2017 UPDATE:

Robert had a private workout for the Astros in the Dominican Republic, and he is scheduled for workouts with the Athletics and Reds next week; the Padres, Cardinals and White Sox are also expected to bring him in for workouts.  Chicago is the only one of those six teams that hasn’t already exceeded its 2016-17 bonus pool limit, though Badler has reported that the White Sox may be the favorites to sign the highly-touted Robert.

APRIL 20, 2017 UPDATE:

The Race is On! Robert was officially declared a free agent by MLB on April 20. He’ll now be able to sign with any club on May 20.

From MLB.com: “That Robert, who has established residency in Haiti, was cleared to sign before June 15 means several teams who exceeded their 2016-17 bonus pool remain in play to sign him. That includes the A’s, Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Nationals, Padres and Reds.”

The Astros, then, would have to sign Robert before the international signing period begins again on July 2, because once that date hits, they can no longer sign prospects for more than $300,000. Robert is expected to command a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract.

I see no reason why Houston would not put in a strong bid for Robert (see note above about Luhnow’s Spanish-speaking ability, and how Robert would appreciate that).

Plug Robert into the OF of Double-A Corpus Christi, early summer, see where he’s at with his development/comfort level, and AAA Fresno awaits. Would Robert be a September call up? Hmmmmm.

Side note: Left with their collective noses pressed against the glass, no doubt pouting: The Angels, Blue Jays, Cubs, D-backs, Dodgers, Rays, Red Sox, Royals and Yankees, who are all limited to signing a player for $300,000 or less during the current signing period, effectively putting those teams out of play for Robert.

Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Brad Ramone with (L-R) Dee Dee, Johnny, and Joey Ramone, backstage at Houston's Liberty Hall, July, 1977.

Johnny, the Ramones' influential guitarist, who passed away in 2004 at 55, was an avid baseball and New York Yankees fan since childhood. He even once ranked baseball above rock'n'roll in a personal Top 10 List!

Like Johnny, my love for rock is only equaled by my love for baseball and my hometown Houston Astros, present and past!

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Brad Kyle