Given the ceremony and emotion surrounding Tuesday’s exhibition game in Havana between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team – a game billed as “historic,” what with President Obama’s appearance alongside Cuban President Raul Castro at Estadio Latinoamericano — there is a tenor that normalized relations between the United States and Cuba could not only offer a better, safer path for Cuban players to the big leagues but could also fundamentally change the talent level in Major League Baseball.
But among major league clubs, as well as player agents who are also looking for new pipelines of talent, there is some level of consensus that the best Cuban players from this generation are already in the United States. Box scores are filled with them: Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Abreu launching homers, Jose Fernandez and Aroldis Chapman recording strikeouts. The talent that remains in Cuba at the moment wouldn’t be enough alter the sport, according to baseball executives and agents.
“We see it as an older, lesser established Dominican Republic,” said one major league general manager who, like others, requested anonymity both because of the sensitivity of the political situation and the negotiations. “Most of the young talent has been identified and signed.”
The symbolism of Tuesday’s events in Havana — a U.S. president addressing the Cuban people, a baseball game between major leaguers and the Cuban national team, American and Cuban flags flying side-by-side – is inescapable. The Rays’ trip to play the Cubans further solidifies the idea that if diplomacy between the two countries continues to rise, baseball will be the public representation, because the sport is woven into the history and culture of both countries.
All baseball parties on the Rays’ trip, led by Commissioner Rob Manfred and players association chief Tony Clark, are preaching caution and patience. This is a delicate diplomatic process involving, as Manfred pointed out Monday at a news conference in Havana, at least four parties – Major League Baseball, the players association, and the governments of both countries, not to mention the state-run Cuban league.
“It is a complicated issue that implicates policies that are far bigger than baseball,” Manfred said.
Signing players from Cuba has been somewhat risky for major league clubs and downright dangerous for the players. The only way for Cubans to play in the majors was to defect, sometimes in ill-equipped boats, occasionally in deals made with agents that amount to human trafficking. Last month a grand jury in Miami charged agent Bart Hernandez with human trafficking surrounding the case of outfielder Leonys Martin, alleging that Hernandez smuggled Martin out of Cuba for financial gain.
Normalization of relations between the two countries would be a huge step toward eliminating those cases. “I think we are all on the side of discussing the safest way for players to realize their dream perhaps of playing in Major League Baseball,” Clark, the players union chief, said at the news conference.
Once players reached other countries – the Dominican Republic is a popular stop – agents would arrange tryouts for major league clubs. But that gave scouts just snippets of information with which to evaluate players. Yes, the Cuban national team might play in overseas tournaments and be evaluated there, and statistics were readily available. But big league clubs, officials say, don’t have a deep understanding of the talent that remains.
“We have knowledge, but it’s in bits and pieces,” another major league general manager said. “If relations are normalized, it may not necessarily lead to a big influx of talent, but rather a more informed assessment of said talent.”
There are also questions about how that talent, even if it’s more accurately assessed, would be acquired. MLB has disparate systems for players to join clubs – a domestic draft that also covers Puerto Rico; an international free agent system in which players from Latin America are signed as 16-year-olds; and an international posting system for those playing professionally in Japan and Korea.
That last system, officials say, seems to make the most sense for Cuba. But there’s an issue: to procure a player from Japan, major league teams pay a posting fee, usually of several million dollars, to a player’s Japanese team for the right to negotiate with the player. The Cuban teams are all state-run. As another major league general manager said: “Would we be paying $20 million to the Cuban government? I’m not sure how that would work.”
What is plain is that Cuban players have had an enormous impact on the American game, dating back to Luis Tiant and Tony Oliva and Minnie Minoso and beyond. This year’s All-Star Game in San Diego could be dotted with any number of Cuban players. There is also a next generation that has already defected, led by Yoan Moncada, a 20-year-old shortstop signed by the Boston Red Sox for $31.5 million last year. And there are players, such as brothers Yulieski and Lourdes Gourriel, who have already left Cuba in hopes of signing with a major league club.
According to baseball-reference.com, 192 Cuban-born players have made it to the majors since 1900. How many major league-caliber players remain on the island, including those who face the Rays on Tuesday, remains to be seen regardless of the status of relations between the two countries.