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International Free Agent Profile: Yoan López

How interested should the Mets be in Yoan López, a young Cuban pitcher with an exciting fastball?

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In roughly mid-December 2013, Yoan López Leyva and his father defected from Cuba, fleeing to San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic—one baseball haven to another. López, a 21-year-old right-handed pitcher, was born on La Isla de la Juventud, the large island south of Havana from which Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan drew inspiration. The youngster made his debut during the 51st Serie Nacional, tossing 79 innings of semi-effectual ball for manager Armando Johnson. Though his stuff showed potential, López had difficulty with his control, walking 46 batters—15 more than he struck out during the competition. Still, his manager rewarded him with another shot, and López was a bit more effective during the 52nd Serie Nacional. In 18 starts and just over 100 innings of work, the right-hander posted a 3.61 ERA and a 4.40 FIP, both down from the previous year's numbers. López once again walked more batters than he struck out, but the K rate at least trended in the right direction.

During the 53rd Serie Nacional, López appeared to be on the right track. Though only twenty years old, he had two years of experience under his belt, and was a more mature pitcher than he had been in previous years. He made seven starts during the competition, posting a 3.12 ERA and 3.51 FIP. For the first time in his career, López struck out more batters than he walked, with 22 strikeouts to just 11 walks. Though he looked to be on the way to a breakout year, his season ended early and suddenly. For once, we can say that a player’s season ended early because of good (relatively speaking) reasons: he was able to leave Cuba to pursue his career and his dreams elsewhere.

López has already established residency in Haiti and has been declared a free agent by Major League Baseball. He has yet to be cleared by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, meaning that he has yet to be granted an unblocking license, which makes it legal for MLB teams to sign him.

2011-2012 (51st SNdB) 18 19/14 79.0 4.33 4.82 31 46
2012-2013 (52nd SNdB) 19 21/18 104.0 3.61 4.40 58 63
2013-2014 (53rd SNdB) 20 7/7 47.0 3.12 3.51 22 11

López has a well-developed arsenal of pitches, as is the norm for most Cuban pitchers, who often rely on deception and a robust assortment of offerings to make up for a general lack of an overpowering fastball. Where the 6 foot 4 inch, 190 pound right-hander stands out, however, is the fact that he actually does possess a strong fastball. It generally sits in the low-to-mid-90s, but tops out in the mid-to-high-90s, and has even been clocked as high as 100 mph during workouts. In addition, he throws a cutter, a changeup, a curveball, and a slider. Hurting his effectiveness is the fact that he has yet to show the ability to control his pitches. In each of his first two seasons playing in La Serie Nacional, López posted BB/9 rates of over five per nine. In his abbreviated third season, he cut that rate down to two per nine in 49 innings of work. Since defecting, López has made it a point to work on his mechanics during workouts. "I have given priority to strengthening my muscles and to my pitching mechanics, to improve and have more control," he told Crono Deportes Online in a March 2014 interview.

Because López is only 21 and has less than five years of experience playing in a professional league, he is subject to the international signing guidelines presented in the MLB/MLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement. The Mets began the 2014-2015 signing period with a bonus pool of $2,697,800, the 10th-highest sum assigned to MLB teams. At this point, the Mets have spent roughly $2 million on a handful of rookies—infielders Kenny Hernandez ($1 million), Yoel Romero ($300,000), and Edgardo Fermin ($250,000), outfielder Tulio Garcia ($175,000), and pitchers Daniel Guzman ($140,000) and Jhoander Chourio ($130,000)—and have made numerous lesser signings, where no specific dollar amount has been mentioned. As such, the team has roughly $700,000 left in their 2014-2015 pool and will be penalized for every dollar spent afterward.

If the Mets are interested in signing López, it is all but guaranteed that they will have to surpass their allotted international bonus pool value and will be subject to the penalties. If the pool is exceeded by zero to five percent, the team will have to pay a 100 percent tax on the overage. If the pool is exceeded by five to 10 percent, the team will have to pay a 100 percent tax on the overage and will be prohibited from signing a player for more than $500,000 during the 2015-2016 signing period. If the pool is exceeded by 10 to 15 percent, the team will have to pay a 100 percent tax on the overage and will be prohibited from signing a player for more than $300,000 during the 2015-2016 signing period. And if the pool is exceeded by 10 to 15 percent, the team will have to pay a 100 percent tax on the overage and will be prohibited from signing a player for more than $300,000 during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 signing periods.

As per MLB reporter Jesse Sanchez, the Yankees, Padres, Giants, and Diamondbacks have all expressed strong interest in the young right-hander. For what it's worth, López himself has expressed interest in playing for the Red Sox, Yankees, Astros, Brewers, Rangers, Twins, and Nationals.

While the numbers are not particularly impressive on the surface, it is important to note López's age. As a 20-year-old, he already accrued three years of experience pitching in a bona fide professional league (although Cuban authorities prefer to consider La Serie Nacional an amateur league), facing some of the best players in the world. By comparison, the average 20-year-old baseball player in the United States would either be playing college ball or in the lower rungs of the minor leagues. Like any other player his age, López is a work in progress, and his potential is probably more important than the results that he has already produced.

Lopez held a workout in the Dominican Republic in mid-November, along with a handful of fellow Cuban defectors. As he drums up interest in his baseball skills, López will likely showcase himself many more times before ultimately getting signed by an MLB club.