Is­land get­aways

In­flux of play­ers from Cuba could con­tinue to grow steadily in MLB

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Bill Shaikin

In the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture, the Dodgers could field a lineup with Cuban-born play­ers at catcher, sec­ond base, third base and right field.

Cuban play­ers such as Dodgers out­fielder Yasiel Puig, Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chap­man and Chicago White Sox slug­ger Jose Abreu have quickly be­come stars in the ma­jor leagues, and now a thaw in re­la­tions be­tween the gov­ern­ments of Cuba and the United States could turn the trickle of tal­ent from the base­ball-crazed Caribbean is­land into a steady stream.

The stakes are high. The risks are great. The re­wards could tilt base­ball’s bal­ance of power.

In Fe­bru­ary, the Bos­ton Red Sox signed Cuban in­fielder Yoan Mon­cada, then 19, for $62 mil­lion. One month later, the Dodgers spent $62.5 mil­lion on 30year-old Cuban in­fielder Hec­tor Oliv­era.

The money has be­come so great that base­ball ex­ec­u­tives are de­bat­ing the process by which Cuban play­ers are ac­quired, cur­rently an auc­tion, is fair to all the

teams.

There is also a ques­tion about whether Cuba truly rep­re­sents the next great tal­ent pipeline to the ma­jor leagues. There were 18 Cuban-born play­ers on open­ing-day ros­ters this sea­son, a dis­tant third among for­eign coun­tries to the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic (83) and Venezuela (65).

The pop­u­la­tion of Cuba and the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic is sim­i­lar, about 11 mil­lion each, so the Cuban pres­ence in the ma­jors could rise if Ma­jor League Base­ball teams are al­lowed to send scouts to the is­land and ballplay­ers are al­lowed un­re­stricted move­ment. But un­til then, big league clubs may strug­gle to as­sess how deep the tal­ent pool is and what re­sources — equip­ment, in­struc­tors, fa­cil­i­ties and the like— are re­quired to de­velop it.

“No one knows,” said Chris An­tonetti, Cleve­land In­di­ans gen­eral man­ager. “To have a sense of what the 16-year-old tal­ent in Cuba looks like? I don’t have a sense.”

Although the U.S. and Cuban gov­ern­ments are work­ing to re­store po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic re­la­tions, MLB en­forces the cur­rent U.S. em­bargo by pro­hibit­ing its teams from scout­ing in Cuba. As a re­sult, ma­jor league teams gen­er­ally are lim­ited to scout­ing Cuban play­ers in in­ter­na­tional tour­na­ments or in work­outs held by play­ers who have de­fected or oth­er­wise left the is­land.

“We’ve got a bet­ter idea about a col­lege player at UC River­side than we do about a pro­fes­sional player in Cuba,” said Jerry Dipoto, An­gels GM.

The An­gels ex­pect to spend about $5 mil­lion this year to sign play­ers se­lected in the draft this month. They in­vested more than three times that much in De­cem­ber to sign 21-year-old Cuban in­fielder Roberto Baldoquin.

The dis­par­ity ex­ists be­cause draft picks can ne­go­ti­ate only with the team that chose them. Cuban play­ers are free agents, once they es­tab­lish res­i­dency in a third coun­try.

A Cuban player with five years ex­pe­ri­ence — like Oliv­era, the in­fielder who could join the Dodgers any day now — is con­sid­ered a free agent and can sign with any MLB team, at any price. Cuban play­ers with less ex­pe­ri­ence also are free agents but are sub­ject to MLB re­stric­tions in­tended to limit spendin­gon Latin Amer­i­can prospects. Each team is as­signed a to­tal amount it can spend on in­ter­na­tional prospects, with stiff fi­nan­cial penal­ties for ex­ceed­ing that amount.

The Red Sox were as­signed $1.9 mil­lion for the cur­rent sign­ing pe­riod. They spent $31.5 mil­lion on a bonus for Mon­cada and $31.5 mil­lion in MLB penal­ties be­cause they spent more than their al­lot­ment. In do­ing so, the Red Sox blasted open one of base­ball’s shrink­ing num­ber of loop­holes and a rich team got richer in base­ball tal­ent.

“In­ter­na­tional is one of the re­main­ing ar­eas where teams can, if they’re wealthy and can bear the brunt of a penalty, flex their fi­nan­cial mus­cle,” said Rick Hahn, Chicago White Sox GM.

The wave of ballplay­ers leav­ing Cuba in re­cent years was trig­gered not by a thaw in U.S.-Cuban re­la­tions but by the reach of tech­nol­ogy, ac­cord­ing to Joe Ke­hoskie, a for­mer agent for Cuban play­ers who is a base­ball in­dus­try con­sul­tant.

For decades, play­ers on the Cuban na­tional team were glo­ri­fied as state he­roes, with tour­na­ment vic­tors re­warded with huge sto­ries in the state-con­trolled media, a few ex­tra dol­lars— Puig re­port­edly was paid $17 amonth— and a mod­est up­grade in res­i­dence. Although satel­lite dishes and In­ter­net ac­cess re­main rare in Cuba, play­ers could sneak enough of a peek at the out­side world to see that the path to fi­nan­cial glory re­quired leav­ing the coun­try, Ke­hoskie said.

“They said, ‘Why would you spend your good years here, try­ing to make the Cuban na­tional team and have a slightly big­ger house, when you can go to the States and have a man­sion?’ ” Ke­hoskie said. “Once play­ers started to see that, it be­came all but im­pos­si­ble for Cuba to hang onto them.”

Yas­mani Gran­dal, the Dodgers’ catcher, left Cuba at 10 af­ter his fam­ily won a U.S. lottery that pro­vided le­gal res­i­dence to Cubans. For es­tab­lished Cuban stars, the most com­mon es­cape route in­volves de­fec­tion, typ­i­cally at great risk to the player and any fam­ily left be­hind.

Alex Guer­rero, who plays third base and left field for the Dodgers, es­caped on his third try. Puig, the Dodgers’ right fielder, es­caped on his fifth try, in a com­pelling and sor­did tale of a speed­boat, hu­man smug­glers and drug car­tels.

When Pres­i­dent Obama an­nounced in De­cem­ber his in­ten­tion to nor­mal­ize re­la­tions with Cuba, the New York Post wrote about the po­ten­tial ef­fect on base­ball with this head­line: “Dozens more Puigs?”

Said Ke­hoskie: “There prob­a­bly isn’t a sin­gle Puig left in Cuba, let alone dozens. The cup­board is just about bare when it comes to ma­jor league-ready play­ers.”

That could be why the Red Sox raised more ire for their $62-mil­lion deal with Mon­cada, who turned 20 in May, than for their $72.5-mil­lion deal for out­fielder Rus­ney Castillo, who qual­i­fied as a ma­jor league free agent.

The Dodgers paid Oliv­era more than any ma­jor league free agent they signed last off-sea­son. And, when the new sign­ing pe­riod for Latin Amer­i­can prospects opens July 2, the Dodgers, pro­pri­etors of the most ex­pen­sive pay­roll in North Amer­i­can sports history, are ex­pected to spend many times more than their as­signed limit and shrug off the penal­ties.

Said Doug Melvin, Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers GM: “I don’t think the fi­nan­cial penal­ties give ev­ery­body a fair chance. They don’t de­ter clubs. That 100% penalty doesn’t seem to scare off a lot of teams.”

It did not scare off the An­gels, who paid $8 mil­lion to sign Baldoquin and $8 mil­lion in the MLB tax. Baldoquin, who is play­ing at Class-A In­land Em­pire, is un­der club con­trol for sev­eral years.

“I don’t think the sys­tem is bro­ken,” Dipoto said.

Said Jon Daniels, Texas Rangers GM: “In my mind, for what Mon­cada signed for, any club could have had him. I don’t think there’s any team in base­ball that hasn’t made a $60-mil­lion com­mit­ment.

“Ob­vi­ously, it’s eas­ier for the Dodgers and other big­mar­ket clubs. You can’t count any team out. It comes down to op­por­tu­nity, cost, eval­u­a­tion of the player and what else you can do with those re­sources.”

Melvin, whose Mil­wau­kee club op­er­ates in the small­est mar­ket in the ma­jor leagues, saw an op­por­tu­nity in Mon­cada. The Brew­ers of­fered him a much quicker path to the ma­jors than did the Red Sox. The Brew­ers also of­fered less than $20 mil­lion— they were pre­pared to go higher, Melvin said, butwere “blownout of the wa­ter.”

Noth­ing new, he said, in a rich team spend­ing its way to what it wanted.

“Be­fore my time, the [New York] Yan­kees were ac­cused of it,” Melvin said. “Now the TV money has made a huge dif­fer­ence. Ev­ery day you see another team with a huge new TV con­tract.”

Rob Man­fred, who is in his first year as base­ball com­mis­sioner, said the tax has not yet been an ef­fec­tive de­ter­rent but that teams such as the An­gels, Red Sox and Yan­kees, who al­ready ex­ceeded their in­ter­na­tional sign­ing bud­get, have yet to suf­fer the full penalty — the in­abil­ity to spend more than $300,000 on any in­ter­na­tional player for the two sub­se­quent years.

“That is go­ing to be a fairly large hand­i­cap,” Dipoto said. “The vol­ume of tal­ent comin­gout of Cuba gives you the op­tion to spend now and sit on your hands for a while.

“If you wanted to play on these play­ers, you have to play now. I don’t think there is go­ing to be a con­stant flow of 20 to 40Cuban play­ers hit­ting the shores of Ma­jor League Base­ball ev­ery year. I be­lieve this is a one-time buy­ing op­por­tu­nity.”

Brynn An­der­son As­so­ci­ated Press

YOAN MON­CADA, an in­fielder, was 19 when he signed with the Bos­ton Red Sox for $62 mil­lion, one of sev­eral Cuban de­fec­tors to re­ceive siz­able MLB con­tracts.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

YASIEL PUIG, the Dodgers’ right fielder, got smug­glers to get him out of Cuba, his fifth ef­fort to es­cape.

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