Cuba and Major League Baseball have what we'll simply refer to as an "interesting" relationship.
There is no official pipeline between Cuba and the big leagues, as the best Cuban ballplayers technically aren't allowed to go play ball in the States. MLB gets some of the country's best players anyway, of course. All thanks to...Well, we'll refer to them as "interesting" means.
Yet the times are a'changin'. There's still no direct pipeline from Cuba to the States that allows the best players to come right over. But there's something in place now that can be fairly characterized as a stepping stone. One that could have a significant impact on MLB.
It's old news by now, but word came through from the Associated Press in late September that Cuba had decided to allow its athletes to sign contracts to play in foreign leagues, a complete 180 from longstanding policies against sports as professional pursuits.
The decision, obviously, applies to baseball players. Here's how the AP highlighted the basic idea:
The measure promises to increase the amount of money baseball players and others are able to earn, and seems geared toward stemming a continuing wave of defections by athletes who are lured abroad by the possibility of lucrative contracts, sapping talent from national squads.
Naturally, there's a benefit for the Cuban government as well: It will collect taxes on earnings from foreign clubs.
That, however, is one of two key reasons why Cuba's decision hasn't opened up a pipeline to the big leagues. This is a case where MLB is essentially barred from counting as a "foreign league."
That Cuban ballplayers will have to pay taxes on foreign salaries isn't going to fly with MLB salaries. Because of some things that happened a few decades back, the American government doesn't like the idea of money going from U.S. soil to Cuba, and has laws in place to largely prevent it from happening. Just because Cuba has a new policy doesn't mean Uncle Sam has to follow suit.
Another complication is the fact that the new policy prohibits Cuban ballplayers from severing ties with their native country. Part of the agreement is that ballplayers will still be required to fulfill playing commitments in Cuba.
That means being available for international tournaments and the Cuban National Series, and the latter's season runs from November to April. The latter end of that window overlaps with spring training and the early days of the regular season in Major League Baseball.
“If what the Cuban government wants is for [players] to come to the U.S. and make millions and go back to Cuba, that is not going to work,” Roberto González Echevarría, a Yale professor who's written a book on the history of baseball in Cuba told The New York Times.
Now, maybe there's a version of the future in which Cuban ballplayers are allowed to come to the States without breaking through any red tape. But that would likely have to involve Cuba disregarding its current requirement that ballplayers fulfill obligations at home, as well as the American government deciding it's OK with major league salaries being taxed by the Cuban government.
I doubt that the first thing can happen without the second thing happening first, and that's a recipe for a stalemate.
However, there are good reasons why we're bothering to have a conversation about how Cuba's decision could impact Major League Baseball. At the least, the new policy promises to change the way Cuban ballplayers are scouted.
Put simply: It means Cuban ballplayers actually can be scouted now.
As Ben Badler of Baseball America explained:
While many Cuban games are televised and teams are able to obtain video of those telecasts, for major league scouts, their first-person evaluations of Cuban players typically come only during international tournaments. If Cuba’s top players were to be allowed to play in the Mexican League, even though major league teams wouldn’t suddenly be able to sign them, it would dramatically alter the way teams are able to evaluate Cuban talent.
It's not just the Mexican League that could soon be featuring star Cuban ballplayers, mind you. Japan and South Korea could get in on the action as well, and those are two more countries that allow for easier access for MLB scouts.
And make no mistake: A more complete picture of Cuban players via increased scouting could be huge.
Let's consider Yasiel Puig as an example. When he signed his seven-year, $42 million deal last summer, Badler noted that the league was stunned at how the Los Angeles Dodgers could so willingly throw money at a player about whom so little was known:
The question around baseball is how the Dodgers could justify awarding such a lavish contract to a player who scouts considered more of a solid than a spectacular prospect. Puig hasn't played in a year, and aside from a light series of workouts last weekend that were more notable for a circus atmosphere than anything else, he hasn't been seen (legally) by American scouts since June 2011.
Just think of how things would have been if Puig had actually been playing ball in a foreign league. All 30 teams in MLB could have dispatched scouts to check out a player who A) was in game shape rather than full-year-off shape and B) playing live baseball against decent competition rather than just taking batting practice and working out.
Maybe Puig's extreme talent and potential would have stood out more, in which case there would have been a multitude of teams in on the secret. More teams could have found themselves coveting Puig.
It could have happened with him. It's a good bet something of the sort will be happening with other players.
And considering how talented Cuban ballplayers—i.e. Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Puig and, most recently, Alex Guerrero and Jose Abreu—are already being signed for millions and millions of dollars, the notion of them being more widely coveted makes it easier to imagine even bigger dollar signs.
Of course, there's the matter of how clubs coveting Cuban ballplayers actually translates to them sliding contracts across the table and subsequently welcoming them aboard. How is Cuba's new policy going to make it easier for Cuban players to play in a league that's still basically off-limits?
Well, it's been extraordinarily difficult for Cuban ballplayers to defect in the past. But now that they're free to go play in Mexico or wherever else for a good portion of the year, the very act of defecting is conceivably going to be a lot easier.
Yes, Cuban players plying their trade in foreign leagues will be making decent salaries. But they won't be making major league salaries. Nor will they be putting their talent up against the best competition. The appeal of these things is bound to still be strong enough to lure players into defecting.
“If I were a Cuban player and I had the option of earning a good salary overseas and then coming back and playing here, that’s what I would do,” said Sigfredo Barros, a Cuban baseball writer, to The New York Times. However, he then he acknowledged: "But others may think differently."
Even if the defections do ramp up, understand that we're not talking about an outright flood of Cuban ballplayers coming to the major leagues. But there could certainly be a steadier stream of Cuban talent than there is now, and even that could have an impact.
After all, the writing is now on the wall in big, bold letters that Cuban talent is legit talent.
Consider the Cuban defectors who have made it to the major leagues just within the last four years (via Wikipedia):
Chapman and Jose Fernandez are highlighted because they've both been All-Stars. The former is one of the most electric closers in the league, and the latter is a finalist for the National League Cy Young and Rookie of the Year for 2013.
Puig, of course, is also a finalist for the NL Rookie of the Year. Jose Iglesias is a finalist for AL Rookie of the Year. Cespedes finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2012, and won the Home Run Derby this year.
Elsewhere, Leonys Martin compiled a higher UZR and more Defensive Runs Saved than Jacoby Ellsbury in 2013, according to FanGraphs. Dayan Viciedo struggled in 2013, but he did hit 25 home runs in 2012. Adeiny Hechaverria started 148 games for the Miami Marlins this year.
So out of the 13 players listed above, seven are either stars or solid players with everyday roles in MLB. Not a bad success rate for a four-year sample.
Worth mentioning are Yunel Escobar and Alexei Ramirez, who are both above-average shortstops, and Kendrys Morales, a power-hitting first baseman/designated hitter who should do well in free agency this winter. All three have debuted since 2006.
Which, for the record, is something of an important year in the history of Cuban defectors and MLB. A total of 45 Cuban defectors have made it to the major leagues. Of those, 23 made it between 1960 and 2005. The other 22 have all come since 2006.
Meanwhile, the league is awaiting the arrival of more marquee Cuban talent. Alex Guerrero and Jose Abreu are good bets to slide right into major league roles, a la Cespedes in 2012. Jorge Soler, a mere 21-year-old, is a top prospect who will soon be a fixture in the outfield of the Chicago Cubs.
It's not entirely accidental that so many Cuban players are gravitating towards the big leagues. The New York Times pointed out in August that there are good reasons for it beyond just the money:
Other factors have led to the increase in defections, including continued economic hardship in Cuba and relaxed travel regulations. The visibility of the success of the Cubans in the major leagues has been helped by improved Internet access across Cuba. Cuban players know they can thrive in the majors.
If there is a fluke at play here, maybe it's in the sudden abundance of MLB-caliber ballplayers popping up in Cuba. Maybe this is just one of those things; random flare-up of natural baseball talent in the Cuban gene pool that won't last.
Then there's the alternative, though, which is that this is no fluke at all. Maybe Cuba is just the next modest Caribbean island with a knack for producing star ballplayers, a la the Dominican Republic.
If it is, then what's been going on in recent years is merely Major League Baseball scraping the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If Cuba's decision to allow its players to play in foreign leagues impacts scouting like it should and makes it easier for players to defect like it could, then MLB may be about to see the rest of the iceberg come to the surface.
Maybe there will be a pipeline from Cuba straight to Major League Baseball with no strings attached one day. But by the time that day comes, MLB may already be teeming with Cuban talent.
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