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Is MLB ready for Cuban baseball?

Is MLB ready for Cuban baseball?

Posted by Juan Gavasa on December 20, 2014

Even as president Obama was announcing the normalizing of U.S. relations with Cuba, American baseball executives around the country were on the phone with scouts and team personnel officials excited about a potential Latino sports bonanza.

For Major League Baseball, it appears, may soon find itself dramatically transformed with a historic infusion of Cuban ballplayers who could give new meaning in the U.S. to the phrase “Cuba Si.”

The number of Cubans on MLB rosters in 2015 could immediately double or triple the all-time high of 30 Cuban ballplayers in the majors in the 1967 season.

Last year, there were 19 Cubans on MLB teams.

An increase in their numbers next season could raise the number of foreign-born Latinos on major league teams to an all-time high, surpassing the 192 Hispanics from Latin America on 2014 Opening Day 25-man rosters and inactive lists. Those rosters include 750 active players and 103 disabled or restricted Major League players.

Those numbers do not include U.S. born Latinos such as Miami Marlins All-Star slugger Giancarlo Stanton, the Californian whose recent 13-year, $325 million deal is the largest contract in North American team sports history.

Meanwhile, it is more likely that MLB teams will continue doing business as usual with Cuban ballplayers — and making millionaires out of many of them — because the embargo will stay in effect until the new Republican-controlled Congress lifts it, since President Obama cannot do so on his own.

Major league officials are trying to stem any immediate onslaught of signings or invasion of scouts into Cubans.

Yasiel Puig #66 of the Los Angeles Dodgers looks on in the seventh inning during the Game one of Samurai Japan and MLB All Stars at Kyocera Dome Osaka on November 12, 2014 in Osaka, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

In the hours after Obama’s announcement Wednesday, MLB went so far as to send a directive to its 30 teams explaining that it remains illegal to scout players in Cuba, or to sign them, because the American embargo against Cuba remains in effect.

Of course, the reality is that teams have long ignored the embargo, which has existed since the early 1960s, as they have signed players from Cuba over the last five decades.

Still, teams are trying to get some understanding of how quickly the details of the normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba are ironed out.

Some of the richer teams are hoping it will be soon and are prepared to spend whatever it takes to sign top members of the prized Cuban national team.

Gilberto Suarez is in trouble for allegedly helping smuggle Yasiel Puig into the United States.

Two years ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed then 22-year-old Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig to a a seven-year, $42 million contract, and other teams have also been quick to move on Cuban talent.

Last year, Chicago White Sox star Jose Abreu became the latest Cuban defector to shake up baseball, having left the Communist island the previous August after playing in his final Cuban National Series for Cienfuegos and now cementing his name as one of the greatest players in Cuban history.

The White Sox signed him to a six-year deal worth $68 million – a record for Cuban ballplayers who have defected – and made Abreu the centerpiece of a Cuban influx into the team.

One of the big questions now facing MLB – and the talk that burned up phone lines after Obama’s announcement – is how new ballplayers coming out of Cuba will be signed.

Will they be free agents like Puig and Abreu who will go to the highest bidders? Will they be put into a special draft that will give small market teams a chance – but dramatically reduce the big deals that agents and players like? Or could they fall into some kind of deal similar to what MLB has with Japan and Mexico in which teams first buy the bidding rights from the team in their home country?

Major League Baseball officials said they hope to soon get some answers as to how a lifted embargo will impact baseball.

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