The Tampa Bay Rays are considered one of the best player development outfits in the game, while also being one of the sharpest sabermetrically-informed organizations. Nobody does better at acknowledging that there are lots of ways to skin a cat when it comes to acquiring and assessing talent.
So let’s look at their latest gambit: Signing Cuba's Leslie Anderson, a 28-year-old who defected last fall after starring in his home country for the Camaguey Potters and playing for both the national team and in the World Baseball Classic.
Although he's hit for some power in his home country and played center field as well as first base, Kevin Goldstein says in his scouting report: "He's stocky, muscular, but more of a pure hitter than a pure slugger; average power at best, but he knows how to get a bat on a ball, and unlike most Cubans has a definitely sense of the strike zone. Good athlete, profiles best in a corner."
But what does it mean in terms of projecting and evaluating Anderson? It isn't like he's expected to be knocking around in the minors. This kind of move is more like the White Sox' decision to sign Alexei Ramirez, and less like the Angels signing Cuban youngster Kendry Morales or the White Sox getting Dayan Viciedo.
So let’s do what the Rays have done. Let’s look at Anderson from both a scouting and metrics angle. Baseball Prospectus' head statistician, Clay Davenport, has been translating Cuban performances for years, and these projections said positive things about the Angels' decision to sign Morales in 2005 and the White Sox' signing of Ramirez in 2008.
Anderson’s Cuban league data ends with the 2008-09 season because of the timing of his defection. (The league -- named the Cuban National Series -- starts in November and runs for 90 games through February.) Let's look at both his actual stats and Clay's translations of his performance:
Born March 30, 1982; Age: 28; Bats: Left; Height: 6-1; Weight: 185
As Clay notes, "That's quite the smackdown, and he's not young enough to expect he'll improve on those." Naturally, that brings any projection of his performance down several pegs.
Dropping Anderson's track record into PECOTA also spits out an unexciting projection for this season: .231/.302/.357, with a .223 True Average. That doesn't seem like Kendry Morales -- it's more like Andy Morales, the Cuban third-base prospect who signed with the Yankees to some acclaim and great disappointment a decade ago. Like Andy, Anderson's already a mature ballplayer, so it isn't like there's a ton of growth potential.
However, the talent distribution is uneven in Cuba, and a 90-game schedule makes for smaller samples. What if we give Anderson the benefit of the doubt and, say, run with PECOTA's 90th-percentile projection for Anderson? Pump him up with a best-case scenario, and his projection comes up to .263/.338/.463, with a True Average of .267 -- still not great for a first baseman or corner outfielder or a DH. But in this best of all projected outcomes, it's certainly playable, especially if the alternatives are Pat Burrell or Hank Blalock, both injury risks.
In the end, Anderson is an interesting exploratory investment. But just don’t expect him to go nuts at the plate.
Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus.