On Monday morning at 11 a.m. eastern the Miami Marlins, did something that’s become commonplace in this ownership’s tenure. They held a press conference to address a recent transaction and tout the youth they recently acquired. Even for the most feverish Marlins fan, the site of “The Captain” sitting in front of a mic explaining anything has to leave you with a low-grade form of PTSD. This time was different.
Figurehead Derek Jeter wasn’t tasked with explaining an inexplicably underwhelming return. No, this time Jeter was proudly puffing out his chest—the victorious hero of South Beach. For the Marlins did something they hadn’t seemingly done in close to a decade. They signed a top International talent, and one with undeniable connection to Miami’s heavy Cuban population and influence. The Marlins had landed the Mesa brothers, the most recent in a long line of Cuban super prospects with connections to the Island’s baseball lore.
22-year-old Victor Victor signed for $5.25 million, the largest bonus of the 2018 international class. While his younger brother Victor Mesa, Jr. signed for a flat $1 million. A lot of words, grades, and numbers have already been thrown around, and it’s easy to get caught up in the hype. But if I’ve learned anything in my time covering prospects coming out of Cuba, you can only trust about 40 percent of the things you read, and you need to be prepared for a “rusty” period early in their stateside debuts. So for today’s exercise, Matt Thompson and myself will take a look at the recent success and struggles of Cuban imports with similar pedigree and skill sets. What we’ll focus on is two fold. First will be the statistical track records of each in the Serie Nacional (Cuba’s top league). Then we’ll dig into scouting grades on each from at the point they defected/signed.
Julio Pablo Martinez
We’ll look at two data points. The first, actual production of the last two full seasons in the Cuban Seire Nacional. For the most part we’re comparing seasons between the ages of 18 and 20 for most of these players, with Rusney Castillo and Leonys Martin being the exceptions. The second data point will be scouting grades at the time of signing for each player included. (We went with MLB.com because it was the easiest source to find scouting grades from.)
This is by no means perfect, some of the numbers don’t matchup. Players might be a year or two older, played against harder competition, dealt with injuries, etc. So there’s a lot of noise, but in some ways it’s less messy than the current trend of regurgitating the work of luminaries like Ben Badler, one of the few analysts, getting a full set of in-game looks on these Cuban imports.
Often the first time many evaluators see these players is in showcases. It’s easy to be fooled by this process and here’s why. Showcases, particularly for international players are controlled environments. The randomness of a baseball game, is the only way to get a true understanding of a player’s situational IQ. Or what your Dad calls “intangibles.”
It’s hard to see how a player handles good breaking balls and spin in showcases. Does he get out on his front foot chasing fastballs? Does he adjust with two strikes? It’s easy on the other hand to get caught up in the athleticism of each player, and the batting practice exploits. You certainly get an excellent feel for a players swing mechanics, but it might leave a lot of questions regarding just what a prospect struggles with at the plate. That’s just it there are loads of unanswered questions from these looks. Which is why it’s often been my practice to consider signing bonus and not a third parties’ rankings as the true measure of each international player.
That said, Cuban prospects are a little different. They tend to have a least a baseline of professional experience and some statistics to dig into. In that vein please see the below chart. I took a look at the last two full seasons for six Cuban imports from recent years with similar skill sets. I listed their slash line and speed and power numbers. My thought was offensively this gave us an idea of how each tool grade in the second chart is applicable. Slash line translates to hit tool and gives you a basic idea of how much approach or power comes with the package. The steal and homer numbers should be self explanatory.
The first thing that strikes me is the numbers of Luis Robert and Victor Victor. There’s significant improvement year over year for each in the power department that’s unmatched in this set. Well, outside of Randy Arozarena’s transformation from Dee Gordon to Alex Gordon, at least. It should be noted Robert and Mesa had the two best age-19 seasons on the list, with Robert producing the best power of any player included. Conversely Mesa’s 40-steal campaign is 25 percent higher than the next closest season. Examining batting average, one would deduct that Mesa has the best hit tool, or at the very least one of the top two or three listed.
My initial impressions from this stat-line scouting exercise: Mesa might provide a stronger hit-tool and speed combination than any we’ve seen from a Cuban import. The biggest separator, and one of the reasons I’m so enthusiastic about Mesa’s potential, is Mesa’s hit tool. If we’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that the hit tool is the foundation of opportunity and success at the major league level. It’s also been one of the biggest struggles for players coming over from Cuba. On-base ability isn’t met with the same esteem as it is Stateside. As the old expression goes, “You can’t walk your way off the island.”
Mesa has the makings, at least statistically speaking of a dynamic leadoff hitter with developing power and plus plus speed. Based on what we’ve seen in scouting reports, that seems to be accurate. Now for the scouting reports.
In the below chart, I compiled scouting grades from each at the time of signing. Listing all five tools: hit, power, speed, field, and arm. In order to provide consistency (and to avoid any issues with paywalls) I used MLB Pipeline’s grades for five of the six players listed below. The lone Fangraphs’ grade belongs to Rusney Castillo, as I was unable to locate any grades from the then “MLB Prospect Watch.” Regardless of your personal opinion of the MLB team’s grades, they provide some consistency and a good measurement of the prevailing evaluation and projection of each at the time of signing. See the chart below, and we’ll pick up our conversation after the jump.
The first thing that jumps out to me is the difference in the Hit/Power grades in comparison to everyone else. This doesn’t back the previous chart, particularity in the hit tool department. There’s certainly the “level of talent in Cuba” angle, but we’re talking a full grade jump down from Moncada to Mesa. The numbers don’t back it and I’m not sure the looks do either. (Albeit my Mesa looks aren’t of the same quality nor quantity.) Granted, Moncada’s sample was offset by a year in terms of age, as we looked at his age 17 and 18 seasons. But, we have the gift of foresight and a season-plus of MLB looks.
Moncada’s on-base ability is obviously a strong component of his game, but I’d grade his hit tool at a present 40/45. This lends credence to my belief that the grades coming from Cuba have started to become less hyperbolic over the last few seasons as greater access to Cuba has been granted. This means more in-game looks and less showcases. My greater point: I trust the 50-hit, 60-power grade on Mesa to be reality based.
My expectations offensively: A contact hitter that uses his speed and good baseball instincts to make an everyday impact possibly at the top of the lineup.
On the other side of the ball Mesa is the only player on the list with 6’s across the board. I’m also willing to say the 60 on speed might be light if you factor in baserunning. Mesa is a player with a history of success on the bases and one with perhaps the best natural instincts and jumps of any Cuban import in history. His defensive exploits dating back to his CNS at 16 have been legendary. I feel comfortable labeling Mesa the best defender listed and a sure bet for center field.
In closing, expect the best fundamental player to come over from Cuba. This might come off as a real snooze-fest, as “fundamentals” and fun are unfortunately not synonymous. That’s not my angle. Mesa has sizzle, a combination of speed and hitting ability, as well as enough thump to perhaps push 20 homers at peak. That’s exciting. The fundamental element to Mesa’s game will however afford him opportunity and keep him in the lineup. Don’t be shocked if Mesa starts the season in Double-A, and makes his way to Miami in late September with an ETA of early 2020.
-Ralph Lifshitz @ProspectJesus on Twitter
Thompson’s Fantasy Takeaways:
As soon as the Marlins announced the Victor Victor Mesa signing he immediately became the crown jewel of the Marlins vastly improved farm system. The 22-year-old might be the most technically sound player to come off the island in recent years. This makes perfect sense considering his father was his coach and also was one of the greatest Cuban ballplayers ever. Victor Victor’s pro career started at the age of 16 when he was selected to play in Serie Nacional. He managed to not embarrass himself despite being over a decade younger than the league average age.
Mesa starts his swing with a slightly open stance, quiet hands and a slight bend. He doesn’t even really stride, just rotates the front foot back and sets it down, while at the same time unleashing his hands to the baseball with above-average bat speed. He’s an aggressive hitter, but one that doesn’t strike out. His walk rate of only 6.5% for his career in Serie Nacional is a bit worrisome, but it’s offset a bit by the strong 12.3% strikeout rate. Obviously the pitching will be at another level here in the states, but I don’t think we have any reason to think Mesa’s strikeout rates will be much higher than 20% after he gets acclimated.
I’m buying the 50 hit tool that ProspectJesus laid out for us above. I also think there’s a bit more here and it can be a 60 at peak. He will be prone to peaks and valleys as a hitter. That’s a typical trait of (over)aggressive bats. HIT: 50/60
The power is the least impressive of the tools for Victor Victor. I think I’d project him for 12-15 homers presently, which puts him at 40 present power. This is where I differ a bit from above. I think the over-aggressiveness will hurt the power output the most, but I still do see some growth here. Victor Victor looks like a future 20-24 homer bat to me, but he will chip in another 25-30 doubles and a handful of triples because of his speed. POWER: 40/55
From a fantasy baseball perspective Mesa’s 70 speed is the best tool here. Not many players have the hit tool and speed dynamic that Mesa has, and when you factor in that the power also has a chance to be league average then you’re looking at a potential top-40 fantasy picks if everything breaks right. His career success rate of 74% in Cuba doesn’t leave you all that excited about his success rate, but the Marlins should be willing to give their shiny new toy ample opportunity to run. He should be able to bank you 20 steals and anything else is just gravy. He should still be able to remain a plus runner after he fills out a bit. SPEED: 70/60
If you’re looking for a type of player Mesa can be if EVERYTHING breaks right, he could end up similar to Pirates’ outfielder, Starling Marte. Mesa has dealt with injuries in the past, but he’s been training for over a year now as he waited to get cleared and then signed. Now he should be as healthy as he’s ever been.
-Matt Thompson @mdthompFWFB on Twitter