Nineteen-year-old outfield prospect Luis Robert left his native Cuba last November, and began the process of being cleared to be signed as a free agent. That process is over now, and the bidding war for Robert can commence.
That he’s cleared now is a boon to him and a handful of teams as there was some speculation at the time he left Cuba that he might not be cleared until after the new Collective Bargaining Agreement provisions regarding international free agents went into effect in July. If that had happened, it would’ve imposed greater penalties on teams which had already spent a lot on international players. Now, however, Robert’s market will be more wide open. To date, there have been reports that the A’s, Astros, Cardinals, White Sox, Padres and Reds are among the teams with the strongest interest in signing him.
Just about any team can sign Robert before July 2, and whoever signs him will be subject to various penalties if they have already exceeded their international bonus pool. If he signs after July 2, however, teams which have exceeded their bonus pools will only be able to offer him a $300,000 bonus, effectively taking them out of the running. This will create a big, big incentive for teams which have exceeded their pools to offer big money now, pay the penalty but get their man.
Robert has been described by one talent evaluator as “the best player on the planet, and that’s no exaggeration.” Well, OK, but having hit .393 with 12 home runs and 11 stolen bases in Cuba’s Serie Nacional last season, he’s been compared favorably to Yoenis Cespedes. And he’s only 19, which means his ceiling could be way, way higher.
The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.
Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.
Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”
Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.
The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.