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September 6, 2004

Breaking Balls

Buying an Import

by Derek Zumsteg

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There's a new Cuban defector available for your team to sink millions into: Kendry Morales. He's been given citizenship in the Dominican Republic though he actually made it to Miami, where he was granted asylum. This way, he's a free agent once MLB clears him.

Morales is described as "a 21-year-old switch-hitting outfielder and first-baseman." He hit well for the Havana Industrialists (.324, 21 home runs). (Why does Cuba, one the few countries claiming to be a worker's paradise, have a team named after capitalists directly opposed to the interests of wage-laborers?) He then briefly played for the national team before being thrown out of baseball entirely. The Cubans suspected him of thinking of defecting, and wishing to leave for another country is a dream of the oppressed proletariat that demands punishment in Cuba.

David Valdes, Morales' attorney, told the New York Post that about 20 teams had expressed interest in his client, of which 15 might make serious offers. There's so little information on Morales that it would be foolish to guess at his future performance. Whoever gets him should beware the winner's curse, which has been particularly nasty for teams acquiring Cuban players.

A stroll through the list of Cuban defectors offers little hope. Osvaldo Fernandez got $3.2 million from the Giants and didn't perform well. Danys Baez signed a four-year, $14.5 million deal with the Indians in 1999 and was so disappointing the Indians tried to find a loophole in the CBA to get out of his contract even though they knew it would mean lawyers and pain for everyone. Adrian Hernandez got $4 million and amounted to little.

There are a host of Cuban players who were paid less and achieved little. Vladimir Nunez got $1.7 million from the Diamondbacks and was a PTBNL thrown into the Matt Mantei trade to the Marlins (with whom he pitched decently). At the same time the Diamondbacks put $1.3 million into Larry Rodriguez, who hasn't reached the majors yet, and won't. We could go on: Ariel Prieto, Rene Arocha, Juan Diaz, Michel Hernandez--all players thought to be future stars, subject of much hype, who haven't worked out.

Not all Cuban defectors have been total disappointments:

  • Rolando Arrojo defected and was signed by the Devil Rays for $7 million. He had a good season his first year in 1998 at 29, going 14-12 with a 3.56 ERA and 152 strikeouts, making the AL All-Star team. That was the limit of his contribution to the team that signed him. He did turn in a decent year pitching for the Red Sox in relief a couple years later.

  • Orlando Hernandez signed a $6.6 million deal with the Yankees in 1998 and was one of the few acquisitions worth the money, even if he turned out to be a couple years older than he claimed. Like Arrojo, his best year was 1998, when he was outstanding: 12-4, 3.13 ERA, 131 strikeouts, 52 walks, 11 home runs allowed. But El Duque's greatest achievements came in the postseason, where facing the best teams in 12 postseason series he was 10-2 with a 2.51 ERA in 97 innings, racking up 95 strikeouts and 46 free passes. Right now, he's the Yankees' most effective starter, and will again be part of their playoff rotation.

  • Livan Hernandez got a four-year, $4.5-million deal in 1996 from the Marlins and was certainly worth that, pitching well for a championship team in 1997 and evolving into a innings-eating workhorse.

It's too soon to make a judgment about Jose Contreras, who signed a $32-million deal with the Yankees. He would have to be pretty spectacular for the rest of his contract to make it a good one.

Nearly every Cuban player signs a contract that assumes they'll perform as well as they possibly can, which makes it extremely hard for them to outperform it. As Gary Huckabay wrote, in a case like this there is almost no chance that a team will get a bargain, because if you believe that he's a good risk at one million, there only needs to be one team that believes he's a good risk at two million for you to shrug and look for the next guy.

We're seeing a similar situation evolve with Japanese players. Hideo Nomo dominated while pitching for the Kintetsu Buffaloes in the Japanese Pacific League, and signed with the Dodgers in early 1995. They got him for a paltry $2 million signing bonus, and Nomo rocked out that first year; even considering he was pitching his home games in Dodger Stadium, his 2.54 ERA and 236 strikeouts in 191 innings remain impressive.

Today, Japanese free agents and teams face a situation much like Cuban defectors in 1998: big-name players receive so much attention and money that they receive deals that even if they perform well--like Hideki Matsui, who has been above average--they're overpaid, and if they don't--like Kazuo Matsui who has not--they're vastly overpaid. But at the lower end of the market, the Padres can sign a less-noticed Akinori Otsuka on the cheap and get a solid player.

Strange outlier markets like these demonstrate the market dynamic that all teams face in every player transaction they make. In the draft, teams evaluate which player is the best bet for the team, and weigh hazy projections like future contribution against the chance of that contribution, and whether there is any player worth the bonus they'll pay.

While it may be disappointing if your team passes up on a high-dollar, high-profile newsmaker like Morales, your dreams of having a 21-year old switch-hitting masher in your lineup dashed, remember that it's extremely unlikely that winning these auctions is in your team's best interest. If you find them making a series of smaller, interesting purchases, that's a good sign, not a bad one.

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