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Luis Robert was 16 years old when he started playing against the big boys of Cuban baseball—just a kid when he debuted in the island’s top league. He was fast and strong, and before long he had major league teams ready to pounce, just as soon as they could.
“The best prospect in Cuba right now,” said Yuli Gurriel, the Houston Astros first baseman who left Cuba in early 2016.
Robert would be the best prospect in Cuba, that is, if only he were still there. He followed Gurriel and other Cuban baseball stars out the door last November, and he’s a free agent now, eligible to sign with a major league organization as soon as Saturday.
Right now, Luis Robert is one of the best prospects in the entire world.
He’s 19 years old and as super-talented as ever, and while there’s still no guarantee he makes it (as with any prospect), the possibilities are enough to excite anyone fortunate enough to see him play.
“It’s no slam dunk,” said one National League scout who has followed Robert’s career closely and saw him again in the last few weeks. “But he’s about as freakish a physical package as you’ll see.”
He’s like Yasiel Puig, Gurriel said, but with better ability to play center field. He’s like Adam Jones or Mike Cameron, scouts said, except with a bigger, stronger body at a young age. He’s Jorge Soler but with better speed and a lesser arm.
Robert played all three outfield positions for his team in Cuba, but scouts think he would have a chance as a center fielder here. His power translated to 12 home runs in 232 plate appearances before he left his Cuban team at midseason in search of major league riches. The speed hasn’t yet translated to big stolen-base numbers, but it could.
He’s 6’2″ or 6’3″ and weighs somewhere around 175 pounds. He was clocked at 6.2 seconds in a 60-yard dash at an open workout for major league scouts last month, although some of those scouts were skeptical about the distance measured.
“Still, call it 6.4,” the NL scout said. “He’s a 70 runner [on a 20-80 scouting scale].”
Oh, and not that it matters for the scouting report, but his name is pronounced ROB-ert, as in the English first name Robert.
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Robert grades out at a 70 for raw power, the same scout said, and while his arm isn’t at that level, the power/speed combination would be enough to make him a top draft pick if he grew up where he had to go through that process.
He didn’t, so he’s a free agent, and one who hits the market at just about the best possible time. New stringent bonus limitations go into effect when the next international signing period opens July 2, so teams willing to spend big internationally have less reason to hold back.
Could he get $15 million? $20 million? More than that? No one really knows.
We do know there’s big interest, just based on the number of teams that set up private workouts and the high-level executives who were said to attend. Based on various reports, general managers from the Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland Athletics all scouted Robert in person in the Dominican Republic in recent weeks.
Baseball America‘s Ben Badler tweeted a video, of Robert’s March 31 open workout:
Ben Badler @BenBadler
Cuban OF Luis Robert taking BP at his showcase in the Dominican Republic this morning: https://t.co/y6iV4OTao4 https://t.co/DHxpm6ev0A
3/30/2017, 3:53:30 PM
Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com, who follows the international market as closely as anyone, listed the White Sox, Cardinals, Reds, Houston Astros and San Diego Padres as the teams most likely to sign Robert, with the A’s as a darkhorse.
You can rule out quite a few teams, including both Los Angeles franchises, the Chicago Cubs, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, because under MLB rules their previous international signings prevent them from making a realistic bid, as Sanchez explained.
The market still figures to be robust. Scouts have been waiting for Robert for years, as far back as the summer of 2015.
“Everyone figured he would be the next big Cuban payday,” said an American League scout who watched Robert play for Cuba in the 18U Baseball World Cup in Osaka, Japan (where he hit .406 with a 1.332 OPS).
“Very athletic, very toolsy and skilled,” the scout remembered. “Stood out easily as the best player in the tournament.”
Robert was already playing in the Serie Nacional, Cuba’s top domestic league, where he debuted for Ciego de Avila during the 2013-14 season, at age 16. Major league scouts aren’t generally allowed at games in Cuba, but Robert also played for his country at international tournaments and in the independent CanAm League, where Cuba fielded a team for a limited schedule of 20 games.
The problem in all of those competitions is that Robert has never seen the top-level pitching he’ll face after he signs. He showed a tendency to chase pitches last summer in Canada, where he struck out 15 times in 71 plate appearances.
He’s almost certain to need time in the minor leagues, perhaps a year or two but maybe as many as three. Even Gurriel, who thinks Robert could join him in the majors right now, agreed “it would be good for him to have some time in the minors.”
“[Yoan] Moncada was further along at a similar age and he’s still in the minor leagues, although he’s knocking on the door,” the NL scout said, referring to the 21-year-old Cuban infielder who signed with the Boston Red Sox in March 2015 and was traded to the Chicago White Sox in the Chris Sale deal over the winter. “[Robert] will have growing pains, similar to Soler or Puig.”
First, though, Robert has to find a team. That shouldn’t take long. He’s done plenty of workouts, and there’s at least an artificial deadline, because he has to sign before the new international signing rules go into effect in July.
He’ll be on his way by then, perhaps to becoming the next big Cuban-developed star. No matter what, he should be worth watching.
In that way, at least, he is the next Yasiel Puig.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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