The market for Cuban players—and the way that major league teams are able to scout them—could be on the verge of significant overhaul.
Mexican League officials are in discussions with the Cuban government to import top Cuban players to play in the Mexican League next season. Those players, Baseball America has learned, would play in Cuba's top league, Serie Nacional, during the winter, then could play in Mexico during the spring and summer.
More meetings are expected to occur within the next month to hammer out the mechanics of how Cuban players could be brought to the Mexican League, whose teams are not affiliated with major league organizations, even while the league is technically a member of Minor League Baseball.
The system could potentially allow the Cuban government to make money off the players by leasing their rights to a Mexican team, while the players would be allowed to make a salary from their Mexican club, something they receive little of in Cuba. After the Mexican League season, the players would return to Cuba.
Two former Cuban stars—German Mesa and Omar Linares—are currently in Mexico and confirmed through a translator that they have joined Veracruz of the Mexican League as coaches. Both Mesa and Linares will work with younger Veracruz players in the organization's academy to develop them for the Red Eagles' top team and to sell to major league teams, like Veracruz did three years ago to the Pirates when righthander Luis Heredia turned 16.
The belief in the industry is that the two Mexican League teams most likely to be active in recruiting Cuban players are Campeche and Veracruz, two clubs located in the southeastern region of the country, which have strong relationships in Cuba. Campeche worked out an agreement with the Cuban government to bring star outfielder Alfredo Despaigne and 31-year-old outfielder Yordanis Samon to play in the Mexican League this past season. Despaigne, 27, is a three-time Serie Nacional MVP and arguably the premier offensive player in the country, especially since Jose Abreu left the island. Former Cuban star Pedro Luis Lazo also pitched out of the bullpen for Campeche in 2012 when he was 39.
"There's a very good relationship between the country and the governments for a long time," Mesa said. "It started with Despaigne and Samon. We still haven't figured out what way it's going to go, but it's going to happen sooner or later because of the interest from both countries. There's no time frame yet, but I believe it's going to happen. The situation that happened last year, it's just the beginning of the future."
Mesa, 46, is the former manager of the Industriales team he once played for in Cuba and was highly regarded for his defensive skill at shortstop. Linares, 45, is one of Cuba's all-time greatest players and starred for the 1992, '96 and 2000 Olympic teams, winning two gold medals and a silver. Toward the end of his career from 2002-04, Linares played for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan, an experience he said heavily influences his coaching style.
"I truly believe in the Cuban players getting a chance and I'm grateful for the chance I received to play in Japan," Linares said. "Sooner or later, probably this year, it will be players, and it's just about figuring out the right way to do it. The way it was done last year with Campeche, if teams go the formal way, I don't see any way it won't happen."
While many Cuban games are televised and teams are able to obtain video of those telecasts, for major league scouts, their first-person evaluations of Cuban players typically come only during international tournaments. If Cuba's top players were to be allowed to play in the Mexican League, even though major league teams wouldn't suddenly be able to sign them, it would dramatically alter the way teams are able to evaluate Cuban talent.
The Cuban government has felt the pressure of several of its top stars leaving the island in recent years, including Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes and most recently, Abreu and righthander Miguel Gonzalez. Up-and-coming players like Yasiel Puig, Leonys Martin, Jorge Soler, Dayan Viciedo, Jose Iglesias and Adeiny Hechavarria have bolted from Cuba as well.
Even Leslie Anderson, Yuniesky Maya, Jorge Padron, Adonis Garcia and Juan Carlos Linares, who have not been able to have an impact in the major leagues, were top players in Cuba when they left, further draining the talent pool from the island. Righthanders Raicel Iglesias, Dalier Hinojosa and Odrisamer Despaigne, and shortstops Aledmys Diaz and Alexander Guerrero also played for the Cuban national team in varying roles in the last few years but have since left the country. Allowing the Mexican League teams to pay the players a salary, some believe, could help curb some players from leaving Cuba.
Japan, which already has a history of bringing Cuban players over, could also become involved in the market for Cuban talent. At some point, the Korean Baseball Organization also could become involved.
For Mesa and Linares, much of their role will be to help develop young Mexican players. Mexican League teams frequently sell the rights to players to major league teams, most notably for 16-year-olds such as Yankees lefthander Manny Banuelos, Blue Jays righthander Roberto Osuna or Dodgers lefthander Julio Urias. Barring a change in U.S. law, the system likely would not enable Mexican League teams to sell contracts for Cuban players directly to an MLB team.
"My intention is to bring a little bit of my knowledge to help the good results that the team is already having," Linares said. "My goal is to be part of a process of the development of players to get them to the Mexican League or to get them exported."
With cooperation from the Cuban government, Mexican League teams are expected to bring more Cuban coaches to Mexico, with Veracruz so far leading the way with its investment.
"We brought German and Omar over because not only were they great players, but we believe they're ready to develop the best players they can," said Veracruz president Jose Antonio Mansur. "We're going to keep bringing the best talent available for our players."