Outfielder Luis Robert, 19, is waiting for clearance from Major League Baseball before he can become eligible to sign. (Baseball America)

By Rob Rains

The splurge on signing international free agents this year by the Cardinals already has secured two top Cuban players who immediately moved into the organization’s list of top prospects, right-handed pitcher Johan Oviedo and outfielder Jonatan Machado.

Could a third, potentially one of the best players to leave Cuba in recent years, soon be added to that list?

Outfielder Luis Robert is waiting to be cleared by Major League Baseball to make the 19-year-old eligible to sign with a team, and there are multiple reasons why that team could be the Cardinals.

The Cardinals have a history with Robert, as do several other teams, dating back for at least four years through his appearances in international tournaments and world championships for different age groups.

Unlike some of those other teams, however, the Cardinals could be in a position to sign Robert if he gets the clearance to sign prior to June 15, the end of the current signing period.

The biggest reason is because the team already has moved well past its bonus pool for signing international players for the year – blowing by their cap of just over $2 million with the Machado signing alone. The signings of Machado, Oviedo and several other top free agents already has put the Cardinals into the highest penalty level, a dollar for dollar fine on money spent as well as a ban on signing players for more than a $300,000 bonus for each of the next two years.

Signing a player of Robert’s ability – some scouts say he compares favorably to Joan Moncado, one of the best prospects in the game – would provide a major cap to the year.

Speaking to reporters at the Cardinals Winter Warmup over the weekend, team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. acknowledged the team saw an opportunity to add top prospects this year because of the fact that several teams already were banned from signing those players because of how much money they had spent in the last couple of years.

“We felt like it was a window to exceed our cap,” DeWitt said. “We feel like we had a really good year on the international market and the year continues.

“We’ll continue to be aggressive in that marketplace. Those are investments we make for the future, ones we feel will pay off more so than other investments we might make. That’s the approach we’ve taken.”

Could that approach include signing Robert? It could depend on how much the Cardinals can, and would, spend, as well as the timing of when Robert becomes eligible to sign.

The top signing bonus given to a Cuban free agent in the current signing period has been $11 million by the Padres to left-handed pitcher Adrian Morejon, so that is probably a range that teams should expect it will cost to sign Robert. In the Cardinals’ case, however, whatever amount they give Robert would be matched by the fine – so an $11 million contract actually would cost the Cardinals $22 million.

Other teams which already have exceeded their bonus pool for this year, perhaps making them more interested in Robert as well, include the Astros, Athletics, Braves, Nationals, Padres and Reds. The White Sox also have been mentioned as a possibility.

Ten teams are currently prohibited from signing players for more than $300,000, including the Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Royals, so they would be out of the running to land Robert.

For the Cardinals to even think about signing Robert, however, he would have to be cleared and sign before the current period ends on June 15. There has been no indication from MLB on when it expects to clear Robert – some players are cleared in a couple of months, but for some the process takes longer than a year.

Assuming he is cleared, and the Cardinals decide they want to spend that kind of money, the question becomes is Roberts that good of a prospect? Most scouts say yes.

Robert is a 6-foot-3, 185 pound right-handed hitter who likely will add weight as he gets a couple of years older. Teams project him as a centerfielder, but with the potential of also moving into a corner outfield spot in the next few years.

Playing in Cuba’s top league this year before he left the island in November, Robert hit .401 with 12 homers in 232 plate appearances. He also had 11 stolen bases. Had he reached the necessary number of plate appearances, according to Baseball America, he would have led the league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Robert always has played, and succeeded, against older competition. He was a member of Cuba’s 16 and under national team when he was 14, and at age 15 played on the 18 and under team and displayed both power and speed.

He was the youngest player on Cuba’s 18 and under World Cup team and was considered the best player on that team, In the 2015 tournament in Japan Robert hit four home runs to go with a .406 average, earning all-star honors.

Whether Robert signs with the Cardinals or not, the previous signings this year will create a change in strategy and approach on international signings for the team when the next signing period begins on July 2.

The new CBA will be in effect then and changes many of the rules for signing international free agents. Teams such as the Cardinals will get more total money to spend than they were allocated in the old system, but will be prohibited from exceeding that cap.

Because they will be prohibited from paying any player more than a $300,000 bonus, director of international operations Moises Rodriguez and his scouts will have to find players willing to sign for that amount or less.

It can be done – two of the top international prospects in the organization – outfielder Magneuris Sierra and pitcher Sandy Alcantara – both signed for less than that amount.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains