On Saturday, I joined upwards of 20 scouts gathered behind the plate at Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey to watch RHP Norge Carlos Vera throw live against 12 batters. The 19-year-old Cuban was originally on the list of players who would have been eligible to sign with a major league club on July 2 before the Trump administration reversed the Obama-era United States-Cuba détente.
Vera’s father, Norge Luis Vera, is a former Cuban National Series star who pitched for Santiago de Cuba. He was a member of three Cuban Olympic teams, winning two silver medals (2000 in Sydney and 2008 in Beijing) and a gold medal (2004 in Athens) and holds the all-time Cuban National Series record for postseason wins, with 32. He also got the win in an exhibition game against the Orioles on May 3, 1999 at Camden Yards, going seven innings in a contest that also featured José Contreras pitching for Cuba.
The younger Vera debuted in the Cuban National Series – Cuba’s highest level of professional baseball – as a freshly-turned 18-year-old in August 2018, throwing seven scoreless innings against Granma, a team that had a cumulative wOBA of .372 heading into the outing. He was the second youngest member of the 2019 Cuban National Team that came to the northeast part of the United States to play against independent Can-Am League teams this summer. He defected while in New Jersey in late June or early July, shortly after striking out seven New Jersey Jackals hitters in four innings.
Kiley spoke with an international scout that was one of a relatively few at that start and Vera was 91-94, hitting 96 or 97 mph depending on the gun, mixing four average or better pitches for a starter look. He has since been training in northern New Jersey with former minor league pitcher Doug Cinnella.
Vera was listed at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds during his appearances in the Can-Am League and might be slightly taller, with some saying he’s as tall at 6-foot-4. He’s lean and long-limbed, with broad shoulders and a lanky lower half. It is a plus frame for a teenager, one that oozes physical projection and projects to be able to put on weight as he matures. He has a simple delivery that is fairly slow-paced and while he occasionally alters the rhythm and height of his leg kick, he maintains solid direction throughout.
He has an exaggerated, long arm stroke from hand break to release, really driving the ball down low behind his back. It isn’t a stab, à la Ubaldo Jiménez, but is also not as rhythmic as someone like Clay Buchholz, who also displays a long arm stroke. Pitchers with such an arm action can occasionally have trouble repeating their release point, but most teenagers also do not throw as easily and with as little effort as Vera displayed on Saturday afternoon. At times it seemed as though he was holding back given how easy the operation was, but the stuff that came out of the hand was good and sustained throughout his outing.
Vera faced a total of 12 hitters split into three separate “innings” (it was determined in advance that he would face four hitters each inning no matter what). He touched 94 and worked with a 90-93 mph fastball, with average life through the zone. It is an average pitch now and projects to be a 55 as he grows into physical maturity.
Vera showed three offspeed pitches – a cutter, a changeup, and a slider. The cutter was a short breaker that worked in the upper 80s. He showed good feel for it and while it is not likely to miss many bats long-term, it could work consistently at average. The changeup was the most intriguing offspeed pitch he showed, but was also the most inconsistent. When right, it flashed 55 with good fade and sink. He had below average feel for it and occasionally slowed his arm down when throwing it. I’m not too concerned about the pitch’s development given his age and physical projection, but he will need to continue to have reps with it in order to refine it to be a 55 long-term. The slider was the furthest away from being a “now” pitch, sometimes showing true slider movement but also getting slurvy at times. At its best, it was a longer version of the cutter and worked in the low 80s. It has a chance to also get to average long-term, but will need to be harder and shaped better more consistently.
Vera turns 20 next year and is a little more than a month younger than Jack Leiter, a high school right-handed prospect who was drafted by the Yankees in 2019 before enrolling at Vanderbilt. I saw Leiter this spring and projected him to be worthy of a late first round or compensation round selection. Vera and Leiter are quite different types of prospects – Leiter had more present impact stuff, showing a lively mid-90s fastball and a plus 12-to-6 curveball, while Vera has a much more projectable body and more ease to his delivery. As a result, Leiter is someone I would project to have a more probable chance at major league impact, while Vera likely has more upside but might be farther away from making that impact. Vera’s four pitch mix, starter-esque delivery, projection, and lineage all play into his favor and make him an attractive commodity for clubs, many of whom had international scouting directors and special assistants in town to watch Saturday’s outing.
As it relates to comparable draft positioning, based on this outing Vera would likely fall just behind the aforementioned Leiter – someone who projects to be drafted somewhere in the second round, a sentiment echoed by evaluators at this showcase. Judging from the reviews of his outing in late June, that outing had him closer to Leiter (35th in FanGraphs’ 2019 draft rankings) than this showcase, which would put him closer to Carter Stewart (56th before he pulled out of the draft to sign in Japan) or Jack Kochanowicz (80th). (Here are the 2019 draft slots, to compare a draft position to a bonus amount.)
All this would imply that Vera might be due to receive a signing bonus somewhere between $1.5 million and $2.5 million. July 2-eligible prospects, of course, are not the same as American and Canadian amateur players selected in the draft. Given that Vera is old enough to sign at any time, teams with a lot of money left could reasonably see him as the prize worthy of making their top priority. We don’t have perfectly up-to-date bonus pool totals, but sources indicate the teams with the top remaining pools include the Phillies (rumored to be closely following Taiwanese RHP Po-Yu Chen as well), Astros (who have a long recent track record of Cuban signings including Yuli Gurriel, Cionel Pérez, Rogelio Armenteros, and who traded for Yordan Alvarez shortly after the Dodgers signed him), Orioles (who are still looking for a headline international signing after passing on Yolbert Sanchez last winter), Brewers, Cardinals, Nationals, Rockies, and Indians. Or he could wait to sign until July 2, 2020, should another club offer him a substantial amount more than the aforementioned teams, which would puts other orgs, like the Rangers, into play.
Because a bidding war is possible, there is a chance Vera receives $2.5 million, or slightly more, from a team that buys into the projection and pitches shown on Saturday. When he signs, he’ll likely fit in the 40+ FV or low 45 FV prospect range on THE BOARD, with No. 3 or 4 starter upside, the unquestioned top pitcher in the 2019 who may also be the best in the 2020 class if he chooses to wait until then.
Josh Herzenberg has served as an area scout and a minor league coach for the Dodgers. He can be found on Twitter @JoshHerzenberg.