Plot thickens on Yoan Moncada

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The saga of Yoan Moncada "would be a great movie,'' said David Hastings, the certified public accountant from Gulfport, Florida, who watched as Boston Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington introduced his client, a switch-hitting Cuban player he called "one of the few most talented 19-year-olds in the world.''

"Most of it would be a comedy,'' Hastings said. "Comedy. Drama. Suspense.''

Hastings left out one genre for which the Moncada story is eminently qualified: Mystery.

"It's complicated,'' said Josefa Hastings, the wife of the accountant and owner of the Cuban restaurant that might serve as the "Rick's Cafe" of this story. "It's a complicated movie.''

This is a tale without an ending, of course. Still to be determined is whether Moncada, who is leading-man handsome, performs to the level of the $63 million investment the Red Sox made in an international free agent who has not played competitively since December 2013, when he left his Cuban team. That $63 million is divided between the record $31.5 million signing bonus the Sox gave him and the $31.5 million to Major League Baseball as a 100 percent overage tax for exceeding their allotment of international bonus money.

The Sox are supremely confident that a player they first began tracking back in 2010, when international scout Todd Claus first saw him in a tournament in Holland and marked him as a player to follow, has the talent to be an impact major-leaguer. When the Sox held a private workout for Moncada at JetBlue Park just before the Caribbean Series in early February, the talent evaluators who were there -- which included Cherington -- were unanimous in their belief that he was a special talent.

"Every one of our scouts was impressed with him,'' said Eddie Romero, the Sox director of international scouting who first courted Hastings, then established a comfortable personal connection with Moncada. "That was the consensus.''

But while Moncada's future in the game will unspool in full public view, no such clarity exists regarding the path Moncada took to arrive here. That is the case, of course, with so many Cuban players, like Yasiel Puig, who was smuggled out of Cuba in a scheme that has already led to one man, Gilberto Suarez, being sentenced to prison last Friday in a U.S. court in Miami for his role in the operation.

What makes Moncada's case different is that he was allowed to leave Cuba legally, for reasons no one was willing to discuss Friday. Hastings pleaded ignorance, saying he did not get involved with Moncada until after he had left the country. "I don't know anything about that process,'' he said.

Moncada, whose answers were interpreted by Romero, didn't respond to questions on the topic.

Equally mystifying is how Hastings, whose office is based in Gulfport, Florida, outside of St. Petersburg, and has never been in the baseball business, would wind up representing such a highly coveted prospect. Hastings said he was referred to Moncada by a "client," whom he would not identify.

"The client has asked me not to mention their name, so I respect their confidentiality,'' Hastings said. "Today is about Yoan's future with Boston.''

Asked if there was any reason for the secrecy, Hastings said: "No, just the privacy of the people involved.''

Back in December, a story by veteran reporter Jorge Arangure in Vice magazine first reported the possible involvement of a woman, Nicole Banks-Paulino, in assisting Moncada in his departure from Cuba. The player wound up last summer in Guatemala, where he established residency.

Banks-Paulino told Vice magazine that she previously had helped Cuban players obtain legal means of arriving in Guatemala and has processed the paperwork for players to obtain free agency.

" 'Carta de invitación' is basically that someone in Guatemala sent them tourist visas and they left Cuba with that," she told Vice in an e-mail. "The person who sent the visa was responsible for their expenses, etc. With the new Cuban immigration, any Cuban (there are exceptions) is able to get a passport and travel outside the country."

Contacted Friday by ESPNBoston.com, Banks-Paulino, who formerly worked for a California sports management agency in marketing and says she is living in California, acknowledged that she has helped other Cuban players in the past and has traveled to Cuba, but insisted she was not involved in Moncada's case.

"I had nothing to do with it,'' she said.

What makes her denial curious is that Banks-Paulino is listed as a managing partner in Baseball Divas, LLC., a Florida corporation. The other managing partner is listed as Josefa Gonzalez Hastings, the Cuban-American owner of the Habana Cafe and wife of CPA David Hastings, who is listed in records as the corporation's registered agent.

"You have to talk to David,'' Banks-Paulino said when asked about Baseball Divas.

Hastings did not respond to a text message after being informed that a reporter had contacted Banks-Paulino.

There is also a child involved. Moncada, according to a source with direct knowledge, has an infant son living in the United States.

Hastings was asked if the client who asked him to represent Moncada was related to the player.

"This is something, if I answer that question, I open myself to other questions,'' he said.

Josefa Gonzalez, who answers to "Jo," said she and her husband have become like parents to Moncada. After establishing permanent residence in Guatemala and staging a showcase in November for scouts from all 30 major-league teams (Hastings hired security guards at the event), Moncada has been living with them since coming to the United States.

"I'm like his mom,'' Jo Gonzalez said Friday. "Actually, he says I'm worse than his mom. I always tell him, 'I've got to take care of you and nothing can happen to you. That's why I'm worse than your mom.' If it happens on her watch, well, you know, but nothing can happen to him on my watch.''

Also at Moncada's news conference was the other Cuban player signed by the Red Sox, outfielder Carlos Mesa, who washed out in a previous trial with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was there with his wife and infant daughter.

Asked if Moncada's child was back in St. Petersburg, Jo Gonzalez said, "Um, I don't know. No, I don't know.''

Complicated? To be sure. The simplest part of the story may be what takes place on the baseball field.

A Sox talent evaluator who was present described the private workout the Sox held for Moncada on an unseasonably cool morning in JetBlue Park.

"It wasn't ideal for him,'' the evaluator said. "The air was heavy, like a San Francisco night, so it was probably not the best read on his raw power. But you could see the bat speed and how friggin' strong he is. I've never seen a 19-year-old that physical. He's young in the face, so that leads me to believe he is 19. But he's really strong, strong from both sides of the plate. Obviously, you can avoid the tougher angles if you're a switch hitter, which allows you to be more aggressive on that future 'hit' grade. You could see he trusted himself in the box, even though he was under significant scrutiny, with the GM there and all that.''

The Sox will see how Moncada progresses before deciding whether he will break camp on time or remain back in extended spring training. When he is assigned to an affiliate, Cherington said it probably would be the Greenville Drive, Boston's team in the low-Class A South Atlantic League. He'll play second base, his most comfortable position, to start, even though the Sox have a long-term commitment to Dustin Pedroia.

He could eventually move to third base, though the Sox have highly regarded prospects at that position in the lower minors in Rafael Devers and Michael Chavis. If Moncada starts in Greenville, Devers could be placed in high-Class A Salem. Chavis is expected to begin with the short-season Lowell Spinners.

Moncada said he would like to make it to the majors in a year's time.

"I have a lot of faith in my ability,'' he said. "It's a matter of getting in and finding my level of competition here and working very hard. Hopefully in the future, all of that will take care of itself. I am very confident in my abilities, but I know I have a ways to go.''

Scouting director Romero doesn't embrace Moncada's one-year timetable, but he doesn't run away from it, either.

"What I worry, my first concern is him just acclimating to this country, to the competition, and the fact that he hasn't played in so long,'' Romero said. "That's the only thing I'm worried about. If he wants to challenge himself to that, go for it. And I hope he achieves it.''