Embracing the Possibility of Yasmany Tomas

If there’s one thing that the San Diego Padres have become synonymous with in recent years, it’s not the acquisition of high-priced free agents. In fact, when the Padres doled out a combined three years and $23.5 million to pitchers Joaquin Benoit and Josh Johnson last offseason – a paltry sum in today’s market – it represented a relative spending outburst in San Diego, at least compared to previous offseasons that were highlighted by low(er)-budget pickups like Jason Marquis, Mark Kotsay, and Micah Owings.

So when you heard that the Padres might have some interest in the latest Cuban phenom Yasmany Tomas, you probably didn’t get too excited. Sure, newly crowned general manager AJ Preller is renowned for his work in foreign markets, but a serious run at Tomas – a likely very expensive Tomas, with rumors that his payday could easily exceed the $72.5 million deal fellow countrymen Rusney Castillo signed with the Boston Red Sox in August – seemed unlikely. Then, on October 4th, it was reported that the Padres held a private workout for Tomas. Hmm, intriguing. October 8th brought news that the Padres held another private workout for Tomas in the Dominican Republic from Baseball America‘s Ben Badler, vaulting the Padres from fringe players into serious suitors in the Tomas sweepstakes.

Badler’s report noted that AJ Preller — the working GM — was in attendance for the workout:

Padres general manager A.J. Preller attended Tomas’ workout yesterday and was also among the Padres officials who were at his open showcase at the Giants’ Dominican complex on Sept. 21. In between, the Padres also held another private workout for Tomas, so they have seen him three times within the last three weeks. Padres vice president of scouting operations Don Welke and vice president of baseball operations Omar Minaya have also scouted Tomas in the Dominican Republic.

Since then, no major news has broke regarding the Padres and Tomas, but the buzz of excitement in Padresland at the prospect of landing a major free agent has at least reached the decibel level of an Odrisamer Despaigne fastball. Vocal Minority Nate used the movie Joe Versus the Volcano to say that the Padres should take the leap and ink Tomas to a deal. At the Union-Tribune, Matt Calkins has similar views, telling San Diego that, “If Tomas checks out, you need to adopt that famous swoosh-making mantra and just… freakin’… do it.” And other local blogs like Friars on Base, Friarhood, and Gaslamp Ball feel largely the same way.

There’s something different about going after a big-time free agent, something that adds an additional dose or three of intrigue to the usual offseason proceedings. And that’s a something that Padres fans haven’t felt in a long time. The interest is only magnified when you consider that Tomas is an unknown quantity with scouting reports that allow the mind to wonder … is he the next Yoenis Cespedes? The next Jose Abreu? The next Yasiel Puig? Is Yasmany Tomas the next Babe Ruth?

It’s all a bit overwhelming, really, when usually we’re left arguing whether the biggest offseason acquisition is Jon Garland or Jerry Hairston Jr.

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The Scouting

Yasmany Tomas is a soon-to-be 24-year-old outfielder from Cuba, currently stationed in the Dominican Republic after defecting. Similar to recent Cuban defectors like Puig and Abreu, Tomas is exempt from Major League Baseball’s international spending rules making him, essentially, an unrestricted free agent. Ben Badler, who has seen 65 Tomas plate appearances from 2013 and 2014, wrote an essential “Complete Guide to Yasmany Tomas” at Baseball America. Badler’s piece is behind the paywall, so here’s a cliff-notes version.

Badler notes that the power, which grades at 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, is Tomas’ bread-and-butter tool. He projects Tomas to have 25-plus home run power at the big league level, with a chance for more depending on contact ability. The question with Tomas’ bat revolves more around his contact ability. Badler notes that Tomas’ uppercut swing creates holes even in the strike zone, and that he’s exploitable with high heat and breaking stuff. Tomas is currently a bit of a hacker, and how he adjusts to the improved pitching of the major leagues is going to go a long way in deciding how valuable he is.

Other tools:

Speed — Badler says that although Tomas is a very large human being that doesn’t look particularly fast, he’s deceptively faster than he looks. Although he’s run average or even slightly above average times in showcases, he projects as a slightly below average runner in the majors, with little value to be expected from his overall base running.

Glove — Tomas profiles as a corner outfielder, though he was forced to center field at times in Cuba due to team needs. He’s played some third and first as well, and Badler mentions that he could probably play first at the major league level.

Arm — Arm strength is another one of Tomas’ plus tools, grading out as a 60 according to Badler. It’s also apparently pretty accurate, as Tomas threw out nine runners in 54 games last season and 24 in 70-plus games in 2012-2013.

Overall, Badler thinks that due to Tomas’ age he’d probably do well to spend some time in Triple-A before the major league audition, but that he’ll likely shoot straight to the majors thanks in part to the hefty contract he’ll sign.

Other scouting reports, like this one from Kiley McDaniel at FanGraphs, make similar points:

The carrying tool here is raw power, which draws anywhere from 60 to 70 grades on the 20-80 scale from scouts, but the question mark is how much he will hit.  Tomas has a short bat path for a power hitter and quick hands that move through the zone quickly.  The tools are here for at least an average hitter, but Tomas’ plate discipline has been questioned and he can sometimes sell out for pull power in games (here’s video of a particularly long homer in the WBC).  Some scouts think it’s more of a 40-45 bat (.240 to .250 average) that may keep Tomas from getting to all of his raw power in games, while others see a soon-to-be-24-year-old with the tools to hit and think the hot streak of Cuban hitters in the big leagues will continue with him.

The Video

Tomas doesn’t have the over-the-top scouting video that accompanied Yoenis Cespedes’ move to the majors and spawned the creation of a website. He does, however, have a couple of videos out there that give you a basic understanding of what Tomas looks like when he’s going well. Here’s one that nicely displays his all-field power:

And here’s a better clip of the moon shot that he hit in the 2013 World Baseball Classic off Japan:

Edit: I’m working on getting these embedded, but it’s not working at the moment.  Fixed!

The Numbers

Translating performance from Cuba to the major leagues is difficult for a variety of reasons: (1) not many players have made the journey from Cuba to the majors (or minors), so you’re working with a relatively small sample, (2) no players have made the jump the other way further limiting the sample, (3) Cuba’s Serie Nacional is only 90 games, so again you’re working with less data than a typical MLB season, (4) you have to factor in all of the league and park effects from Cuba, which can be difficult, (5) and so on and so on. Super-smart people like Clay Davenport have tried — and apparently done a pretty good job — but unfortunately Davenport doesn’t have the 2014 numbers up yet and doesn’t seem to have a long-term projection updated for Tomas (and neither do other sites, like Baseball Prospectus).

Just as a simple exercise, I thought it’d be interesting to look at the recent big three — Cespedes, Puig, and Abreu — and compare their raw Cuban stats to their MLB stats. For all the reason’s outlined above, it should be taken with a truckload of salt:

Player Cuba PA Cuba BA/OBP/SLG MLB PA MLB BA/OBP/SLG
Cespedes 3,376 .311/.394/.565 1,759 .263/.316/.464
Puig 570 .311/.410/.523 1,072 .305/.386/.502
Abreu 3,278 .342/.447/.621 622 .317/.383/.581
Tomas 996 .289/.345/.506 ? ?/?/?

You can see that, while he’s been an effective major league, Cespedes’ numbers took a major hit coming stateside. Puig’s numbers, on the other hand, have only dropped off slightly. Abreu’s on-base percentage has dipped by more than 60 points, though part of that’s due to the fact that he was hit by a pitch 198 times in his professional Cuban career. His average and power numbers have tailed off slightly.

Here are Tomas’ full statistics via the Cuban-Play website:

Tomas

This past season, which is the bottom one above, Tomas was hampered by a wrist injury that might explain some of the decline. Either way, there are positives and negatives in the statistical profile. Obviously the power is present, with 103 extra base hits in 908 at-bats. But the batting average isn’t particularly gaudy when compared to other Cuban stars and the on-base numbers aren’t impressive either. Once you take out the intentional passes, they’re even uglier.

The good news for Tomas is his age. Unlike Cespedes and Abreu, who remained in Cuba until their mid-twenties when they started to excel, Tomas is defecting after his age-23 season. There’s plenty of room for growth, plenty of time to better learn the strike zone and refine the swing.

The translations that Clay Davenport does have available for Tomas don’t paint the rosiest picture, though they start to look a little bit better once you look at the age-adjusted projections.

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If the Padres are looking for their next superstar, they should probably look elsewhere. (Of course, AJ Preller and company might have a better idea of Tomas’ upside than I do.) While Tomas is young and projectable, it looks like he has more Cespedes in him than Abreu. Cespedes is a fine player, of course, with light-tower power that plays a bit better in an exhibition format than it does in games and a rocket arm.

You could argue that the Padres are entering the Cuban market at the worst possible time, just after the aforementioned Puig and Cespedes and Abreu (not to mention Jorge Soler, etc.) have made the transition from Cuba to the majors look seamless. While that might bode well for Tomas’ ability to bring his game to MLB, it also means that the Padres are going to have to pay a premium if they want him. Rusney Castillo, who we briefly mentioned earlier, signed a record-breaking seven-year, $72.5 million deal this past August with Boston. Castillo’s contract didn’t surpass Abreu’s because he was viewed as a better prospect (some teams viewed him as a fourth outfielder type), it was simply due to the market correcting itself after all of the Cuban success stories. The Padres, if they do sign Tomas, are going to be paying a pretty hefty tax thanks to Yasiel Puig and company.

Still, there are plenty of reasons why the move would make sense. Let’s face it, the Padres probably have some money to burn. With payrolls kept under reins in recent years plus revenue sharing and the new TV deal, there’s money to go around. And if it takes seven years and $95 million — “only” $13.5 million per — to reel in Tomas, assuming Preller thinks he’s legit, money shouldn’t be what stops the Padres from acquiring him.

Since the Padres played themselves out of a protected draft pick, any big splash on the conventional free agent market would cost them a first-round draft pick, a big loss for a team trying to toe the line between competing now and building for the future. Tomas comes without those restrictions, and he’s still likely to come at a cheaper price-point than the biggest domestic free agents.

Further, Tomas fits the current team well enough. The Padres could certainly use a bat and while a shortstop or first basemen might fit better, the outfield isn’t without its question marks. Inserting Tomas into right field would allow Cameron Maybin, Seth Smith, Will Venable, Carlos Quentin, etc. to sort themselves out in left and center, and considering the injury history of parts of that group, that probably wouldn’t take long.

Not to mention, the fact that Tomas turns just 24 in November means that this wouldn’t be a total win-now move, like some free agent splashes are. Tomas should be hitting his prime in a few years, so if the Padres don’t put it all together next year, or even in 2016, he should still be an asset when things start hitting on all cylinders.

There’s an old chicken or the egg dilemma when it comes to baseball teams and spending: does winning allow you to spend more money or does spending more money allow you to win? If the building-from-within strategy isn’t working, sometimes you have to spend to put a quality product on the field, with the hopes that it’ll lead to on-field success and off-field dollars. While Tomas might not be the star that solves all of San Diego’s problems, he could be an important part of its next big winner. And right now seems like as good a time as any for the Padres to break down the doors and announce their presence on the international scene.

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