Under penalty the past two years, the Cubs have taken a roundabout approach during the international free agency periods, focusing the majority of their limited resources on Mexico and other non-traditional markets like Panama and Colombia. Their signings out of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have mostly focused on polished, but lower ceiling players.
Come this July, the Cubs will be able to operate without restriction. Major League Baseball has recently announced a ban on signing additional players out of Mexico for the time being c iting incidents of fraud and corruption. One of the Cubs two biggest signings last year, RHP Florencio Serrano, was released a short time ago (or had his contract voided, it is unclear at this point). Serrano had attended a U.S. High School before moving to Mexico and signing with a club there. He thus, became eligible for last season's IFA signing period, rather than be a part of the MLB Draft. It seems reasonable that the Commissioner's Office received complaints from other teams about how the process played out. For Cubs specific details, here is a link to an article written by AZ Phil over The Cub Reporter. He is as dialed in as anyone outside the org as to how the contract situations work. As of now, there is not much information available publicly.
It is difficult to gauge what, if any, affect this will have on the Cubs plans heading into the 2018-19 signing season. The team has made numerous signings from the Mexican Leagues over the past few years, but most of their big ticket purchases from there have come during seasons where they were under signing restrictions and thus they could exploit the CBA "loophole" that allowed for only 25% of a signing bonus to a player count toward the IFA spending limit as the Mexican League teams would be allowed to keep the rest. I have not seen the Cubs linked to any top Mexican talent this signing period, but given the connections they have made there in recent seasons, I'm sure they had intentions to devote some resources there.
As to the talent the Cubs are currently linked to, the top guy appears to be Venezuelan Richard Gallardo. He is the 5th overall player, and top ranked pitcher on the the market according to MLB.com. Baseball America has him rated as the 2nd best pitcher and 6th overall.
He features a low-90s fastball with room to grow, flashes a good hard curve as well as feel for a change, and already shows a strong penchant for controlling the strike zone. Sounds exactly like the type of profile the Cubs target, not just in IFA but the draft as well.
There isn't much buzz regarding the left handed pitchers available in this class but the Cubs appear to be the front runner for one of the best, another Venezuelan, Joel Machado. MLB.com has him ranked as the top lefty and 28th overall among international prospects. Baseball America ranks him lower, as the 3rd LHp and 47th overall. Another strike thrower, Machado's velocity has begun creeping into the low-90s. Like Gallardo, he is said to have a good feel for both a curve and changeup already.
Gallardo may be the highest ranked player among the Cubs targets, but the highest bonus they give out may go to another top 30 player, Dominican center fielder Jose Lopez. A highly athletic defender with plus speed and arm strength, Lopez is not a very big kid at 5'10" 167 pounds, but has a bit of pop in his bat. His swing has a hitch that pro coaching will look to smooth out, but he still generates plenty of bat speed. It is a similar profile to D.J. Wilson from the sounds of it.
Three years ago the Cubs handed Dominican shortstop Christopher Morel an $800,000 bonus. Morel would miss the entire 2016 season after cutting himself in a household accident. He debuted in the DSL last year and after shaking off a bit of rust, showed off some impressive pop in his bat. He has skipped the AZL and debuted with the Eugene Emeralds this week. Now, his younger brother, Rafael Morel appears to be in the Cubs cross hairs as well. According to Baseball America, Rafael (ranked 46th overall) figures to command a similar bonus to his brother. While Christopher is a bit bigger and more likely to profile at 3B long term, his younger brother is a bit more athletic and more likely to remain up the middle, as an infielder or possibly CF.
I have not heard the Cubs linked to recent Cuban defector Victor Mesa. But that doesn't mean much at this point. The 21-year old is considered the top talent available but due to the timing of his defection and availability it will be interesting to see how his recruitment shakes out. First of all, it is unclear as to whether Mesa will actually be cleared to sign once July starts. His clearance could drag out until later in the summer or potentially even later. On top of that, most teams have already committed their IFA money to other prospects. It will likely require one brave team to pivot in their plans and redirect money previously committed to other players in order to sign Mesa, which could open up opportunities on any players left out in the cold.
I'm sure the Cubs will closely monitor both situations. They have shown a willingness to commit top dollars to Cuban players in the past (Jorge Soler, Gerardo Concepcion, Eddy Martinez). And Martinez was an instance where they swooped in and secured him after not being one of the presumed favorites and Martinez ended up settling for a bit less than originally projected. To make any kind of serious run at a player of Mesa's caliber, it would require the team to trade for additional IFA bonus slot money. The Cubs currently have a cap of $4,983,500, but they are allowed to acquire as much as $8,721,125 in pool money by trading for the slots (in $250K increments) from other teams. With 8 teams in a penalty season there should be pool money up for grabs if the Cubs are willing to pay the price.