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Inside MLB's Cuban Pipeline: It's High-Risk, High-Reward

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Inside MLB's Cuban Pipeline: It's High-Risk, High-Reward
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Ken Williams wasn't even sure whether to get on the plane.

The Chicago White Sox liked Jose Abreu, but they also knew they weren't alone. Abreu's agents were promoting a showcase workout at the New York Yankees academy in the Dominican Republic, and basically every team in baseball was going to be there. The White Sox liked Abreu, but it was already becoming obvious that the price was going to be high.

"I told [White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf] I was very hesitant to even go down there and see him, because I wasn't sure we would be in position to afford such a luxury," Williams said.

Back and forth the conversations went, but Williams did get on that plane.

He had never seen Abreu play before. By flying to the Dominican Republic, he got a chance to watch batting practice and a couple of specially arranged games against not-so-good competition.

Batting practice and a couple of games, and Williams had to decide whether Abreu was worth what turned out to be $68 million.

Welcome to the world of scouting Cuban baseball players.

The potential rewards are high. Tuesday's All-Star Game in Minneapolis will feature five Cubans, the most since players began leaving the communist island nation in large numbers in the 1990s in order to play professional baseball in the United States. Abreu, one of the leading home run hitters in baseball over the first half of the season and a leading candidate to be the American League Rookie of the Year, will be one of them.

"A few weeks ago, Jerry comes up and taps me on the shoulder and says, 'This Abreu is kind of working out,'" said Williams, who has worked for Reinsdorf for three decades and is now the White Sox's executive vice president. "He said, 'Good thing, because you staked your reputation on it.' Then he just walked away, and it was one of those things where I didn't know if he was serious.

"My entire reputation?"

Welcome to the world of signing Cuban baseball players.

***

Baseball people make big-money decisions on players all the time. They make decisions on players based on quick looks all the time.

But it's hard to find any comparison to the decisions they need to make on players from Cuba. It's hard to find any other player at that big of a cost where a team has that little access to information.

The Yankees committed $175 million to signing Masahiro Tanaka, but only after they watched every start he made for his Japanese team last summer. The Texas Rangers had a scout watch every one of Yu Darvish's starts in Japan the season before they committed about $108 million (including posting fee) to sign him; general manager Jon Daniels even flew to Japan to scout Darvish in person.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press/Associated Press
Yasiel Puig

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Dodgers spent $42 million on Yasiel Puig without ever seeing him play in a single game. Puig didn't even run or throw in the three days the Dodgers watched him work out.

Some rival teams have suspected that the Dodgers had access to some inside information on Puig, but Dodgers vice president of amateur scouting Logan White still insists that he decided on his offer by simply seeing Puig work out and talking to him.

"I didn't know a lot about him when I went [to Mexico City]," White said. "But when I saw him, I said, 'Wow!' He wasn't in baseball shape. He'd take a swing and gasp for air. But I knew I hadn't seen an athlete like that."

He was right. Puig, like Abreu, will play in his first All-Star Game this year. Oakland A's outfielder Yoenis Cespedes will be there too, as will Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman and White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez.

It's enough to make other teams go out looking for a Cuban of their own. It's enough for the prices to keep rising on every Cuban player who appears on the market.

But are there really more to come?

***

The first thing to remember is that every time a team signs a big-money Cuban player, someone from another team says that it badly overpaid. The second thing to remember is that, at least so far, history has proved that it actually got a bargain.

If Puig were a free agent today, there's no way you could sign him for $42 million. Same goes for Abreu ($68 million), Cespedes ($36 million), Chapman ($30.25 million) and especially Ramirez (whose original 2007 deal with the White Sox was for only $4.75 million for four years).

Even a lesser-known Cuban like Padres pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne has been well worth the $1 million that the San Diego Padres spent on him.

In fact, in the recent wave that has seen 19 Cubans play in the major leagues this season (the most in recent memory), it's hard to find a big-money Cuban signing that hasn't worked out.

But are there really more to come?

"I would say no," said one baseball executive who has worked in the international market. "But then a lot of people didn't think Abreu would do what he's done."

The better answer is that yes, there are players who could come here and potentially create the excitement that Puig, Abreu, Cespedes and the others have brought to the big leagues. But at least right now, people who know Cuban baseball best believe that the best remaining established players on the island are unlikely to leave.

Duane Burleson/Associated Press
Yoenis Cespedes

A few more already have. Outfielder Rusney Castillo has a workout scheduled for July 26 in Miami. Yasmani Tomas, a 23-year-old power-hitting outfielder, has also left Cuba with the intention of signing a professional contract.

The more interesting players, though, have already left. Or may never leave, unless or until Cubans can come here without having to sneak out of their own country.

"It's not clear any of the other stars want to play major league baseball if they have to defect to do it," said Joe Kehoskie, an agent who has closely followed the Cuban market. "Then again, for years, no one thought Cespedes would leave."

Yulieski Gourriel never did.

Gourriel is 30 years old now. He was regarded 10 years ago as possibly the best amateur player in the whole world and was thought of for many years after that as the best player in Cuba. He has played for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic and made the all-tournament team in the first WBC in 2006.

Gourriel now plays in Japan, but only under a special arrangement through the Cuban government in which some of his $900,000 salary goes back to Cuba and he is guaranteed to return. Besides getting some money out of the deal, the Cuban baseball authorities hope that giving players opportunities will keep some of them from abandoning Cuba altogether.

AP Photo
Yulieski Gourriel is congratulated after a home run in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

Outfielder Alfredo Despaigne was supposed to play in Mexico under a similar arrangement, but since the Mexican League has an arrangement with the major leagues, he was forced to leave (under the justification that he had been traveling with a false passport).

"To me, Despaigne is every bit what Abreu is," said Peter Bjarkman, an American writer who has developed strong contacts in Cuban baseball and follows the Cuban team wherever it goes. "Despaigne is a little more natural, a little more disciplined at the plate and little more versatile. But Despaigne is very loyal to the system. His father has a government position."

In other words, he's unlikely to leave unless the current system changes.

Until then, scouts will travel the world trying to see him, knowing that the one place they can't go to look is the country where he lives and plays most of the time.

***

Theoretically, it wouldn't be that tough to go to Cuba to watch players, especially for scouts holding passports from countries other than the U.S. Get on a plane from the Dominican Republic or Mexico, take a seat in the ballpark and watch.

"Don't dress too nice, and you'll fit right in," said one scout.

Some international scouts assume that other teams have had scouts go to Cuba, although none would admit that his organization had done it (it's against MLB rules), and some others said they doubt anyone has.

It is possible to get statistics from the Cuban league and try to analyze them—they are less accurate than using stats from Japan or Korea but more accurate than using amateur stats here, one scout said—and it's even possible to watch a few Cuban league games that are shown on satellite television.

Sometimes, the only hope is YouTube.

Search deep enough, and you can find an old sketchy video of Puig making a diving catch in a Cuban league game and then throwing to second base. The Dodgers found that video, and it was actually the only look White had at Puig's defense and arm before he offered him the $42 million.

But most of the scouting of players still in Cuba is done when Cuban teams leave the island to play in international tournaments. Scouts flock to any tournament where a Cuban team is scheduled to appear, especially when it's the "A" or "B" national team, but even if it's an under-15 or under-18 team.

But even that's not foolproof. The Cuban authorities rarely allowed Puig to travel off the island, so he was almost never seen in a game by a major league scout.

"I try to see them wherever they go," said San Francisco Giants international cross-checker Joe Salermo, a Cuban native whose family came to the U.S. when he was 10. "You're trying to develop a history with them. I saw Puig in Amsterdam, and he was a man among boys at 21. But there wasn't a history with him."

The Giants, Dodgers, A's, Yankees, Reds, Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs and other teams regularly scout all the Cuban teams. Perhaps surprisingly, White Sox scouts aren't as familiar a sight when Cuban teams play overseas.

Williams, the former White Sox general manager who is now the club's executive vice president, hates to even talk about how he and his staff do their evaluations, worrying that he'll give up a competitive edge. He will admit to heavy use of video ("That might be my football background," said Williams, a wide receiver at Stanford before he turned to baseball full time) and also to consulting the Cuban players already on his roster.

AP Photo
Alexei Ramirez is congratulated after scoring a run.

There's a story told around the scouting community that when the White Sox were trying to decide whether to sign Alexei Ramirez, Sox pitcher Jose Contreras (who played with Ramirez in Cuba) told Williams, "If he doesn't make it, I'll pay half the salary myself."

"I wish that was true," Williams said, laughing. "But it's not."

What Williams can't deny is that having Cuban players on his team gives the White Sox valuable input into the makeup of the Cubans they're still evaluating. And everyone who scouts Cuba agrees that getting a read on makeup is one of the most challenging parts of the process.

Even the scouts who follow the Cuban team around the world get little to no chance to interact with the players. Teams can talk to players once they leave Cuba and become free agents, but much of that access is stage-managed by agents and handlers.

Stories about the Cuban players fly wildly through the scouting grapevine, and determining the truth isn't always easy.

"You try to get to know people you can trust," said one scout. "A lot of times, you're trying to talk to friends of friends."

***

Eventually, the players who leave the island establish residency in another country and are declared free agents. Workouts are scheduled, sometimes attracting 200 scouts and executives if the player is a big enough star.

Sometimes, a player may work out for a specific team, as Abreu did for the Reds when they wanted to see if he could play third base or left field (he couldn't, at least not to their satisfaction, and with Joey Votto set at first base, they reluctantly dropped out of the bidding).

Eventually, a player signs pending a physical exam, which can be something of an adventure in itself. The Dodgers had to have someone drive Puig 1.5 hours across Mexico City to find an MRI machine. When the Reds recently signed pitcher Raisel Iglesias, scheduling the physical was almost a bigger obstacle than negotiating the contract.

Michael Keating/Associated Press
Reds general manager Walt Jocketty

"We were working on a tight deadline, and the kid couldn't get a visa yet to come to the Dominican Republic or the U.S.," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty explained. "We finally brought a doctor from the Dominican, and a Spanish-speaking doctor we work with in Cincinnati, to see the kid in Haiti. But then they had to find an MRI machine in Haiti."

It all got done, and now the Reds will hope Iglesias does as well for them as Chapman has. He was nearly as expensive, costing the Reds $27 million for a seven-year contract, even though he wasn't as highly touted as Chapman (who got $30.25 million for six years in January 2010).

The prices keep going up, which only makes the decisions tougher.

"The gut feel has to be there," said Don Welke, a top Rangers scout who has been to many Cuban showcases and was involved in the signing of outfielder Leonys Martin. "It's huge risk, huge reward. As it's turned out recently, whoever has taken the risk has gotten the reward.

"But some scout had to stick his neck out for every one of these guys. And you'd better darn well be right, because your owner is asking you why you want to spend so much on a guy you only saw in two workouts."

When White went to watch Puig, he knew he had to have him. He'd also gotten to meet him and had been impressed when Puig helped him fix a problem with his laptop. Sure, he had only seen him take swings off a batting practice pitcher throwing 40-50 mph, but the talent stood out.

"He was the most physically gifted athlete I'd ever had a chance to sign," said White, who has been scouting for 25 years. "Think of it this way: What if you'd never seen Mike Trout play and he walked in to take batting practice? I'd hope I've done this enough to see that Mike Trout has ability. Or what if it was Clayton Kershaw in Mexico, just throwing on the side?

"I will say this: It wasn't a guess."

It was still a huge risk, a shocking risk.

The night after he watched one of Puig's workouts, White was still awake at 2 a.m. thinking about it. He called up Paul Fryer, a Dodgers cross-checker he'd brought with him to Mexico.

"I woke him up," White said. "I said, 'I'm going to give him seven years, $42 million.' And he said, 'Are you out of your bleeping mind?' It's 2 a.m. and we're yelling back and forth. And I just said, 'I know this, if I lose [Puig], I'm going to be pissed.'"

Ken Williams knows the feeling.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

After all the hemming and hawing, he'd gone down to the Dominican Republic to watch Jose Abreu. He knew the price would be high, that it would stretch the White Sox's budget.

But all that only mattered if he liked what he saw.

"After I watched him, I called [Jerry Reinsdorf]," Williams said. "I said, 'Unfortunately, I like him. And I want him.'"

He liked him, he wanted him, and eventually, he got him.

And for the White Sox, there's been nothing unfortunate about it.

 

Danny Knobler has been covering baseball for more than 30 years, including 18 seasons on the Detroit Tigers beat for Booth Newspapers and six seasons as a senior MLB writer for CBSSports.com. He has also written for Baseball America, ESPNNewYork.com and MLB.com.

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