Yoan Moncada to Boston always made a lot of sense, considering the Red Sox collect position player talent like a millionaire collects stamps. They signed both Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez this offseason, then promptly moved Ramirez to an outfield that already features Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Allen Craig, and Daniel Nava. With Xander Bogaerts at short, Dustin Pedroia at second, Pablo Sandoval at third, and some combination of Castillo, Betts, and Bradley in center field, the Red Sox then shelled out $63 million for Moncada ($31.5 to Moncada, the other half to MLB), the 19-year-old Cuban phenom expected to man one of those positions in the near future — at least after he makes an abbreviated tour of Boston’s minor league system.
Moncada to Boston made sense for other reasons, too. One, the Red Sox had already gone over their international amateur spending cap this year, which means they were already prepared to serve a two-year spending penalty on foreign amateurs. Going “all-in” on Moncada, so to speak, might serve a worthy investment for a Red Sox team that won’t be able to sign highly sought after youngsters internationally until — potentially — a worldwide draft is in place. Two, Moncada’s hefty bonus won’t count against the luxury cap, which means Moncada won’t make a serious dent in Boston’s major league payroll until his first or second year in arbitration. That gives the Red Sox plenty of payroll flexibility if Moncada proves to be the 3-4-plus WAR player many are anticipating.
Moncada to San Diego made sense, too, because which team doesn’t want — as Ben Badler once described — a Yasiel Puig type that can play on the dirt. The Padres general manager also happens to be the internationally-acclaimed AJ Preller, who in large part made a name for himself in foreign markets. They also have more money than we thought, perhaps, as evidenced by the four-year, $75 million contract recently handed to James Shields and the Matt Kemp acquisition. And unlike the Red Sox, the Padres have immediate needs at shortstop, third base/second base, and (potentially, at least) center field, with nobody in the minor league system emerging as likely short-term fixes.
Of course, the big difference between the Red Sox and the Padres, as it often is, is the money. For Boston, a $63 million commitment to a 19-year-old who might not crack the majors until 2016 or 2017 is a calculated risk. Remember, this is the same franchise that’s positioned itself near the top of the major league payroll leaderboard for the past decade, one that’s won three championships in the span, one that made a $103 million investment — eight years ago, no less — in Japan’s Daisuke Matsuzaka and, more recently, gave $72.5 million to a another Cuban in Castillo, and one that recently bought its own Triple-A affiliate for $20 million. The Red Sox have a lot of money, and they haven’t been shy about spending it on major league superstars, pricey foreign lottery tickets, amateur talent, or other sports franchises.
If Moncada flops — and let’s face it, despite the hype, that’s still a distinct possibility — the Red Sox can put the $63 million investment in Moncada behind them, and move on to the next big ticket acquisition. They won’t like it, no doubt, but it’s part of playing the high-priced free agent game, and they’re as used to it as any high-roller.
But if the Padres paid $63 million for Moncada and he never made a significant impact at the major league level, well, what would happen then? How much money would that sap out of future player acquisition budgets? How much of a cut would payroll see in future seasons? How much faith would ownership — and the fans — lose in AJ Preller and his newly constructed front office? The thing is, the Padres just aren’t used to dishing out that kind of money for anybody (until recently, at least), let alone a 19-year-old with no major league experience and relatively little professional experience. High variance players with significant bust rates are one thing. High variance players with significant bust rates and a $63 million price tag are something else.
One of the perks of building a productive farm system is that it can be done on the cheap, thanks to MLB’s rules regarding amateur talent. Domestic amateurs are restricted by the draft, where they are selected and signed with slot values at the forefront. Only the top few picks earn signing bonuses over $5 million and, in many cases, an entire draft class might only cost $5 or $6 million. International amateurs, on the other hand, are restricted by MLB’s rules in that arena, which attempt (stress: attempt) to limit teams with spending limits and harsh penalties for going over them. An elite 16- or 17-year-old Dominican prospect might only sign for $3 or $4 million in a typical year, and many of them ink deals under $1 million.
But talented Cubans like Moncada, who is significantly more polished and closer to the majors than your typical high schooler or international amateur prospect, are starting to challenge those spending restrictions. Moncada at $31.5 million is far from a bargain, especially when you consider the dollar-for-dollar tax that accompanied his signing. And identifying Moncada as a premier talent is the kind of evaluation that any baseball person can make: he’s young, he’s fast, he hits ball hard, and he has bigger arms than that guy at the gym who is always doing curls. The Padres can’t live in that market and succeed, at least not consistently.
It might sound Moneyball-ey, but the Padres still have to search harder for a good deal, using better analytics, or better scouting, or more creativity to build a strong organization. They can’t window-shop at Tiffany’s, right alongside the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers, and pick out all of the fancy, high-priced players. The Padres have to shop at — oh, I don’t know — Ma and Pa’s Corner Store, finding the gem buried in the stack of $1 comic books. It isn’t that the Padres can’t afford Moncada, or Hanley Ramirez, or Pablo Sandoval. It’s that the Padres only have so many of those bullets, and one big mistake could set the organization back for a couple of years. Where the Red Sox could shake off $63 million if Moncada turns into Matt Bush, the Padres simply couldn’t.
As we discussed earlier this offseason, there’s also a good side to missing out on Moncada. With the Padres staying under their international amateur budget this signing period, they’ll be one of 25 teams able to spend $300,000 or more on international amateurs next signing period, which begins in early July. The Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Rays, and D’backs have already exceeded their spending limit this signing period, and they’ll be subject to two-year spending restrictions. It’s already evident that the Dodgers will spend big during the upcoming 2015-’16 signing period, likely joining a number of other teams planning to break the bank. That could leave the 2016-’17 signing period, the final one before a new CBA is negotiated, as a perfect time for the Padres to strike, with many of the big-market, big international spending teams out of the mix.
…Being out of the game as far as not being able to exceed the $300,000 limit, that comes with real consequences. When we valued Moncada and looking at the whole situation and really any player, if we were going to consider exceeding the bonus pool, we want to make sure it’s the right guy at the right time. Not having singed him obviously gives us some flexibility down the road, and we continue on with the process.
Losing out on Moncada stings, but it has its perks. One of them will be watching Preller and the new front office navigate the international scene over the next couple of years. And, in the end, the situation didn’t turn out too poorly. Just the idea that Padres were legitimate contenders for Moncada’s services signifies another step in the right direction for an organization that has been all too often an afterthought in such negotiations. And at least Moncada didn’t sign with the Dodgers; if he does turn into Yasiel Puig No. 2, he’ll be doing it in the faraway lands of Fenway Park and the American League.
There’s a final silver lining here that could make sense once the offseason is complete. While Moncada’s signing bonus can be paid out in installments over a number of years, the $31.5 million tax headed to MLB is due this summer. Forget whether San Diego actually has that much cash just sitting around for a lump sum payment; considering how far the Padres have gone in turning the organization around in the short-term, it might make more sense to spend that money on a player — say, Hector Olivera — that will impact the 2015 team.