Luis Robert is clear to sign with a Major League Baseball team tomorrow, and multiple reports say there are only two such clubs who are going to be willing and/or able to pony up.
One is the White Sox. The other is the Cardinals. And both are uniquely qualified to want to see this through to the end.
We’ve known why the White Sox should seal the deal: They’re just starting a rebuild, they could use a top prospect who can also play the outfield, they have proven to be a successful landing spot for Cubans, and the last chance to throw tens of millions at an international player comes coincides with a reduction of the payroll up top. Beyond the simple circumstances of the timetable warranting the $40+ million investment, Robert is the kind of player the White Sox would hope to acquire in a Jose Quintana trade, so it reduces the pressure to trade Quintana as soon as possible, or for top talent only of certain positions.
But the Cardinals have their own reasons to engage in a staring contest with the Sox. They’ve already blown out their international budget, so they can pursue Robert as no additional penalty beyond the usual luxury tax. Moreover, they’re short three draft picks — one because they signed Dexter Fowler, and two because their scouting director hacked into the Astros’ database. Their draft pool ($2,176,000) is miniature, which means they have resources freed up to pursue a player who profiles as a top-10 pick just the same.
With one team motivated by unprecedented punishments, and another team in unprecedented territory for a teenager, the reporters haven’t been able to identify a clear favorite. Here’s Baseball America’s Ben Badler:
The Cardinals have money to spend, a strong motivation to spend due to their circumstances and have demonstrated high-level interest within the organization to try to sign Robert. [...]
The White Sox are clearly in a rebuild, adding Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, among others, in offseason trades. Signing Robert would fit with the organization’s plan, and as a player who’s ready for an assignment to a low or high Class A team based on his present ability, he would help the major league team much faster to expedite that rebuild than any 16-year-old from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela they might sign the next two years.
The general sense -- or vibe, if you will -- of the game is that the White Sox are in the lead. The Cardinals believe they have a shot, and you can also tell how interested they are in how silent they've become about their actions, their interests, their intent to offer. They remain in contact with Robert's folks, at my last check. It was in the chat last week, that it was revealed how Cardinals GM John Mozeliak was taking a more active part in the scouting/negotiating for Robert, and that he had flown down to the Dominican Republic quietly to see Luis Robert in person.
Robert is the last elite talent available to sign under the rules of the old collective-bargaining agreement – ones that allowed teams to spend whatever they please on international talent, so long as they pay a dollar-for-dollar penalty on it and accept spending restrictions on international amateurs for the next two years. It’s why the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers aren’t in the running for Robert: None can offer more than $300,000 for an individual player.
Instead, the favorites are the White Sox and Cardinals, and two sources familiar with the talks have said Robert already has chosen a team and is expected to sign soon after he is eligible Saturday. The price could be exorbitant. When teams were asked to submit their first bids for Robert on May 8, the suggested floor was $20 million, according to three sources with teams that placed bids.
While the White Sox are in uncharted territory for a 19-year-old who will likely be in A-ball at the season’s end, it does bring to mind their successful pursuit of Jose Abreu. The Sox laid out a franchise-record commitment to a player who had doubters, but they could absorb the risk because they believed in the talent, he fit a hole in the depth chart perfectly, he was the right age for the window, and it was the most effective way for them to spend the money. The same applies to Robert. All you have to do is tweak the levels.
Given that the Robert signing is a zero-sum game, and given that prospects are prone to fail, it’s tough to figure out the appropriate level of disappointment should the Sox fail to land him. One of these teams is going to miss out on Robert, and the White Sox can make a good argument for doing all they could, at least in isolation. Maybe money won’t even be the issue, although I’m guessing he’ll sign with the highest bidder the way most players do.
Robert just so happens to also represent the last chance for the Sox to blow out their international budget before that loophole closes. Considering the Sox are in the minority of teams who stayed between the lines, and considering they have not been successful in doing so, you’d have to call that a missed opportunity. That’s why the stakes surrounding Robert feel higher than they should be for one player who is years away from the majors. Any overreaction can be reallocated to apply to the greater international strategy, and the disappointment will more or less balance out. Hopefully such a measure won’t be needed.