If you ask Carlos Rodriguez why there are more Cuban players entering the major leagues than ever before, his answer is quick, humorous and right on time.
“There are 68 million reasons,” he says.
Rodriguez, Tampa Bay’s director of Latin American scouting, is referring to the six-year, $68 million contract the White Sox bestowed in late October upon first baseman Jose Abreu. It was the largest deal in club history, and it serves as the latest example of how eager MLB clubs are to collect the talent on the island that sits 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
The Sox hope Abreu joins the collection of recent defectors who have made significant contributions to major-league teams in the past couple years. Aroldis Chapman and his 100-mph fastball have transformed the Reds’ bullpen. Yoenis Cespedes is a power-hitting fixture in the middle of the Oakland lineup. And who can forget the performance last year of Yasiel Puig, who energized the Dodgers with his power, aggressiveness and flamboyant personality? Those three aren’t the only Cuban players in the bigs right now. In fact, Abreu joins Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo on the White Sox roster. But his arrival in the United States demonstrates just how much teams covet players from Cuba and how those performers want to find a way to reach the U.S. to play ball at the highest level.
“When there is an economic incentive and an opportunity cost of not coming over, the risk-reward is higher,” Rodriguez says. “People are finding more creative ways of getting out, and there is a bigger network of people helping out.”
For decades, Cuban players have made significant contributions to MLB teams, dating back to Minnie Minoso from 1949-63 (and a couple P.R. stunt appearances later on) but also including Tony Perez, Luis Tiant and Tony Oliva. Because of dictator Fidel Castro’s edict that no one could leave the island without permission, many great players — particularly in the 1970s and ‘80s — never reached the majors. Two of the most famous are Omar Linares and German Mesa, who were considered All-Star quality talents who couldn’t escape Castro’s clutches.
There was always something of a mythical status accorded the Cuban player, who could be viewed during certain international competitions but rarely seen in his natural habitat. Because of that legend, Cuban players might be held in higher esteem than their counterparts from other Latin American countries.
That has helped MLB teams develop considerable affection for players from the island — and vice versa. Last summer, even the Phillies, for whom big-money foreign players have been anathema, signed pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez to a six-year, $50 million deal. Although the money figure has dropped due to Gonzalez’s injury problems, the Phillies expect the righty to be a part of their rotation in 2014. With each subsequent player, the money seems to grow. Chapman received $30.25 million from the Reds. The A’s bestowed $36 mil on Cespedes, and Puig’s contract is worth $42 million. After never giving an international player a contract of more than $2 million, the Phillies went all in for Gonzalez. A couple months later, Abreu’s deal rocked the majors.
“Any time Cuban players made it to the U.S. as veterans from their professional league, there was always an interest in signing them,” Cardinals assistant GM Michael Girsch says. “It was a trickle in previous years, but now it has opened up, and we’re signing them.”
The flow could increase considerably in coming years, thanks to a variety of factors. One is the growing number of people trying to broker deals to sneak ballplayers off the island to safe nations. These “brokers” (some call them smugglers; others refer to them as traffickers) hold onto the men until agents sign deals to represent the players and bring them to the U.S., where they can be evaluated. The brokers make money, and there may even be some funds heading back to Cuban officials who conveniently look elsewhere as players are leaving the island.
“Are they letting it happen?” asks Cincinnati senior director of scouting Chris Buckley. “Maybe some money is going back to the Cuban government. We’ve heard all types of things. It’s a little suspicious.”
In order to make that cash flow more official, Cuba announced in late September that it would allow players to sign with other countries’ professional leagues. That was strictly prohibited under Fidel Castro, but his brother Raul, has a different view of the impact of big-dollar contracts on the socialist experience, especially if some of that dough makes its way to Havana. There are some issues to be worked out with the U.S. regarding tax dollars’ flowing back to Cuba, a transaction that would be in violation of America’s strict ban on commercial dealings with Cuba. That is something of a technicality, and it would be surprising if some system weren’t created to overcome the issue.
“People are trying to get a piece of the pie,” Rodriguez says. “Before, maybe the money wasn’t as big an incentive.”
Anybody who watched Puig play during the 2013 season shouldn’t have been surprised at all by his hard-driving style. That’s how they play ball in Cuba. “The Cuban players are traditionally known as ultra-aggressive and playing very hard,” Rodriguez says. “They are intimidating and brash and play an alpha style of baseball. They are definitely very brash and confident. They feel that if they can compete in Cuba, they can play anywhere in the world.”
The young outfielder tried to stretch singles into doubles, went after every fly ball with abandon and could be fooled — sometimes badly — by off-speed pitches. It didn’t matter to Puig if he failed; he was going to keep moving forward at 100 mph, sliding into home after a walk-off dinger and refusing to acknowledge the accomplishments of those who went before him, as Puig did when he snubbed former Diamondbacks great Luis Gonzalez.
There’s an old saying that explains why Dominican players are such free swingers: “You don’t walk off the island.” In other words, playing small ball isn’t going to get you noticed. That’s no different in Cuba, even though it’s tougher to get off that island than it is to reach the majors from the D.R.
When Cuba competes in international competitions, it does so to win. That’s a by-product of Castro’s desire to prove to the world that his country’s socialism produces greatness, the old Soviet-style system of rewards for performance and a bunker mentality of sorts that comes from being isolated from much of the world.
“The Cuban hitters go up there swinging,” Buckley says. “The pitchers are very aggressive and have no problems throwing at a hitter. Of course, let’s see how that translates to big-league play.”
Before that can be considered, the player has to become eligible to play. First, he has to escape the island and the close scrutiny of the government. The breakaways aren’t quite as dramatic as they once were, but it still isn’t easy. Recruiters and other intermediaries bring players to other countries, usually Mexico or a Caribbean land, to establish residency. And there are always concerns among those who leave about how family members who remain in Cuba will be treated. The next step is obtaining clearance from the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control. Because the U.S. has an embargo in place against Cuba, the defecting players are almost looked at as “products” of the island. The OFAC — a Division of the Department of the Treasury — “…administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes...” It isn’t a particularly onerous process, but it does take some time. The final hurdle is say-so from Major League Baseball. Once all of that is taken care of, it’s time to find out if the guy can play.
“When they are cleared, we can evaluate them in a more controlled setting,” Rodriguez says. “We can see them take batting practice and do other things.”
Those assessments are vital with Cuban players. Yes, they fare well in international competition. And the stars stand out in domestic leagues, too. Making the jump to the majors isn’t as easy as getting from the island to the United States. After all the wrangling that goes into defecting and getting signed, there is the small issue of whether the player in question is any good. It may be beneficial to stage formal workouts for the prospects, but determining whether they can play still requires some faith, rather than an analysis of considerable amounts of data. No matter how highly touted the level of competition in the Cuban leagues might be, it still isn’t close to big-league quality.
“Some of the pitching there is at the high (class) A ball or Double-A levels,” Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin says. “Only occasionally do they run into quality pitching.
“We talk about how hitting is down in the major leagues because there are so many pitchers with power arms. The players coming over here from Cuba and Japan are in for rude awakenings, because they will be seeing quality pitching every day. It’s a big adjustment. Players like Puig and Cespedes are very talented guys, but you have to be careful.”
The good thing about acquiring a Cuban player is that the relative cost is low. Those who saw the contract the White Sox gave to Abreu might laugh at that statement, but it’s true. Yes, the money can be high, but there are no other penalties. Teams don’t lose draft picks for signing Cuban players. And they don’t have to surrender top prospects as they do when making deadline trades. So, there is nothing on top of the contracts — which can be admittedly high — when it comes to importing Cuban talent. For instance, when the Reds acquired pitcher Mat Latos from the Padres after the 2011 season, they had to part with righty Edinson Volquez and three top minor leaguers. “That’s a high cost,” Buckley says. Chapman’s six-year, $30.25 million contract wasn’t cheap, but that was the flamethrower’s only price.
“When you sign someone like Chapman, it’s just money, a lot of money, but we’re in the business of evaluating talent,” Buckley says. “We should be able to tell.”
When a player makes it through the clearinghouse process, is deemed talented enough to warrant a major-league contract and actually proves he can play, there is still one final component that can make the transition from Cuba to MLB daunting. Because the island is so backward, the U.S. lifestyle can be a huge shock. Just walking into a supermarket can be a transformative experience.
Putting these naïve players into a professional setting, with all of the outside influences and media attention, can create some serious problems.
“They have to learn the laws and our way of life,” Rodriguez says. “You have to have people monitoring what they do 24/7. Most of the players who come over here never drove a car before. It’s a real adjustment period.
“They have to learn everything — how to deal with fans and media and even how to order food.”
That they can learn. Skills like throwing 100-mph cheese and hitting for power and average aren’t so easily acquired.
And are worth the price.
—Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports. This is just one of the features that can be found in Athlon Sports' 2014 MLB Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands and online now. Starting with 21 unique covers to choose from, Athlon covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy now!