Yasiel Puig's flashy debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013 raised expectations for the Cuban hitters who would follow, but they've been tempered by some harsh realities. For every Cuban position player who earns rave reviews (see: Jose Abreu), you'll find another (such as Abreu's former teammate Dayan Viciedo) who has lost his luster, is an unknown quantity or remains a work in progress.
Abreu made a big splash for the Chicago White Sox last season with 36 homers and a unanimous AL Rookie of the Year Award, but other players are encountering bumps in the road as pitchers learn to exploit their weaknesses. Outfielder Yoenis Cespedes went from Oakland to Boston to Detroit via trade during a span of 4½ months. And Puig, while unquestionably gifted, hit just five home runs in 363 at-bats after May.
Those mixed results haven't stopped teams from throwing money at Cuba's Next Big Thing. The Boston Red Sox invested $72.5 million in center fielder Rusney Castillo last summer, and the Arizona Diamondbacks spent $68.5 million on Yasmany Tomas, a corner outfielder with a fireplug physique, right before Thanksgiving.
The latest object of everyone's desire is Yoan Moncada, a 19-year-old, switch-hitting infielder with talent, promise and a little bit of intrigue thrown in for good measure.
Unlike so many Cuban players who arrive with harrowing tales of escape from their homeland, Moncada left the island with the government's consent last year and established residency in Guatemala, where he held a mass audition for dozens of talent evaluators in November. The "open for business" sign was officially posted last week when MLB eliminated its requirement that Cuban players obtain a license from the U.S. government before becoming eligible to sign with big league clubs.
David Hastings, the Florida-based CPA who is representing Moncada, has set Feb. 23 as a tentative date for his client to sign a contract and begin his professional odyssey. About a dozen teams have held private workouts for Moncada, and the price tag is expected to surpass $30 million even though some suitors could be subject to a 100 percent tax on their expenditure under international signing guidelines.
What type of player will Moncada ultimately become -- and will he justify the hype and cash outlay required to land him? ESPN.com surveyed six MLB talent evaluators, three of whom have watched Moncada extensively in international competition over the past several years, and their critiques ranged from cautiously optimistic to downright bullish on his future.
Some things to know about Yoan Moncada:
He makes quite an impression
Moncada stood out when he played against fellow teenagers in tournaments, and he still cuts an imposing figure at 6-2, 205 pounds.
"I first saw him when he was 16, and he was so much bigger than every other kid," said a scout. "He was a monster. When he steps off the bus, everybody says, 'He's the guy.'"
He has serious skills
Moncada has shown impressive bat speed and raw power in his workouts with teams. An American League scout described him as a "pure hitter with strength and the ability to play the game," and used the word "explosive" to categorize his skill set.
"He's a younger Robinson Cano type with better speed and more positional versatility," said a National League executive. "Our people think that he would likely go 1/1 in the [first-year player] draft if it were held today, and that he has more upside than any free agent on the market. I don't know much about his overall makeup, but everything says this is a special kid -- and his numbers in youth tournaments are unbelievable."
But he's not a finished product
Moncada turns 20 in May, and the consensus among scouts is that he could probably use two years of development in the minors before he's ready to contribute as a major league regular. He hit .277 over two seasons in Cuba's Serie Nacional -- the island's top league -- and a big learning curve awaits him.
""I don't know how people can say [Moncado] is like Cano. How many hitters in the big leagues are like that? To compare him to Cano is unfair to Moncada and disrespectful to Cano.""A Latin scout about Moncada
"He's going to have to learn to hit the breaking ball," said a scout. "He'll have to learn strike-zone management and how to deal with consistent velocity. It's a long season. They don't have those long bus rides in Cuba."
In a perfect world, Moncada would begin his career in high A-ball, advance to Double-A later this season and graduate to the majors in late 2016. But even that timetable might be ambitious. The team that signs him will have to exercise some patience.
And some of those skills might not translate
Moncada has been timed at 6.6 seconds in the 60-yard dash, which earns him a "70" on the 20-80 scouting scale. But he's probably not going to pile up huge stolen base numbers. Estimates range from stealing a low of 10 a year in the big leagues to a high of 25.
"It's more up-and-down than explosive speed," said an international scout. "He gets quicker as the [60-yard dash] moves on -- not as much in the first 30 yards where base stealers need to be."
The projections vary wildly
An American League scout predicts that Moncada could bat .300 with 20-25 homers one day, while an NL evaluator sees him as a .280-to-.300 hitter who'll contribute 11 to 15 homers, 30 doubles and 25 steals a season.
Moncada is a more natural hitter from the left side, and his shortcomings from the right side could put a crimp in his numbers. One scout described his right-handed swing as "rigid" and "a little stiff." If Moncada ultimately settles in as a switch-hitting second baseman who bats .270 with 16-18 homers a year, that's more Neil Walker-type production than Robinson Cano-caliber stuff.
"I don't know how people can say he's like Cano," said a Latin scout. "How many hitters in the big leagues are like that? To compare him to Cano is unfair to Moncada and disrespectful to Cano."
He's not a shortstop
Teams have auditioned Moncada at second base, third base and short, and a few have handed him an outfielder's glove and hit him fly balls.
"If you ask him what position he prefers, he will say second base," Hastings said. "But the teams themselves are going to have to make that determination and see how he might fit into their existing structure."
Although Moncada rates a 55 arm on the 20-80 scouts' scale, one personnel man characterized his actions in the field as "choppy" rather than fluid.
"His feet aren't very good to play shortstop," said another talent evaluator.
Will he bring it every day?
The Latin scouts who've watched Moncada for several years are more cautious in their assessments than U.S.-based evaluators who have been wowed by his power and raw skills in workouts.
"There have been some inconsistencies in his play over the years," said an international scout. "We've seen him [play] real good in tournaments over the years, and we've seen him [play] real bad. We've seen [his] effort level real high, and we've seen it real low. He plays the game a little nonchalant at times. Maybe it's because he has so much God-given ability. But the effort level running down the line concerns you sometimes."
One Latin scout used the word "arrogant" in his assessment of Moncada's on-field demeanor. That adjective is puzzling to Hastings, who has seen a more humble side of Moncada during his tenure as the infielder's adviser.
"I can't imagine any scout ever saying Yoan is arrogant in any aspect of his life," Hastings said. "He's the nicest, most down-to-earth, mature 19-year-old I've ever seen.
"This kid listens to every scout who offers him a suggestion, and every single day he calls his mom and his family. I'm not talking about, 'Hi mom, bye mom.' They talk for 20-30 minutes every day. One of the first teams we talked to asked him, 'What's the most important thing in your life?' You'd think Yoan would say, 'Baseball,' because he's trying to sell himself. But he said, 'Family.'"
Sometime soon -- most likely before the end of February -- a big league team will sign Moncada and begin the process of discovering if he's worth the hype. The price of welcoming him to the family will be steep.