The next few days could shape the future for Alfredo Despaigne, one of the biggest stars in Cuban baseball, in a situation major league clubs will be following closely.
As part of the Cuban government's policy change to allow players to participate in foreign professional leagues during the summer, then return to Cuba afterward, Despaigne has been playing for the Campeche Pirates of the Mexican League since late April. However, as we reported on Tuesday, Despaigne has been playing in Mexico on a Dominican passport, which seemed rather curious, to put it mildly. Since then, Dominican authorities have told ESPN Deportes that Despaigne's passport is fraudulent.
That's no surprise. The date of issue on Despaigne's Dominican passport is April 24, 2013, even though Despaigne played for Campeche last year on a Cuban passport. Despaigne was born in Cuba and has lived there his whole life, of course, and he was in Cuba in April 2013 playing in Serie Nacional, including an April 24 game when he played left field for Pinar Del Rio. It's unlikely Despaigne has ever even been in the Dominican Republic.
While a Mexican League spokesperson told Baseball America on Monday that the league had not yet launched an investigation into Despaigne's passport, league president Pilinio Escalante was quoted in ESPN Deportes on Tuesday saying there is now an investigation ongoing. With the Dominican government saying that the passport is fake, the next course of action for the Mexican League is to determine what sanctions it might take against Despaigne and possibly Campeche.
What's going to happen next will have massive ramifications for Despaigne's future. The league will likely try to determine whether Despaigne was aware that he was using a false Dominican passport, and whether Campeche had any involvement in helping him acquire a false passport. Once it reaches a decision—and sources believe one could come by the end of the week—these are two possible outcomes that could dramatically shape Despaigne's future.
1. The Mexican League suspends Despaigne
If the Mexican League wants to punish Despaigne, the league can suspend him for using fraudulent documents. [Note: I previously wrote, incorrectly, that a Mexican League suspension would mean Despaigne could not play in MLB. While the Mexican League is affiliated with Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball recognizes the contractual agreements of Mexican League teams, Major League Baseball does not have any agreement to recognize Mexican League suspensions.] At that point, Despaigne would likely return to Cuba. Perhaps he could follow in the steps of Frederich Cepeda and Yulieski Gourriel by signing with a team in Japan, either this year or in the future.
2. The Mexican League declares Despaigne ineligible to play (here's where it gets very interesting)
Instead of suspending Despaigne for a set period of time, the Mexican League could declare that Despaigne is ineligible to play in the league due to not having the proper paperwork to play. Since the Mexican League is an associate member of Minor League Baseball, which is subject to the United States' embargo against Cuba, the league asks that Cuban nationals present residency from a foreign country to play in the league. [As an aside, whether Despaigne or another Cuban national who has not defected presents residency from another country seems like it should be irrelevant to the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which enforces the embargo, since the player is still a Cuban resident and will be taking his earnings with him back to Cuba.]
The distinction between a suspension and being declared ineligible to play could potentially be enormous. If he's declared ineligible to play, that only means Despaigne lacks the current paperwork to participate in the Mexican League. Being declared ineligible to play would not preclude him in the future from playing in the league—or in MLB—once he acquires the proper paperwork.
Since Despaigne is currently in Mexico on a work visa, he could decide to apply for residency in Mexico. Once he does that, Despaigne could choose to renounce his Cuban citizenship, say he is now a Cuban defector and a Mexican resident, and ask MLB to make him a free agent immediately, exempt from the bonus pools due to his age and experience in Cuba. Since Despaigne's Dominican passport was fraudulent, his contract with Campeche would seem highly likely to be invalidated, although that's not 100 percent certain yet. Even if somehow Despaigne's contract isn't terminated, his deal with Campeche ends after this season anyway.
That would potentially put a major league ready, premium power-hitting corner outfielder on the free agent market, no draft pick compensation attached or prospects to part with at the trade deadline, right in the middle of the 2014 season. Given how heavily Despaigne has been scouted over the last several years as a star on the Cuban national team, it's possible he could sign without even putting on any showcases if a team wanted him badly enough.
Of course, deciding to defect is an enormous decision, and it's possible Despaigne would prefer to stay in Cuba. But if Despaigne has any aspirations to play in MLB, all of the pieces would seem to be falling into place for him to make that jump, without having to get on a boat run by human smugglers, if the Mexican League declares him ineligible to play instead of suspending him and terminates his contract with Campeche.
What might influence the league's decision? If the Mexican League believes Despaigne knew he was using a false passport, it might lean toward suspending him. But if the league determines that Despaigne had no knowledge of what was happening, it might decide to simply declare him ineligible to play.
For some teams, Despaigne is the best player remaining in Cuba, although Gourriel and second baseman/third baseman Jose Fernandez are also in that discussion, with Cepeda still a talented hitter but already 34 years old. Despaigne is an aggressive hitter prone to all-or-nothing swings out of a stocky 5-foot-9, 215-pound frame, but he has 80 raw power on the 20-80 scale, with more bat speed and the ability to jack balls even farther than White Sox Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu.
That's why the Mexican League's decision could have far-reaching effects, ones that could perhaps have an impact on major league teams very soon.