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The risk and reward of the Miami Marlins and Yaisel Sierra

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The Marlins are considering pursuing Cuban free agent right-hander Yaisel Sierra, who has never shown great numbers down in Cuba. The risk and reward for this type of move is fairly high.

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The Miami Marlins are considering Yaisel Sierra as a potential option for the roster. The 25-year-old Cuban free agent was last seen pitching in 2014, when he was not very impressive in the Cuban Serie Nacional league. Sierra posted an ugly 6.10 ERA primarily out of the bullpen, and he walked a whopping 10.5 percent of hitters faced with just an 18 percent strikeout rate to match. The numbers have never been all that impressive for Sierra, even if the stuff has always been there. He boasts a good slider along with a low- to mid-90's fastball that sits 91-93 mph regularly.

The scouting reports sound promising for Sierra, who Ben Badler of Baseball America ranked as the 14th-best player in Cuba during a 2014 review, and in April of 2015, he repeated that likely ranking. Badler thinks that Sierra has two good pitches, but has never shown great numbers and has especially struggled with control and pitchability. Combine those things with the fact that the 25-year-old was advanced for his age in his final two seasons in Cuba and still struggling with similar problems that he had early in his career and you can see why there is some skepticism about Sierra's long term future in the bigs.

Nevertheless, the Marlins are interested in him, and thus the price becomes even more important. Sierra is expected to surpass Raisel Iglseias's deal with the Cincinnati Reds, which was for seven years and $27 million. Essentially, Iglesias signed a contract that took him through a fair number of team-controlled years and paid him like a good Super Two qualifying pitcher. The advantage of being a free agent helped Iglesias earn a strong contract compared to what another 25-year-old rookie would have gotten going through the minors. Sierra is expected to beat that and perhaps surpass the $32 million total that Aroldis Chapman once received from Cincinnati.

These numbers are important, because if the contracts are ultimately similar, Miami will have to think long and hard about the risks involved in purchasing a pretty raw talent who has never had statistical dominance in what is essentially High-A baseball. Recall that at least one recent Cuban import, first baseman Jose Abreu, was a dominant hitter, but was questioned as to whether his dominance was real being that it was in High-A baseball. The same was said about Yoenis Cespedes, but he too posted good numbers. Those guys were position players at less risk.

However, the pitchers who have come from Cuba have had big question marks around them. Chapman had significantly better numbers, but he always had issues with control down in Cuba; as a 20-year-old, he put up a 4.03 ERA and a 12 percent walk rate to go with a 25 percent strikeout rate in his final year in Cuba. Raisel Iglesias may be an even better comparison, as his struggles were very similar to Sierra's. In his final year in Cuba, he was good at 22 years of age, but his prior two seasons showed an ugly 14 percent walk rate.

Both of those guys spent a year trying to defect and acquire a visa, and when they returned to baseball, they were stellar. Chapman worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen, so his success differed from Iglesias, but once again, Iglesias proves to be a strong comparison. Now at 25 years old, he threw 29 decent Triple-A innings before being promoted to the big leagues and excelling. The righty struck out 26.3 percent of batters faced, put up a very respectable 7.1 percent walk rate, and posted a great year worth one to 1.5 wins for the Reds.

For the Marlins, that would be the ideal for Sierra. Iglesias has similar stuff, with a low- to mid-90's fastball, wipeout slider, and questionable developing third pitch. He also pitches out several arm slots, which is something Sierra does as well. Both pitchers had their share of struggles with control in Cuba. But Iglesisas came up big, and the upside is there for a similar boon in Sierra. The question is, as always, whether the Marlins are willing to pay for upside.

Let's presume a seven-year, $35 million contract for a guy like Sierra, which would surpass totals for both Iglesias and Chapman. The Marlins are paying just $5 million a season at that point, which means they are not expecting a win every season from Sierra. If Sierra busts, the Marlins are on the hook for all that money, but in the long term, the sum is not much. Sierra could carve out a niche as a middle reliever, and he would be overpaid for a ho-hum middle man, but it would not be a disaster. However, the upside is that the Marlins get someone like Iglesias, who could be a two- to three-win starter perennially for the Reds under team control well into his prime. Someone like that has huge value for a team that is as cash-strapped as the Fish are, and would provide a bolus of wins on the cheap.

The Marlins in the past have been reluctant to go for this type of move. They pursued Chapman, Cespedes, and Abreu but were priced out of their markets, yet each guy ended up being worth more than his contract paid him. Iglesias is going to be provide huge surplus value for years. All of these players were risky, and not all Cuban players pan out (see Alex Guerrero), but risk and upside are exactly what the Marlins need. The team is stacked with low-upside pitchers in its farm system. It is in great need of potential, and a guy with good stuff and questionable control like Sierra is exactly the type of pitcher they could use. This is the team's chance to essentially buy a prospect, and while they take on a modicum of risk that Sierra never develops into a third or fourth starter, it would not hurt Miami that badly to try and find out.