Major League Baseball has seen an influx of Cuban players in recent years. Will the U.S.’s move to normalize relations with the baseball-mad country bring even more stars stateside?
Author Joe Lemire Illustration Yuta Onoda
Adrián Nieto had a familiar feeling when he made his first Major League start, for the Chicago White Sox on April 5 of last year. When the Pale Hose took the field, the then-24-year-old Cuban catcher was joined by three of his countrymen: first baseman José Abreu, shortstop Alexei Ramirez and rightfielder Dayan Viciedo. It was the first time four Cuban-born players had started a big league game together since 1969.
“When us four were on the field at the same time, it was definitely something special for all of us,” Nieto says.
That White Sox lineup card is just one example of the recent spike in Cuban-born Major Leaguers. Last season, 25 Cubans appeared in the big leagues, the most since 1970. They included the 2014 American League Rookie of the Year (Abreu), the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year (Miami Marlins pitcher José Fernández) and runner-up (Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig) and a two-time Home Run Derby champion (Detroit Tigers outfielder Yoenis Céspedes). In the last five seasons, Cuban players have scored eight All-Star appearances—including three by Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, the hardest-throwing pitcher in the game.
This onslaught of talent has led big-league front offices on a chase for the next big Cuban star. Since 2010, there have been 16 contracts of a million dollars or more given to Cuban players, for a total of $486 million. And this past offseason did nothing to slow the Cuban invasion, with the Arizona Diamondbacks signing third baseman/outfielder Yasmany Tomás—who Arizona senior vice president of baseball operations De Jon Watson says will be a “middle-of-the-order-type bat”—to a six-year contract worth $68.5 million and giving pitcher Yoan López an $8.27 million signing bonus.
This influx of talent comes despite the U.S. embargo, which, since 1960, has made the passage of players to Major League Baseball a difficult journey. Those who did make it to the States often risked their lives to defect, and several have been victims of extortion.
The embargo also made it hard for Major League scouts to track players. An international scouting director for a National League club who is not authorized to speak with the media on the record tells Hemispheres he’s never been to Cuba, and even tracking statistics from the country’s pro league, the Cuban National Series, can be challenging. “You’ve got to hunt,” he says. He can recall sitting at home on a Saturday, having been promised a week without travel, when he received word that the Cuban national team would be entering an international tournament. By Monday, he was in Nicaragua to watch. “As an international director,” he says, “you make your life around where Cuba goes.”
So what’s changed in the last few years? Basically, for two reasons, players have been more willing to try to defect.
“I think the talent’s existed,” says Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, who signed centerfielder Leonys Martin in 2011. “I think there’s a change in the political culture, and I think that the financial incentive has grown and is so great right now that there’s been a lot of money encouraging some of these players to find ways out.”
Not only is MLB flush with cash—the league topped $9 billion in revenue in 2014—but a change to the collective bargaining agreement a few years ago proved to be a boon to Cuban defectors: The money that teams could pay to amateur international prospects was severely capped, except for players who were at least 23 years old and who had played five or more seasons of professional ball in another country. That exception specifically benefited players from Cuba and Japan.
Of course, the big question now is: Will President Obama’s December announcement that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba facilitate an even larger wave of signings? It has already helped in some ways, as MLB has again adjusted its rules regarding Cuban players. Before Obama’s announcement, the league required players to get something called an “unblocking license,” which entailed navigating the bureaucracy of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Now, they simply need to sign an affidavit stating that they are residents of another country, have no intention of returning to Cuba, are not a “prohibited member” of the Cuban Communist Party and are not Cuban government officials; they can then sign with a Major League team immediately. The rule change had an immediate impact, as it spurred a bidding war on 19-year-old second baseman Yoan Moncada, who signed with the Red Sox for $31.5 million on February 23. That month also saw the defection of one of Cuba’s best young pitchers, 19-year-old Vladimir Gutierrez.
But the government and MLB rule changes may not lead to a flood of new All Stars, for one simple reason: The wave of defections over the last few years has thinned the talent pool.
“Right now the talent is not as good as it used to be,” José Abreu said through an interpreter last summer. “It’s just that a lot of the players have left. But there is more talent coming up, and eventually they’ll be at the point where they can do some things as well.”
As the next generation comes up, it will be interesting to see how the signing process changes. Could we see a posting system, as in Japan, where pro teams make players available to MLB teams in return for a sizable fee? Or youth academies, as in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, where amateurs sign as teenagers and develop at Major League–affiliated training centers?
Either way, our scouting director can confirm that reinforcements are on the way. About two years ago, he saw a Cuban junior national team play in Colombia. On a squad that boasted no player older than 15, the first baseman went 10-for-12 and the pitching staff was already throwing 88 mph. “You could write up every single position on that team as an average big leaguer or better,” he says in typically understated scouting lingo—after all, an average big leaguer is still a really good ballplayer.
“I think cultural assimilation is the biggest obstacle for most of these young men,” says the Diamondbacks’ Watson, who was the vice president and director of player development for the Dodgers when they acquired Puig. “Baseball-wise, these guys have been playing all their lives.”
Freelance writer Joe Lemire plans to brag to his grandchildren that he attended the Major League debut of future Hall of Famer José Fernández.