The big news in Major League Baseball is the pending status of Cuban super-prospect Yoan Moncada. The 19-year-old shortstop is expected to have nearly every organization interested to some level, with a price tag—with the contract and bonus penalty factored in—between $60 and $80 million.
The Mariners, to this point, have not been largely involved. The price could be assumed to be a large part, as they stayed clear of paying a premium for unknowns in the past, not getting heavily involved in pursuits of Masahiro Tanaka nor Yasmani Tomas. Though, another possible reason: it isn’t clear whether or not Moncada will stick at short, and the Mariners are more set at his secondary positions, second and third, than about any club in baseball.
Well, while we don’t know if the Mariners are actually in Moncada, we know positional fit isn’t holding them back from pursuing other Cuban infielders.
Baseball America’s Ben Badler reports the Mariners had their top executives, general manager Jack Zduriencik and president Kevin Mather, on hand for a workout at their facility in the Dominican Republic with 21-year-old Andy Ibanez and 29-year-old Hector Olivera.
As Badler notes, it is relatively uncommon for a general manager to be present for such a workout—and it is exceptionally rare, if not unheard of, for an organization’s president to be there as well.
Now, on the one hand, the Mariners facility down there is gorgeous. And if I were the president of the Mariners I’d go down there for fun all the time.
But, in reality, this could mean something. As we’ve documented here on LL in the past, Mather has set the tone for the organization and serves as the primary liaison between Zduriencik's front office and the ownership group. In the past Zduriencik has identified players the team should target and make offers to, and Mather lobbies the ownership to spend on said players.
So, this might be an indication things are serious. And if they are, just who are these guys?
Olivera defected from Cuba in September of last year. As mentioned above, he isn't a spry young prospect—or project. He's 29 years old, righty and primarily a second baseman, though he's taken some reps at third as well.
He's an interesting player. Before he defected, BA had him as the sixth-best prospect still in Cuba. He's long been a star for the island nation and its national team, but he missed the entire 2012-2013 season due a blood disorder, and played only 29 games in his most campaign (2013-2014), mostly at designated hitter
Here's a quick synopsis from Baseball America:
Olivera returned this past season in 2013-14 (which ended in March) to play for Santiago De Cuba in Serie Nacional and still performed as one of the top hitters in the league, batting .316/.412/.474 in 273 plate appearances with seven home runs and more walks (38) than strikeouts (25). He didn’t play much in the field, however, spending 29 games at second base with the rest at DH.
At his best, Olivera (listed at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds) had been one of the most well-rounded players in Cuba, showing a combination of hitting ability, power, speed and size. In 2011-12, Olivera hit .341/.462/.626 with 17 home runs, 44 walks and 22 strikeouts in 214 plate appearances, ranking third in the league in slugging behind only Jose Abreu (now with the White Sox) and Alfredo Despaigne, and he ranked fourth in OBP.
He also won the home run derby at the 2012 all-star game and has displayed impressive power for a middle infielder.
Now, they say you can't walk off the island, but that hasn't stopped Olivera from trying—he has more walks than strikeouts in his past eight seasons.
Olivera, who can sign once Major League Baseball declares him a free agent (which BA calls a formality at this point), held a two-day showcase for hundreds of scouts in the Dominican Republic just a couple weeks ago. In their writeup of the showcase, Baseball America said Olivera has shown a plus arm, though it wasn't on display there.
Though, again, his primary position is as a second baseman, BA says he "shouldn’t have any issue moving to a corner outfield spot." As we're all aware, the Mariners haven't shown much hesitation giving middle infielders a shot in the outfield.
Regardless, here's a short video from that two-day showcase:
It's unknown what type of contract Olivera is expected to sign, but it seems it won't be at the level of the ones signed by Tomas and Rusney Castillo. As far as I can tell, he's the type of player a team signs if they're looking for help now.
Like Olivera, Ibanez defected from Cuba last fall. They're both primarily second basemen, and are righty, but that seems to be where the similarities end. At 21 years old (22 in April), Ibanez is more of a true prospect, with Baseball America's reports on him saying that once he signs his contract he'll likely head to high-A or double-A in 2015.
Coming up through the ranks, he's long been one of Cuba's top prospects, debuting at the country's highest level, Series Nacional, in the 2011-2012 season. He played three seasons there as a second baseman (a Gold Glove winner as a rookie), putting up slash lines of 278/.312/.383, .300/.361/.441 and .267/.377/.435 at ages 18, 19 and 20.
He traveled with Cuba's 2013 World Baseball Classic team and one scout called him one of the best hitters on the club, but he did not play much because he was blocked by other players.
"Ibanez, he can hit," one scout told Badler "He was probably one of the best hitters on the (WBC) team, he just was not playing."
Here's a quick excerpt from Badler's piece on him, which is certainly worth checking out:
At 5-foot-11, 183 pounds, Ibanez has a thicker build for a middle infielder but he’s athletic and has good body control. With fringy speed and an average arm at best, Ibanez isn’t flashy, but he has a good internal clock and a high baseball IQ, fitting best at second base. Ibanez’s power is mostly to the gaps, projecting as a doubles hitters rather than a big home run threat, but what’s sold some scouts on him is his bat.
"He’s a strong guy who doesn’t have your prototype, ideal body for a second baseman, but he moves around well for his stature," said another scout. "And he performs. He’s a good hitter. I liked his swing and the way he manipulated the bat."
Here's their short video on him:
Should the Mariners get these players? Will the Mariners get these players? I don't know.
Though, again, the presence of both Mather and Zduriencik makes you wonder if the level of interest has reached a point where it's very serious. And if it is, I have no problem with it. The Mariners, like any team, should be always looking to get better, regardless of the positional makeup of the team right now.
If they think Olivera's bat plays at any position, especially in an outfield spot, and he can help them now—they should go after him.
If they think Ibanez has an outside shot at playing shortstop, that the bat can play at other positions, or even if they think he can be a quality second baseman in the future, they should go after him.
Acquiring talent, in any form, is the name of the game. Always get better, and let the puzzle pieces fit together when they need to.
In pursuing Olivera and Ibanez, there may be an interesting opportunity here—the doors are opening to Cuban players, and while the skills of the country's top players continue to translate quite well to Major League Baseball, the Mariners may be able to snag one or two of the best without the high price tag that has recently comes with them.