-- When Yasmany Tomas turned 24 on Nov. 14, he expressed a birthday wish to play center field in a "real ballgame" rather than another scripted audition for big league clubs. The Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics obliged by letting him take part in a game in the Dominican Instructional League, and Tomas celebrated by banging out a pair of hits and legging out a triple with Royals general manager Dayton Moore among the folks in attendance.
"It would have been a stand-up double for most," Tomas' agent, Jay Alou, said in a recent text message. "He hustled that one out!"
Tomas plays the game with passion, but he also learned the value of patience during an extended courtship with Major League Baseball. After hitting moon shots and chasing down fly balls in private workouts for a variety of clubs, he agreed to a reported six-year, $68.5 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday.
Tomas hit .289 with a .538 slugging percentage and 15 home runs in 81 games during the 2012-2013 Serie Nacional season before raising his profile with Team Cuba at the 2013 World Baseball Classic. He defected in June, and now, he's the latest in a wave of Cuban hitting talent that is awash in expectations and, increasingly, bigger piles of money.
In 2014, a year after Yasiel Puig burst on the scene in Los Angeles and Yoenis Cespedes crashed the Home Run Derby at Citi Field in New York, Jose Abreu hit 36 home runs and slugged .581 to win the American League Rookie of the Year award in a unanimous vote. In 2015, it will be Rusney Castillo's turn to show he's worth the seven-year, $72.5 million deal the Boston Red Sox gave him in August. Soon enough, Jorge Soler will try to graduate to a starring role at Wrigley Field with the Chicago Cubs.
In addition to the Diamondbacks, the Padres, Giants, Phillies and Braves all expressed varying degrees of interest in Tomas, who parlayed two prominent baseball trends -- a game-wide power shortage and a growing affinity for Cuban players -- into a life-changing event.
It's understandable why Arizona and other MLB teams were willing to take the risk. Even the most advanced college hitters generally need a couple of years to mature in the minor leagues, and elite big league sluggers can't be signed as free agents without the signing team surrendering draft-pick compensation. Nelson Cruz, who just hit 40 home runs on a one-year, $8 million deal with Baltimore, found out a year ago how the burden of that compensation can hinder a player's market.
What kind of player is Arizona getting in Tomas? Any scouting report on him features the word "power," with a wide array of adjectives in front of it.
Big power, prolific power, all-fields power and, occasionally, jaw-dropping power. To one NL scout, Tomas' power is readily apparent in his vise grip of a greeting.
"He can bury your hands with a handshake," the scout said.
With young prospects such as Tomas, historical comparisons are inevitable. At this stage of the assimilation process, Tomas' most prominent comps are based on his build rather than his skill set or Cuban heritage. At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, he reminds some evaluators of Phillies outfielder Marlon Byrd, a 13-year-veteran with a similarly stocky physique. One NL executive mentioned Justin Upton, and a veteran scout sees some similarities with Kevin Mitchell, who won a National League MVP award in San Francisco in 1989 and hit 234 homers and slugged .520 over 13 big league seasons.
Cuban players can be difficult to scout because of limited access and questionable competition, and the getting-acquainted process extends to the cultural barriers that players encounter in the transition from a regimented society to life in America, with its many temptations. So far, from what scouts have gleaned in interviews and background research on Tomas, he appears to be closer to Abreu than Puig on the diva spectrum.
"He's a humble kid," a National League scout said. "He respects the game, he has knowledge of the game and he listens. He's not a guy with all the answers. He looks you in the eye and gives you a firm handshake, and you can tell he has a good baseball IQ and the desire to be better. He passed my makeup test."
It remains to be seen if Tomas will live up to the Diamondbacks' sizable investment in him, but three big league scouts who've seen Tomas in international competition and/or private workouts provided some insights on the package he brings to the table.
Scout No. 1:
"He's a strong human being. If he was a kid in the States, he would be a fullback in the NFL. He's a thick lower-half guy, but that's where his strength comes from. Nowadays, without the false vitamins, those are the guys who are going to hit for power. He can go [to] all fields and hit the ball out of any ballpark.
"I think he's probably an average defender. I've seen him play right and a little center, and I think he could play right. His arm is playable there. He's not a burner, but he's definitely not a base-clogger. He's not a guy I would want to see coming at me trying to break up a double play.
"In Cuba and international competition, you see a lot of pitchers with off-speed stuff. You don't really see a lot of velocity, so that's something he'll have to deal with. But he has good balance at the plate. He keeps his hands back and loads them on time; and when he commits, the barrel goes to the ball with a lot of strength. I can see him being a .270-280 hitter with 25 to 30 bombs."
Scout No. 2:
"It's huge power. He's a big, strong body guy, and he can shrink a field pretty easily. When he hits the ball, it stays hit. But he's a different kind of guy than Abreu. He's not going to bring that same advanced idea of how to hit. You're banking on power right now. People are hoping this guy will hit a bunch of home runs, and obviously, that's a niche in the big leagues that has kind of gone away over the last couple of years.
"When I saw him recently, his body looked better than it did 12 to 18 months ago. He's gotten himself in good shape. But it's a thick body, and you kind of wonder, 'Is he going to be like a Marlon Byrd and be able to sustain that body type over an extended period and not suffer?' That's an X factor you need to decipher as a team. Is he going to have the makeup and the drive to keep that body in shape with all the millions he'll get? He's not like Soler or Puig, where he looks like a Greek god out there. He's tricky."
Scout No. 3:
"He's not going to be Jose Abreu in his first year. Abreu was 27 years old. This guy will play at 24. Being that he's young and doesn't know the league, I think he'll hit .240 with 15 to 20 homers this year. Teams will get him on some breaking balls until he starts recognizing stuff. But I think he has a chance as he progresses to be a .260, 25-[home run] guy.
"For me, he's a 40-45 defender [on the 20-80 scale] with an average arm. Believe it or not, he actually runs a 6.9 to 7-flat 60-[yard dash]. He doesn't run bad, and at the end of the day, if he hits 25 home runs, his running speed will look that much better. You know how that works. Tools don't matter as long as they can hit.
"This guy is a good dude. But when he gets in the box, he's arrogant -- in a good way. When you put a bat in his hands, he knows he's the man."
Judging from the contract that Arizona gave Tomas, he has all the makings of a marquee player. But no one in the business of handing out money to international free agents is presumptuous enough to call him a "sure thing." It's going to take awhile for the Diamondbacks to find out if he's worth the investment.