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The Cuba News Could Be Awesome For Major League Baseball

The Cuba News Could Be Awesome For Major League Baseball

Posted by Juan Gavasa on December 17, 2014

After months of secret talks, the United States will look to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba after cutting ties back in 1961 following the rise of Fidel Castro’s Communist government.

This is huge news that affects millions of people’s daily lives, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t note that these new relations will have a significant impact on Major League Baseball, which derives a ton of talent from smuggled Cuban ball players like Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes.

For decades, Cuban baseball players who wanted to compete at the highest level (and to make the kind of money that American athletes make) had to defect from their home land, often in the hands of black market smugglers. Puig’s story in particular is particularly harrowing, though much of the horror comes from the fact that we know his story at all.

There are likely countless examples of Cuban people — families, children, young men looking to escape the regime — whose stories we’ll never know, in some cases because they aren’t famous athletes and in some cases because they never made it.

Puig, after five failed escape attempts from Cuba’s state-run sports system that paid him $17 a month, finally made it off the island, only to be held hostage in a dingy motel, kidnapped, extorted and possibly linked to the killing of a man who threatened his future earnings.

This was all essentially a product of (non-existent) U.S.-Cuban relations. Going forward, expect the flow of Cuban baseball players (and all humans, thankfully) to be more open and free. Not without a price, of course.

Dodgers' Yasiel Puig rounds the bases during a game. Getty Images.

COMING TO AMERICA

There are several ways that foreign players can come to the United States and play baseball. In the Dominican Republic, where MLB teams have invested millions in baseball academies to groom and educate future prospects, it’s easy to recruit, sign and bring over talented players that are identified at a young age.

This is part of the reason why there are more Dominican-born players than any other national group in the MLB (there were 83 Dominicans on MLB rosters this year). Most of these players go into the international player pool, a share of which is allocated to every MLB team and varies depending on the team’s record the previous year.

On one hand, the foreign academies created by MLB teams provide Dominicans — and Venezuelans, and Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans — avenues of opportunity for players from poverty-stricken countries. But these systems have led to underdevelopment in the home nations themselves.

The dream of almost every Dominican is to play in America. They don’t want to stick around and be a hometown hero. There is also little compensation for the countries themselves, which see their best and brightest taken away just when they reach their peak.

In Japan, a posting system is used, where MLB teams have to pay the player’s current Japanese team for the right to negotiate and sign him. This system prevents teams from losing the players they’ve developed for no compensation to teams that can afford to pay them monstrously high salaries, like the Yankees and Red Sox; it also provides little advantage to the player himself, since he’s essentially sold to the highest bidder.

For example, the Red Sox ended up paying the Seibu Lions $51.1 million for Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006 (Matsuzaka himself got a $52 million deal). While that outrageous sum ended up backfiring for Boston — Dice-K never lived up to the hype — it was a financial coup for the Lions. Although the system has been altered to prevent crazy-high blind bids, Japan still takes home money for its products.

WHERE WILL CUBA FALL?

Expect Cuba to try to institute a posting system similar to Japan’s, rather than becoming another outpost for foreign development that MLB teams can raid whenever they want. This will allow Cuba to maintain control of their players as well as funnel money back into its economy.

Going forward, Cuban players won’t have to risk their lives to become MLB superstars, but they also won’t be able to sign lucrative free-agent contracts like Puig’s $42 million deal. That means the MLB-ready Cuban players who defected or otherwise left the country in recent months might be the last to cash in big-time: Jose Abreu signed for $68 million deal last winter, Yasmany Tomas got $68.5 million, Rusney Castillo $72.5 million.

Cuba received nothing for these players (though whether they deserved to is another story). Because Cuba has been unable to stem the tide of defectors, and because the U.S. embargo prevents players from paying taxes on the money they earn in the majors, Cuba has been losing millions of dollars as well as their ability to compete on the international level — a quarter of their 2013 World Baseball Classic team have stopped playing, with most having left the country.

Recent reforms allowing players to go abroad to places like Mexico or Japan (see below) still pale in comparison to the kind of glory and wealth players can get by reaching the U.S. In many ways, the baseball pipeline is a crucial component of this new deal between the nations.

Cuba's Yasmany Tomas reacts after hitting an RBI single against the Netherlands in the eighth inning at the World Baseball Classic (WBC) second round game in Tokyo March 11, 2013.

WHICH PROSPECTS WILL TEST THESE NEW DIPLOMATIC WATERS?

There are a number of Cuban prospects that are either still in Cuba or have left the country with the nation’s knowledge and permission. Because diplomatic relations with the U.S. are still new, we shouldn’t expect a rush of Cuban talent to flood the MLB — but the next few players to attempt to make an MLB career for themselves will be interesting test cases for the Cuban talent going forward.

Yoan Moncada: 19 years old, has already left the country with Cuba’s permission, though his political status is unclear. He’s a “6-foot, 210-pound switch-hitting infielder who’s the best teenager to leave Cuba since Jorge Soler, a player with exciting tools and dominance of the Cuban junior leagues on par with what Yasiel Puig did at the same age.” He’s been named a free agent by the MLB and is being targeted by the Yankees, Braves, Red Sox and Cubs. Moncada might become the highest-paid amateur in league history, but teams will have to spend part of their share of the league’s international bonus pool to do so.

Jose Fernandez: 26 years old, currently “missing” but still believed to be in Cuba. At “5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Fernandez has excellent plate discipline and bat control from the left side, hitting .326/.482/.456 with 65 walks and 10 strikeouts in 314 plate appearances during the 2013-14 season.”

Alfredo Despaigne: 27 years old, currently playing in Mexico with permission from the Cuban government, but with dual Dominican citizenship. He’s a “corner outfielder with tremendous power and multiple Serie Nacional MVP awards on his resume… hitting .333/.377/.611 with five home runs in 18 games for Campeche.”

Yulieski Gourriel: 30 years old, plays third base in Japan but has been viewed as a possible MLB prospect for nearly a decade. His play has declined in recent years, but despite his close connections with the Cuban government, there’s a possibility he considers signing with a U.S. team after his one-year contract with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars is finished.

Frederich Cepeda: 34 years old, also potentially over the hill and currently playing in Japan — he was, however, cleanup hitter for Cuba in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

Norge Ruiz: 20 years old, a pitcher who won Rookie of the Year in Cuba’s Serie Nacional and a gold medal in the 2014 Central American and Caribbean Games despite reportedly not impressing scouts. He’s young and throws hard, though.

For a long time, Cuban players have occupied a strange, in-between mystery zone that occasionally falls outside of the international player pools depending on age, career and amateur status. Expect things to become more regulated, safer and open now that diplomatic ties have been re-established.

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