MLB.com Columnist

Jesse Sanchez

Better than Cespedes? Cuban phenom wowing scouts

Teen outfielder Luis Robert has emerged as the most intriguing prospect on international market

Better than Cespedes? Cuban phenom wowing scouts

BAJOS DE HAINA, Dominican Republic -- The grass was freshly cut, the white chalk lines were neatly marked, and it was a peaceful Friday morning on the main baseball field at the Fundacion San Judas Tadeo complex, except for the barking black German Shepherd at third base and the red rooster near the mound that wouldn't stop crowing.

By 8:30 a.m., several teenage prospects from the Born to Play Baseball Academy were chatting in the batting cages and stretching near the first-base dugout made of cinder blocks and painted lime green. A few minutes later, Cuban outfielder Luis Robert walked around the corner and immediately turned an ordinary workout into an international event.

Luis Robert Moirant, 19, known in international baseball circles as Luis Robert, is a 6-foot-3, 205-pound outfielder from Cuba who was supposed to replace Houston infielder Yulieski Gurriel as the face of baseball in Cuba. But Robert defected from the island in November to pursue his Major League dream. Now, the teenager has emerged as the most intriguing and talented prospect on the international market.

"I know I had a lot of people supporting me and watching me and hoping I would be the next star, but I made a decision," Robert said in Spanish. "Gurriel made his decision, and I think it was to prove that he could play at a different level and be challenged again. I can understand that."

How good is Robert? One American League international scouting director described Robert as "the best player on the planet, and that's no exaggeration."

This is why international scouts love Robert: The teenager starred for Cuba's 16-and-under league as a 14-year-old and began playing in the 18-and-under league at 15, hitting .325 and leading the league with 21 steals his first year. He sported a .383 batting average in the league at age 16 and hit four home runs in the COPABE 18U Pan American Championship in 2014. He later was named to the all-tournament team in the 18-and-under World Cup in Japan in 2015.

Playing for Ciego de Avila in Cuba's Serie Nacional, the island's top league, Robert hit .393 with 12 home runs and 11 stolen bases last season. He was also part of the Cuban team that played against the Canadian-American League last summer. The 19-game tour included stops in Little Falls, N.J., and Pomona, N.Y.

"[Japan's] Shohei Ohtani is the best international player out there and he's a different animal because he would be the ace of a staff and he can hit," one National League international scouting director said. "But Robert is up there. He's a five-tool guy that can be in the big leagues soon. He has to be No. 2 behind Ohtani. He's that good."

He's also humble. The modest complex where Robert trains each day features a basketball court, soccer field and a playground, and is located in the middle of the De Quita Sueno neighborhood in the province of San Cristobal, about 10 miles south of Santo Domingo. Edgar Mercedes, who owns and operates the Born To Play Baseball Academy, rents the place from San Judas Tadeo, a local Catholic church.

Mercedes knows the market. He trained and helped represent Yoenis Cespedes after the outfielder defected from Cuba in 2011. He worked with former big league pitcher Yunesky Maya, who is also from Cuba, along with brothers Michael Ynoa (White Sox) and Huascar Ynoa (Twins) of the Dominican Republic. Mercedes estimates 90 prospects from his academy have signed contracts with big league teams since he started the training program in 2005. Cuban right-handed pitcher Elian Hernandez,19, who trains with Robert, is also expected to sign a lucrative deal when he becomes eligible to sign March 16.

"Luis is the top prospect I have ever worked with," Mercedes said. "Cespedes was an older player, a more mature player. He was 26. I don't know if there is anyone with Cespedes' power. It's tough to compare the two since Luis is only 19. He might not be as strong as Cespedes was at that age, but he does have very fast hands and that makes up for the strength."

Robert has established residency in Haiti, the first step to becoming a free agent, but he has not been declared a free agent and is not yet eligible to sign with a big league club. When he is cleared to sign matters.

If Robert is cleared to sign by June 15, the A's, Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Nationals, Padres and Reds, who have all exceeded their 2016-17 bonus pools, remain in the mix to sign him. However, when the international-signing period starts on July 2, those teams will join the Cubs, Dodgers and Royals in a group of teams that will not be able to sign international prospects for more than $300,000 because they are in the maximum penalty. The Angels, D-backs, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees will no longer be limited to signing players for $300,000 or less during the next signing period.

Also consider that the new Collective Bargaining Agreement means every team will get at least $4.75 million to spend on international prospects starting July 2. Any team receiving a competitive balance Round A pick in the Draft will get $5.25 million in international bonus-pool money. Additionally, teams receiving a competitive balance Round B pick will have $5.75 million to spend.

By contrast, the Padres paid $11 million to Cuban left-handed pitcher Adrian Morejon in July and have spent an estimated $70 million on international prospects during the current signing period, when the penalty tax is included.

For now, Robert waits and he works out in a peaceful environment. He goes to the gym five days a week. His showcase for all 30 teams is tentatively scheduled for the end of March, sometime after the World Baseball Classic.

"It's going to be a big day for my career, but I'm not going to let the pressure take over," he said. "I've always been in a position where I was the youngest or trying to prove myself, so this won't be different than what I have done before. I'm ready for the challenge."

Jesse Sanchez, who has been writing for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.