SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic—Luis Robert has more stamps on his passport than the typical 19-year-old.
The Cuban outfielder’s baseball talent has taken him to Taiwan, Mexico, Japan, Canada, the United States and now the Dominican Republic, where he’s training as he waits for Major League Baseball to clear him to sign.
Robert has submitted all his paperwork to the commissioner’s office already. Based on the timetable of when that happened and the recent pace of MLB clearing Cuban players, it seems likely that Robert will be able to sign before the 2016-17 international signing period closes on June 15.
For Robert, that timing is critical. Once this signing period closes, the new era of international hard caps begin, with teams getting $4.75 million to $5.75 million each to spend.
Before then, teams are still free to spend past their bonus pools. Most of the teams with the best chance to sign Robert are the ones that have already exceeded their pools. The Padres and Cardinals are drawing the most attention. The Astros could be in the mix. The Braves, Reds, Nationals and Athletics are also over their bonus pools.
The team that comes up the most in discussions of where Robert might land, however, is the White Sox. The Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Royals are automatically out, since they each exceeded their pool in 2015-16 and as a penalty can’t sign anyone for more than $300,000 in either this signing period or the next one. Then most other teams are unofficially out of the mix because they have millions of dollars committed to players who will sign on July 2 in the 2017-18 signing period. If one of those clubs were to sign Robert before June 15 and blow past its bonus pool, that team wouldn’t be able to sign anyone for more than $300,000 in 2017-18. They can’t sign Robert without those commitments evaporating. And if for some reason Robert isn’t cleared until after June 15, those teams have already tied up a huge chunk of their pool space anyway.
The White Sox, though, are different. They have been laying low for the high-priced talent in the 2017-18 signing period. If Robert is not cleared until after June 15, the White Sox would have more room than most in their bonus pool to sign him. Even if Robert is cleared during the current signing period, the White Sox might just blow through their bonus pool to sign him anyway, since it wouldn’t affect their July 2 plans.
Robert has the talent of a first-round pick if he were in the draft. After he signs, he should be ready for an assignment to a low or high Class A affiliate. He has a strong, lean frame at 6-foot-3 with broad shoulders, a wide back and quick-twitch athleticism. A righthanded hitter with excellent bat speed and a sound swing, Robert has plus power with room to continue filling out and increase that in the future.
That all translated into a big year during the most recent 2016-17 season in Cuba. When Robert left Cuba in November, he was leading Serie Nacional in both OBP and slugging, batting .401/.526/.687 in 232 plate appearances. He drew 38 walks (10 intentional) with 30 strikeouts, 12 home runs and 11 stolen bases in 17 attempts.
Robert’s production does come with some swing-and-miss tendencies. He has a habit of swinging through high fastballs and has had trouble laying off breaking balls down and away, though at times he’s shown the ability to resist those pitches. He can hammer pitches to right-center field and is at his best when he stays through the middle of the field, but he can get too pull-oriented in games.
Coming up through the Cuban junior leagues, Robert played center field. He spent most of his Serie Nacional time in the corners, but he has the tools to start out in center field and possibly stick there depending how he develops physically, though he would be an above-average defender if he did go to a corner.
Robert’s excellent 2016-17 Serie Nacional season is in line with his history of playing—and dominating—against older competition. He was one of the best hitters in Cuba’s national 16U league in 2012, when he was 14. He played in front of scouts that summer in Mexico in the 15U World Cup. The next year he moved up to Cuba’s 18U league and was one of the top performers there as a 15-year-old, then did it again in 2014 as a 16-year-old and played in Mexico again for the COPABE 18U Pan American Championship, where his outfield teammates included Yusniel Diaz (Dodgers, $15.5 million), Jorge Oña (Padres, $7 million) and Victor Mesa, the top young player in Cuba. He even played in Cuba’s top league, Serie Nacional, competing against players a decade or two older than him.
“It was a very big change,” Robert said in Spanish. “When I got to Serie Nacional, I was only 16 years old. It was very difficult to try to earn a spot at that young of an age, but they gave me an opportunity and I adapted quickly to the level of play.”
When Robert made his third appearance on Cuba’s 18U national team at the 18U World Cup in 2015 in Japan, he was by far the best player on the team.
“It’s a lot harder than the Mexican tournament because it’s a higher quality of baseball,” Robert said. “But also, in a short tournament like that, the jet lag is really tough. We were there the first couple of days and we were on the field falling asleep because it’s like a total turnover. When it was nighttime in our bodies, we were playing a game. It’s very hard to show up and perform well, but thank God that I did. The quality of baseball was higher and I really had to fight the jet lag the first couple of days, but I did a good job.”
Last summer, Robert traveled to the U.S. and Canada with a team that Cuba brought to the independent Can-Am League.
“When I went to the Can-Am League and played there, I saw a lot better pitching,” Robert said. “The quality of the pitching was better. I did well there and I took that confidence back to Cuba. It was pretty easy from then on.”
We don’t think of the Can-Am League as high-level competition, but it’s a step up from what Robert faced in Cuba, where pitchers regularly throw fastballs in the mid-to-upper 80s in a league that has become watered down with hundreds of players leaving the country the last few years. Unlike most of those players, Robert was able to get a feel for the United States before he decided to leave Cuba to pursue a contract with a major league club.
“I felt good,” Robert said. “I know those countries are more developed than Cuba is, but what I really liked was the competition was a lot better. I had never seen such good pitchers. I was excited about that.”
For now, Robert is training daily in the Dominican Republic, preparing for his first open showcase, which could happen at some point this month, and waiting for MLB to give him the green light to sign.
Ben Badler, Baseball America
March 1, 2017