Friday, February 19, 2016

The Cuban Fearsome Foursome: Lazarito, Morejon, Ona, Gurriel Jr.

Cuba has long been a pipeline for major league talent, starting from the days of Orlando Hernandez to Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Abreu. While teams are intrigued by professional members of the Serie Nacional, Cuba's top pro league, such as Yulieski Gurriel and Luis Yander La O, four young Cubans, all July 2 prospects, have some of the highest upsides out of any free agents on the market today.

Any international player who is under the age of 23 or has less than 5 years of experience in a foreign league are subject to the international bonus pool, which means teams are only allowed to spend a certain amount on a young player, as to avoid the complications of making 16 year olds too rich, too quick. These are called July 2 prospects, where each team is allowed to spend a certain amount of money each year after July 2, and exceeding these limits will face penalties. The four prospects covered in this article all fall under this category, and like many young players scouts love to dream on, the sky is the limit for each of them.

Lazaro Armenteros, OF (16 years old)
Given the one-named moniker "Lazarito", Armenteros has been hyped as a Cuban Bryce Harper, a 16 year old baseball prodigy who has great physical tools and a can't miss prospect in the big leagues. While there was much anticipation for his first workout, scouts came away with mixed feelings about Armenteros. He is very built, at 6'2'' 205 lbs, and with good foot speed as well, a 65 grade run tool. According to various sources, some scouts were very impressed with his arm yet some felt it was "fringy-average". Some scouts loved the power and bat speed yet some were concerned with his swing and bat path. Some scouts loved the muscular body size yet others were concerned with him filling out several years down the road. Yet he doesn't have much of a track record in Cuba either, except for the tournament in the video; he did not play on the 12U team that competed in Taiwan that starred Adrian Morejon, covered below, and fellow defectee Jonatan Machado. He was a relative unknown until his recent boom and media coverage. While Baseball America notes that he is one of the top prospects in his age group in Cuba, which is obvious, there is not much info on Armenteros at all, save for his .462 batting average at the above tournament. His swing looks choppy, with a weird stride and load, and if he really is "the Cuban Bryce Harper", I would a expect a lot more than what he does in the video against inferior baseball teams, where the outfielders ran terrible routes to his fly balls, and he seemed slightly overmatched in his swing against Venezuela, Chinese Taipei, and even Panama. He is a polarizing prospect, with some scouts, including a Japanese team willing to offer him $15 million to play in the NPB right now, loving his tools, to some seeing an underwhelming yet athletic body. While he is just 16 and there is plenty of time to iron out the kinks, someone will eventually bite the bullet and pay a premium price for what seems to be just an athletic, raw kid who oozes potential but has problems to fix.

Adrian Morejon, LHP (16 years old) (video)
Unlike Armenteros, Morejon is a known commodity to scouts. Named the Tournament MVP in the same tournament Armenteros starred in, Morejon has pitched in the 15U league, 15U national team, 18U league, Sub-23 league (development for players under 23), and even six starts as a 16 year old in the Serie Nacional against players 10-20 years older. The first exposure to scouts was in the 12U tournament held in 2011 in Taiwan, which I got to watch on a summer trip. He stood out from all the competition, not because of his size (he was pretty small back then, but is around 6 feet tall now) or velocity, but because of his advanced pitchability that was head and shoulders above all the other 12 year olds. I remember the way he mixed his pitches to near perfection, and I remember thinking, what a shame he is Cuban, he could be a sure-fire major leaguer if he was American. Sure enough, he has defected, and major league teams are chasing hard after Morejon, especially the Padres, who are rumored to be the favorites to sign him and Jorge Ona. Morejon throws a fastball in the high-80's, low 90's, capable of reaching 94, and he is just 16 with room to grow. His curveball has great depth, and his feel for it is well beyond his years. His arm action and mechanics are very clean and repeatable, which should help maintain his health and development of all his pitches. Expect him to gain velocity throughout the years, and while it may be an irrational prospect crush, I think that given time Adrian Morejon will become one of the top pitchers in all of baseball.

Jorge Ona, OF (19 years old)
Ona is favored to sign with the Padres with Morejon, and if he does, San Diego should have a powerful 5-tool outfielder on their hands. The 19 year old has power to all fields as well as a compact swing and cannon of an arm in right field. He was ranked by Baseball America as the #6 prospect in all of Cuba, even though he is so young and barely has any experience in the Serie Nacional. His swing is balanced, without any extra movements or quirky twitches like Armenteros, and in the video above it seems that he taps into his power more often. He is facing weaker competition (Ecuador, Guatemala), but Ona does exactly what you are supposed to do against weaker pitching: wait, sit on the right pitch, and drive it. At 19 years old, he is a bit better developed, so I wouldn't be surprised to see him start in A-ball once he comes stateside, and with his advanced hitting approach, quick swing and plus power, it wouldn't be surprising to see him climb quickly through a farm system.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr., UTIL (22 years old)
The oldest and most experienced of the bunch, Gurriel Jr. is the younger brother and defected with Cuban star Yulieski Gurriel, who will certainly sign a big major league contract. Lourdes, however, is just 22 and will be subject to bonus pool rules unless he waits until October to sign, when he turns 23, but by then he'd miss an entire season of development. Gurriel has an explosive swing, one that could eventually produce a .270/.330/.450 line in the majors. He has power to all fields, has progressed with the bat year by year, and shows a bit of patience as well. He is a fluid athlete with good speed, and he should be able to handle shortstop in the major leagues, although some scouts doubt it due to his size. He also has experience at every position other than pitcher and catcher, so an athlete who can play each position well and hit at the level Gurriel Jr. is capable of is quite rare. Throw in the fact the Lourdes can steal some bags as well, he is as close to being a complete package as any player in baseball. While the Ben Zobrist comparison gets thrown out to any utility guy who can hit/draw walks, Gurriel could provide defensive and offensive value that surpass what Zobrist could do in his prime. With his professional experience and age, especially if he waits until after his 23rd birthday to sign, expect Gurriel to initiate a huge bidding war, but for right now, like many other prospects, he is just a projectable dream of the future.

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