One Cuban player has been cleared by the United States Treasury, perhaps not the Yoan you were looking for. While the wait on Moncada continues, Jesse Sanchez from MLB.com reports that Yoan Lopez has been cleared by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to negotiate and ultimately sign with a team in Major League Baseball. According to Sanchez's source, Lopez is expected to sign before spring training. The 21-year-old right-handed starter will come under the MLB's limitations on young-player international player spending, but is expected to attract significant interest. The team that signs him will likely have to blow well past their allotments and accept the associated penalties; steep taxes and far stricter limits on international spending in the next two signing periods.
Potential Yankees target Yoan Lopez cleared to sign
The Yankees should strongly consider this Yoan.
Lopez's calling card is his power fastball which has topped out at 100 miles-per-hour, and regularly sits in the mid-90's. Beyond the heater, he throws an impressive array of pitches. Sanchez lists a cutter, changeup, slider and curveball as Lopez's secondary pitches. It will be interesting to see if he'll maintain the full complement when pitching in the United States.
Lopez was on track towards turning in a career year in his third season in the Cuban Serie Nacional before defecting mid-season. Through seven starts and 49 innings, Lopez posted a 3.12 ERA, striking out 28 and walking 11. That strikeouts-per-nine innings rate might seem underwhelming for a pitcher with a live fastball though interestingly 5.14 K/9, while relatively pedestrian in the MLB, is actually a very strong rate relative to his fellow Cuban pitchers. Consider Yosvani Torres who turned in a season so good he won the Serie Nacional Most Valuable Player award. 88 strikeouts in 151 2/3 innings, good for a K/9 of 5.22. It's not that Torres isn't a strikeout pitcher either, at least within the confines of Cuba. Norge De La Ruiz lead the league in strikeouts with 94 in 145 2/3 innings, his K/9 rate was 5.81.
So then, Lopez did just fine striking out Cuban hitters, relative to his peers. This doesn't mean Lopez will automatically see an increase in strikeouts in the United States but it at least does suggest a different environment for strikeouts in Serie Nacional. Onto walks, where 11 in 49 innings isn't ideal; though it certainly isn't going to doom the prospect status of a 21-year old. This kid should be pitching in college, if you know, not for the whole Cuba thing. This isn't just a case of excusing the walk rate due to his age, he's already showing clear improvement here, more than halving his BB/9 rate from his rookie season. He's gone from a 19-year old flamethrower that walks five batters per-nine innings, to a 21-year old flamethrower who walks two-per-nine and is talking about the work he's been doing since his defection specifically towards improving his control. We may not know how to translate Cuban statistics into something like a minor league equivalent, let alone major league ball. What we do know is that this is a kid who is barely old enough to drink in the US, who's had to defect from Cuba and establish residence in Haiti for that drinking in the US thing to matter. Already Lopez sounds like someone who wants to grow as a pitcher, and has already shown to be making progress. What's not to love?
Of course pitching prospects are never a certainty, it's probably not prudent to spend too much time dreaming on what one could become. Still, if the Yankees like what they see enough to pay the likely eight-figure sum needed to cover the bonus and corresponding fine, it's likely that Lopez would be regarded highly within the farm hierarchy. Adding quality starting pitching to the system along with present Yankee top-10 prospects Luis Severino and Ian Clarkin increases the odds of seeing one make it up to the Bronx. Maybe even more than one, but now I'm starting to move towards that whole dreaming on pitching prospects thing.
With Lopez having already spent three seasons pitching in Serie Nacional, he might be considered refined enough to be sent to the Triple-A team in Scranton, though at his age starting out in Double-A Trenton might be more likely. Of course, the Yankees have to sign him first. Make it happen, Cashman.