Leslie Anderson, Yuniesky Maya, and the Houston Astros

Leslie Anderson, Yuniesky Maya, and the Houston Astros

       Tampa Bay made a great move on the international market today, signing of Cuban 1B/OF Leslie Anderson to a four-year contract.  Anderson, 28, has been one of the best players in Cuba over the past several seasons.  He hits for an exceptionally high batting average…356 and .381 the past two years.  He belted 13 homers last year, which averages out to 25 since the league plays only 90 games. 

        It is shocking the Rays signed Anderson to a four-year contract for only $1.7 million.  Basically, Anderson receives a $500,000 signing bonus, and the incentives guarantee minimum salary if he reaches the major leagues.  There is no guarantee Anderson will become a productive major leaguer, but despite the concerns, the deal is a terrific bargain for Tampa considering they receive tremendous potential at minimum salary. 

         Generally speaking, teams taking advantage of the uptick in Cuban defections (especially Boston) are getting terrific bargains.  Unlike prospects from Venezuela or the Dominican, several of these players (i.e., Jose Iglesias) can arrive quickly in the major leagues while offering comparable upside.   Many teams avoid Cuba because  the travel restrictions make scouting difficult, and teams are reluctant to spend top dollar on speculative investments.  Nevertheless, the smartest teams are finding ways to get information first-hand.  For example, Boston Red Sox President Larry Lucchino spent two weeks in Cuba on a “mission trip.”  This first-hand information along with any connections on the island will prove invaluable for the Red Sox.    

       The Internet is another valuable source.  For example, www.baseballdecuba.com provides live streams of Cuban games.  Therefore, for the first time, teams can get extensive video of younger players outside international competition.  By simply recording the streams, teams have plenty of first-hand information to evaluate a defector.  I started watching these games occasionally over the winter, and was amazed how many of Cuba’s players are the “real deal.”  The young players are so good it becomes depressing when you see the potential of some of the players on the island (Gourriel, Despaigne, Alexander Guerrero, Jose Dariel Abreu and Vladimir Garcia).

        As an Astros fan, I think the team is making a mistake showing no interest in Cuba. As the team begins rebuilding, there are several unsigned Cuban defectors who would be perfect in Houston.  The best example is Yuniesky Maya.  Maya, 28, was one of Cuba’s best pitchers and won their equivalent of the Cy Young Award in ’08-‘09.  Maya lacks Aroldis Chapman’s upside, but he is a solid pitcher who could be a great addition to the back-end of the Astros rotation next season.  He is a control pitcher offering several plus pitches whose fastball reaches 92 mph.  Here is a video of Maya from the World Baseball Classic. 

      Judging from Leslie Anderson’s contract, the Astros could sign Maya for a reasonable price.  Boston (who doesn’t need another starter) is trying to sign him, and the Astros should match their offer.  If Maya’s agent is smart, the Astros are a perfect fit.   Texas’ massive Spanish-speaking population will make the transition easier, but more importantly, for a 28-year old pitcher, Houston can offer Maya a major league opportunity when he is ready.  For the Astros, there is little downside considering the team will not reach the playoffs anyway, and Maya is a player with upside at a reasonable price.  Therefore, if the Astros can sign Maya to a four-year deal at around $5 million, it is a great deal.  

     It is unlikely Maya will ever be an Astro because signing Maya epitomizes the move the Astros have avoided since the departure of Gerry Hunsicker.  Despite the poor start (which is half due to facing great pitchers), the Astros’ long-term outlook is better now than the previous season because the team is finally starting to make a commitment to rebuild the farm system.  We now have at least three prospects (Lyles, Castro, and Mier) capable of being productive major leaguers, and hopefully, this trend will continue.   It will be telling how much the Astros spend on their multiple first-rounders in June, and especially, whether they are willing to spend on Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole, or Matthew Purke in 2011.   Nevertheless, in addition to upgrading the farm system through the draft, Cuba provides a great market to pickup some value prospects which would help rebuild the team.