Major League Baseball is in the middle of a surge of Cuban talent, with some of its top young stars — think Yasiel Puig, Jose Fernandez, Yoenis Cespedes, and Aroldis Chapman — hailing from the island where baseball is an unchallenged king.
Now, there are renewed hopes that the influx of top Cuban baseball players could be thrust into full throttle, thanks to the Obama administration’s announcement Wednesday that the United States will begin taking steps to normalize relations with Castro’s Cuban government and relax the five-decade-old embargo against the island nation.
The dreams are easy to envision: a direct pipeline that connects one of Latin America’s oldest and most enshrined baseball powers with the world’s richest and most powerful baseball league, providing the States with more Puigs, more Chapmans, and more Jose Abreus, all free to pursue Major League careers without having to defect into exile from their homeland. In a world with normalized relations, Cuba, with a larger population than the Dominican Republic, could even become the biggest foreign supplier of Major League talent.
As with anything in the geopolitical world, though, it isn’t that simple.
Cuban talent is hardly absent from Major League Baseball now. There were 19 Cubans on Major League rosters on Opening Day 2014, a new record, and Cubans are defecting from the island to chase baseball dreams in record rates. According to one site that tracks them, as many as 255 ballplayers have left in recent years. The problem now, and one that has become increasingly evident thanks to the emergence of Los Angeles Dodgers star Yasiel Puig, is how many of those ballplayers get out of Cuba and to the United States — and there are hopes here that normalizing relations between the two governments will at the least help fix those.
Puig’s harrowing journey, detailed by Yahoo Sports and Los Angeles Magazine, included multiple defection attempts and a ban from Cuban baseball. When he finally made it, he did so with the help of drug smugglers who took him first to Mexico, holding him there until a sponsor paid for his release. There have been rumors since Puig burst onto the scene in 2013 that the smugglers are still taking a cut of his salary (the smuggling problem is hardly unique to ballplayers; it affects ordinary Cubans attempting to leave the island too).
Beginning to normalize relations between the two governments may not be enough. Baseball’s entry rules are complicated, but by going through Mexico or another third-party nation, Cuban players can often enter the league as unrestricted free agents, allowing them to command huge contracts, like Puig’s seven-year, $42 million deal with the Dodgers or Abreu’s six-year, $68 million agreement with the Chicago White Sox. There are huge economic incentives for players, their agents and sponsors, and smugglers to continue working as they do now, even if not every player is a future All-Star like those two.
“As long as the money is involved, I think you’re going to have the crime elements involved,” said Pete Bjarkman, an author and Cuban baseball historian who is writing a book on defecting ballplayers. “It’s like smuggling anything else. There’s a market.”
Fixing the smuggling problem, or at least mitigating it in some way, would likely require fully normalizing relations not just between the two governments, but between each nation’s baseball leagues as well.
That first requires major policy changes between the American and Cuban governments. And even if that happens, Major League Baseball and Cuba’s government-run baseball federation would need to set up a system that allows Cuban players to transition from their league to the Majors in a way that is advantageous to both.
“I think if there was a more normalized way for Cubans to come to the United States, this could potentially cut [smugglers] out of the market. People want to criticize Major League Baseball for the smuggling policy, but there’s really not much they can do until these policies change between the Cuban government and the U.S. government,” said Ben Badler, who covers Cuban baseball prospects for Baseball America. “That’s what allows this underground market to exist, and why players are relying on them to get them from Cuba to the Major Leagues.”
While Major League Baseball teams and their scouts may see Cuba as a talent-rich nation waiting to be tapped, there are reasons why Cuba may be reticent to change. Cuba is in a unique baseball situation. Unlike other Latin American countries, it has its own strong domestic league, and unlike Japan, it is supplied exclusively with domestic talent. As a result, the Cuban league is a point of pride for the Cuban people and a supplier for the island’s national team, an even bigger source of Cuban pride on the international sporting stage.
In recent years, Cuba has relaxed its policies around top baseball talent, allowing the nation’s best players to sign contracts in Mexico and Japan. But those deals require Cubans to return home to play in the domestic league each year, an arrangement MLB teams are unlikely to accommodate. Allowing top talent to leave for the U.S. without returning to Cuba to play would act as a major drain on the Serie Nacional in a way that could significantly hurt the league.
“The bottom line to all of this is, the situation between MLB and the Cuban baseball federation is a very complicated one. It doesn’t have easy solutions, because MLB wants control of its players, and Cuba wants control of their own players,” Bjarkman said. “You may have some tweaks in the situation. But anybody who believes that all of the sudden Cuba is going to say, ‘Let’s let all of our top players go play in the Major Leagues and we’ll essentially close down our operations here at home,’ I don’t think that’s going to happen because baseball is too important to Cubans.”
Obama announcing that they’re going to ease the embargo doesn’t mean the baseball situation changes.
There is, however, a potential incentive that could get the Cuban government to modify its approach: money.
The government takes a cut of the salaries earned by players it has sent to Japan and Mexico, but that money “pales in comparison to what they would be able to make if they could essentially sell these players directly to Major League teams that would pay astronomically more for them,” Badler said.
The Cuban federation has already made changes to its domestic league in recognition of the fact “that the level of quality has significantly deteriorated in recent years because so many players have left the island to pursue contracts with Major League teams,” Badler said, and as more Cuban players defect to chase Major League dreams, the financial incentive could only increase.
There is an appetite to move forward within Major League Baseball, which said in a statement Wednesday that it is “closely monitoring the White House’s announcement regarding Cuban-American relations. The MLB Players Association said it is hopeful that Obama’s announcement “will lead to further positive developments.”
But any progress is dependent on government policy decisions far grander than what Obama announced this week. As long as the embargo is in effect, it will remain illegal for Major League teams to scout and sign players in Cuba. So while the administration’s announcement is a step toward more normalized relations between the two governments — and a necessary step toward fostering a relationship between the two baseball leagues — nothing will change quickly or immediately.
“Knowing the history of things, I would think that baseball will be one of the slowest things to change, because it is such a major institution in Cuba,” Bjarkman said. “If they ever worked out some agreement on this down the road, well, it may happen eventually. But Obama announcing in Washington that they’re going to ease the embargo, and [Raúl Castro] announcing that he wants smoother diplomatic relations to the U.S., that doesn’t mean the baseball situation changes.”