By Eric Longenhagen
MLB teams don't get many chances to simply open the franchise's wallet in pursuit of young talent. The draconian bonus pools of the draft and international spending caps make it extraordinarily difficult for teams to funnel assets toward amateur talent acquisition in a way that gives them a discernible advantage over other clubs.
One area where teams can simply throw money at young talent is in the international free agent market. The collective bargaining agreement dictates that international players who are at least 23 years old and have played three or more seasons professionally in a foreign league (like Cuba's Serie Nacional or Japan's NPB) are not subject to the international spending pools. This is part of why we've seen deals for players who fit into this criteria, like Masahiro Tanaka and Yasiel Puig, skyrocket into previously uncharted financial territory over the past few years. Draft spending is capped, the Latino teenager market is capped and the trend of signing newly-minted big leaguers to long term extensions makes teams reluctant to trade young, cost-controlled assets. So, if a team wants to acquire young, near-big-league-ready players, they have to look to Japan and Cuba for men who fit the "23 and 3" rule.
Never missing a chance to save a buck, Major League Baseball is all set to change the "23 and 3" rule on July 2, when this year's international spending period begins, to require five years of pro play before pool immunity instead of three. This will either force players from Japan or Cuba to enter American ball at a more advanced age (after five years in foreign pro ball instead of three) or enter as participants in the bonus pool process. Both circumstances will result in a drop in prospective income for these players.
Enter newly christened free agent 23-year-old Cuban pitcher Raisel Iglesias, who has three years of pro ball under his belt, but not five, and every incentive to sign before the July 2 rule change comes into effect. If Iglesias, who was declared a free agent earlier this month, didn't get a deal done before July 2 he would either have had to spend two more years in Cuba or have his earning potential severely diminished by pool restriction. On Friday, the Cincinnati Reds announced they had signed the Cuban righty to a seven-year, $27-million deal that will last through the 2020 season.
From a scouting perspective, the 5-foot-11, 165-pound Iglesias is interesting but not the type of impact talent we've seen coming out of Cuba in recent years. He will run the fastball up to 96 mph but has displayed a fluctuation in velocity in the past, pitching anywhere from 86 to 95 over the last year out of the bullpen. Iglesias had been throwing toward the upper end of that spectrum during his recent workouts in Haiti, the country to which he defected. He can achieve plus velocity, thanks to lightning quick arm acceleration that also provides some deception to his pitches. He'll supplement the fastball with a slider in the 78-81 mph range, a pitch that plays above average thanks to that aforementioned deception. Iglesias will add and subtract to the breaking ball to vary the velocity and vertical depth of the pitch. He does this enough that the Reds consider it a separate pitch, a curveball that falls in the low to mid 70s. He's also begun working on a changeup.
It's an interesting if unspectacular repertoire, as only the fastball and breaking ball(s) have real major league gusto right now, but Iglesias is a good enough athlete that you can imagine him refining the deeper aspects of his arsenal if you squint hard enough. That would likely take some time. He'll have to use that athleticism to throw more strikes, as his delivery is noisy and difficult to repeat despite how loose and limber he is. His control suffers as a result.
Iglesias' small frame, shallow current repertoire, below average control and relatively advanced age for someone looking to develop that control and at least a better changeup means he is screaming to be fast tracked to the bullpen in the majors. A plus fastball and above average breaking ball that play up thanks to deception would look mighty nice setting up Aroldis Chapman. Iglesias' control issues wouldn't be as much of an issue out of the 'pen, the Reds would get a quicker return on their investment as they wouldn't be waiting for Iglesias to develop the changeup and better control in the minors for a few years and the deceptiveness in his delivery would be a more of an asset in short relief bursts where hitters don't have multiple times through the lineup to adjust to and neutralize Iglesias' funk.
But nearly four million per year for a guy who might be a setup man seems pretty steep, and a seven-year contract for a reliever, a historically volatile commodity, is also eyebrow raising. Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty has said that the club views Iglesias as a starter. This marks yet another instance in which the Reds have deviated from strong industry opinion on whether or not a pitcher will be able to start or have to relieve. Rice's Tony Cingrani in 2011, Cal State Fullerton's Michael Lorenzen in 2013 and Virginia's Nick Howard in 2014: All college relievers, all pegged as pure relievers coming out of the draft by most scouts, all drafted early by the Reds with the plan that they'd be converted into starters. Now the Reds plan on pursuing a similar goal with Iglesias.
It's going to be fascinating to see how these arms work out for the Reds who are so violently juxtaposed to industry norms in this instance. While, in a vacuum, I don't particularly like this Iglesias contract for the Reds, it's hard for me to say it won't work out. Cincinnati's liberal definition of what sort of pitcher has the capability to start has yet to be peer reviewed -- the process is still in its infancy. Tony Cingrani has reached the majors relying heavily on his fastball and has pitched parts of three seasons for the Reds while battling injuries. Michael Lorenzen has good numbers at Double-A, though he isn't missing as many bats as someone with his kind of arm strength would typically miss. Nick Howard has yet to pitch in pro ball. How and why the Reds feel these young pitchers have what it takes to start while so few others do is still unknown. And I, for one, am keeping an open mind despite my difference in opinion on these particular players.
I think Raisel Iglesias is destined to pitch in the seventh or eighth inning of major league games. Arms like this are useful but aren't especially rare. But both the unique economical, political and developmental context in which this deal was made make Iglesias' development -- and the development of all Reds arms from here on out -- an absolute must watch.
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Eric Longenhagen hails from Catasauqua, Penn. and has been working in various baseball capacities since his freshman year of college in 2007, including work in the minor leagues, at Baseball Info Solutions and most recently scouting and writing for CrashburnAlley.com and ProspectInsider.com.