Does Braves' Pursuit of Cuban SS Guerrero Make Any Sense?

Over the past 16 hours of so, we’ve had reported twice (here and here) about the Braves’ reported interest in Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero.  It’s certainly a fair question to ask about what Frank Wren might be thinking here. Heck, my own first reaction was “What?”  My second reaction, though, was “can he play second base?”

Fact #1:  Guerrero would not play SS in Atlanta.  We already have the best one in the world.
Fact #2:  Reports suggest he doesn’t really have the arm for 3B either.
Ergo:  that means second base or bust.  We’ll assume that for this discussion.

But we’ve already got a second baseman.  Yeah – I’ll get to that.

But let’s take a look at the bigger picture here:  what might motivate the Braves to pursue Guerrero.  I’ll break it down in three categories…

  • The International Market
  • Cost
  • Talent Availability

 

The International Market

Atlanta has made hay out of international scouting and player development for a number of years.  They are still heavily at work in this arena, complete with a Dominican Summer League (DSL) team.  This team plays at San Pedro de Macoris – on the southern coast; currently they are 26-38, way back in 3rd place in their division.  That roster is filled with Latin players – primarily from the Dominican Republic – aged 18-20.  Those with promise as prospects ‘graduate’ to the stateside lower minors, generally to the Gulf Coast League team in Orlando or the Danville Braves in the Sally League.

Latin player successes from the Braves’ system are pretty evident:  Martin Prado, Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Christian Bethancourt, Andruw Jones, Andrelton Simmons, Edward Salcedo – just to name a very few recent ones.

However, the world has changed.  More teams are now more involved – with their own baseball academies in Latin America.  There are now 35 DSL teams… and yes, that does mean that many clubs are sponsoring two developmental teams down there.  There are also five clubs that have formed a Venezuelan Summer League. Competition for players is getting fierce.  On top of this, Major League Baseball has instituted new rules on the bonuses that players can receive – limiting the money that can be thrown around (though I’m not real sure Cubs’ GM Theo Epstein got that memo).

Turns out that this is one of the perks for a player like Guerrero:  his age makes him exempt from the bonus restrictions now placed on International free agents… there are no caps on what a team can spend for his services.  That’s nice in that it doesn’t impact anything that a team can do for other internationals, but it also means that the competition is wide open.

Tracking the ‘quality’ of the international players is still a bit dicey.  Ben Badler of Baseball America does this job better than anyone in the media market, and he recently posted a list of the top 30 international players – and who they have signed with.  A quick summary:

  • 20 different major league clubs signed at least one of these 30
  • Atlanta did not sign any of them
  • Other teams signing none of them:  Miami, Pittsburgh, Cincy, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, San Francisco, the Dodgers, Detroit, Baltimore
  • The Cubs signed four – blowing up their spending cap in the process.  This includes both the #1 and #2 ranked players.
  • Other team with multiple signings:  Texas (3), Kansas City, Oakland, and the Mets (2 each)
  • 13 of the players are from the D.R., 12 from Venezuela, 2 from Colombia, 1 Taiwan, 1 Italy, 1 Nicaragua

Signing these players – even the ‘elite’ ones – carries a great deal of risk:  all of them are under 18 years old – many barely 16.  It will be 4-8 years before any of those investments pay off in the majors… and the odds are still that they don’t make it.

 

So What’s Different About All These Cuban Players?

The answer is pretty simple:  a lot less risk.  Most of these Cubans need little additional development time to reach the majors.  By and large, they are older – generally 23-26 – and already have quite a bit of international tournament experience under their belts by the time they escape their island nation.  By this age, their “projection” is more about position adaptability and less about what they’re likely to do in the future.  That explains the detail available in the report that Fred gave us last night.

The Braves had already showed some interest in Cuban pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, as we reported several weeks ago (and who knows? maybe the Phillies won’t sign him after all and the Braves might have another shot at him).  In times past, Atlanta also had signed Cuban escapees Yunel Escobar (via draft) and Brayan Pa (via free agent signing).  The philosophy of the Braves seems to be shifting a bit to try and find these lower risk, high upside players – or at least in looking in places (such as Curaçao) where others aren’t looking (but alas, even Curaçao isn’t a secret anymore!).

Fun Fact:  according to Wikipedia, Seventy-two baseball players from Cuba have now defected from their former country and come to the United States in the pursuit of a pro career.  That’s a staggering number – I never would have guessed that it was that many.  Only 27 of these have not made the major leagues…yet.  There are probably about 15 of these who still could – and certainly the projection on guys like Gonzalez, Guerrero, and Jose Daniel Abreu (to name three) are that they certainly will be in the majors… soon.

If you consider that maybe 90% of all signees never sniff the majors, then seeing 70-75% of a single group achieve that status is remarkable… and certainly explains the interest in any Cuban expatriate.

Cost

Let’s move on to the cost aspect.  This is going to require a bit of guesswork.  Here are the contract terms of a few recent, comparable Cuban signees:

Estimates on the value of a contract for the 26-year-old Guerrero are almost non-existent.  In July, it was reported that he had signed with the Dodgers for 7 years and $32 million.  But here we are a month later and he hasn’t signed…I guess.  That money level sounds close, but perhaps a little “light” to me.  Based on the stats, the scouting report, and the history that his countrymen are building up, I would think that something around 6 years and $36m sounds about right.  I’ll use that for the rest of this analysis.

 

Could the Braves Afford Such a Deal?

Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Yes… provided they do one thing:  find a willing trade partner for Dan Uggla this off-season (whether his eyes are fixed or not).  Let’s do the math:

  • After this year, Dan is still due $26.4 million on his 5-year deal that expires after 2015 (2 seasons remain).
  • If Atlanta found a team to take him, they would likely have to send some cash with the deal.  I will estimate $10m for the purposes of this exercise, leaving an acquiring team with $8.2m to pay him for each year.  Given Dan’s production, that’s a very reasonable arrangement.
  • Are there teams that would be interested?  Yes:  namely the Blue Jays, Rockies (maybe), Athletics, Orioles, Pirates, and Brewers… not to mention our frequent partner in such things:  Kansas City.  Other AL clubs might be interested in Uggla as their DH.
  • If the Braves were to sign Guerrero, then such a trade would not be concerned with any kind of return of prospects – this would be a pure salary dump move… clearly.

So under the terms that I’ve outlined, the actual cost of obtaining Alex Guerrero would be:

  • $36 million for six years
  • (Add) $10m sent to another team to take Uggla’s Contract
  • (Subtract) $26.4m; the rest of Uggla’s contract
  • Final Cost for six years:  $19.6m

Is that a great deal for a potential .300/.400/.550 hitter in his prime, or what?  Picture putting Robinson Cano or Chase Utley into the middle of the Braves’ lineup, and you’ll get an idea about what that means.  You also have to understand how much cash that would free up for other pressing needs – including possible contract extensions for the ‘kids’ who are making such an impact this year.  Also keep in mind that this transaction strictly involves cash – no prospects.

 

Would This Be Putting Too Many Eggs Into One Basket?

Not really.  Again, such a signing would be done with the expectation that Guerrero could step into the majors fairly quickly.  Our own report suggested a year in the minors:  I would expect that to be a shorter stint – much shorter, in fact – based on his age and the experience we’ve seen with other Cubans.  He could make the 25-man roster out of Spring.

Even if he doesn’t, Atlanta has both Philip Gosselin and Tommy La Stella ready to go.  Ready enough, by my reckoning, that I would be a little disappointed if Guerrero were to sign with the Braves since I was actually expecting La Stella to take over the position by 2015… and was campaigning for his call-up just last week.  But if Guerrero is for real, then that would be a heckuva deal for several years – one that can’t be matched by guys in our farm system – or anywhere else – for that kind of investment.

 

Talent Availability

The Braves have long been about the task of doing more with less.  Frankly, as much as we tend to complain about the performance of guys like B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, there’s a lot of talent on this team for the money spent on it.  You may not have realized it, but the current starting rotation for Atlanta is making under $5 million – and over half of that ($2.6m) is taken up by Kris Medlen alone.

But you look around the league at the available second base talent, and there’s a lot that gets your attention – in a frightening way:

  • None of the “really good” 2B guys are actually available… um, unless you want to spend $200m on Cano
  • About 120 players in baseball will exceed 2.0 fWAR performance this year.  Only 14 are second basemen.
  • Uggla will barely break 1.0 WAR this year… and his value is with the bat, not the glove.
  • As much as I like La Stella, he could project to maybe a 2.0 WAR level (Marco Scutaro).  Maybe Ben Zobrist at peak (3.0), given his OBP.  Note that such numbers would give the Braves a chance to trade him for some other position of need, perhaps.

Alexander Guerrero provides an opportunity for somebody to pick up a low risk, elite-caliber second baseman – one that projects favorably to 4.0+ WAR for six years for roughly the cost of a single year of Cano.  Even if he ‘flops’, he’s probably no worse than a 2.0 player, which still would place him in the top half for that position in baseball.  In this day and age, even those reduced performance numbers make great economic sense.

So… yeah:  it makes perfect sense.  We’ll likely see what happens with all that in the next week or so.

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