The next step toward an influx of Cuban players coming to Major League Baseball teams is underway. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced sweeping changes in the United States’ Cuban policies, easing trade and travel restrictions, announcing the opening of a U.S. embassy in Cuba and saying the countries will continue discussions to try to normalize their relationship.
For Cuban players to more freely come to MLB, the 54-year U.S. embargo against Cuba still needs to be lifted. That requires congressional approval, with Obama saying that he looks forward to “engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.” Cuban president Raul Castro also spoke publicly Wednesday, urging the U.S. to disband the embargo.
To anyone following U.S.-Cuban politics and the direction of Cuban baseball, the trends in recent years have been clear. The MLB commissioner’s office has had internal discussions about what to do if the embargo was lifted and Cuba ever opened up. So have team personnel.
It’s not clear what’s next, although nothing is likely to happen for the 2015 season. Beyond that, however, major changes could be in store in terms of how MLB teams procure Cuban talent.
If the embargo is lifted, there could suddenly be hundreds of professional-caliber players available to teams. Some could be immediate all-stars, others have a chance to be steady, everyday players, others could be role players or bullpen arms, with a high volume of players capable of handling a minor league assignment, ranging from talented young prospects to players who would be organizational filler types. If it wasn’t obvious before, every MLB organization needs to have a full-time Cuban supervisor. Some of them already do, but many are still playing catch-up.
It’s highly unlikely, however, that there would be a sudden free-for-all on Cuban talent. MLB doesn’t want that. Neither does the Cuban government. Both sides would want to establish some order to what would be an extremely complicated process for all sides to navigate, one that certainly will involve mistakes along the way, not due to incompetence but just the sheer complexity of accounting for every detail and unintended consequence that will pop up.
Envisioning A New System
The commissioner’s office will want control over a potentially chaotic situation, and to put the best Cuban players in MLB uniforms. From Cuba’s perspective, the Cuban government and Cuban baseball officials want to ensure two things:
1. That the Cuban league, Serie Nacional, remains up and running
2. That they make money for themselves in the process
Cuba, as Baseball America reported in September 2013, is already open to allowing its players to participate in other leagues. We have seen this system begin to play out in Cuba’s relationship with other foreign professional leagues, most notably Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. Last summer, the Cuban government brokered contracts for four players to spend the season with Japanese teams, then return home in the winter to play for Cuba during the Serie Nacional season, which now runs from September through April.
By essentially leasing some of its top stars to Japanese teams, the NPB clubs received stars such as third baseman Yulieski Gourriel and outfielder Alfredo Despaigne, talents far beyond what they typically receive for a good Triple-A import. The Cuban players get to make some money, while the Cuban government takes a cut of those deals for themselves, with the exact commission unconfirmed.
The Cuban government expected to be able to have a lucrative program doing the same thing through the Mexican League, but that idea was terminated when major league officials expressed concern about potential embargo violations and Despaigne was caught using what was obviously a fraudulent Dominican passport to play in the league.
Major league teams want the ability to scoop up as much talent as they can, but the commissioner’s office will want order to the process. Making every Cuban player suddenly a free agent would be a nightmare.
What’s most likely to happen—and what some prominent Cuban baseball officials are pushing for—is some type of system that’s a cross between the relationship MLB holds with the Mexican League and the posting system it has with Asian foreign professional leagues such as NPB and the Korea Baseball Organization. When teams sign Mexican players, they are usually targeting 16-year-olds (like Dodgers lefthander Julio Urias and Blue Jays righthander Roberto Osuna, among many others), the majority of whom are already affiliated with Mexican League teams. The teams train and develop those players, sell them to major league teams and take a 75 percent cut for themselves.
MLB already recognizes Serie Nacional as a foreign professional league. So what some Cuban baseball officials want is to become another version of the Mexican League, which could potentially include an associate affiliation with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (also known as Minor League Baseball), just like the Mexican League, or some other type of agreement with MLB.
Cuba could then sell players directly to MLB teams. Except instead of teams targeting 16-year-olds, they would be signing several ready-made big leaguers. So there could be a posting system, like MLB has with NPB and the KBO, where Cuba informs MLB that a player is ready to be made available to MLB teams, and the player could be signed through the posting system.
The NPB and KBO posting systems are different. In Japan, the team sets a “release fee” up to $20 million. Every MLB team is free to negotiate with the player and the team that signs the player is required to pay the release fee to the Japanese team. The KBO operates under the old Japanese posting system, where teams submit a posting bid, and if the KBO team accepts the highest bid, only the winning bidder is allowed to negotiate with the player.
Given that MLB would hold significant power in negotiations, something along the lines of the Japanese posting system seems more likely, although the Cuban government could potentially double dip if it’s negotiating the contract and getting a commission on the deal as well.
One complicating factor: the international bonus pools. Players who are at least 23 and have played five seasons in a foreign professional league, such as Serie Nacional, are exempt from the pools. That was the case with Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo and Diamondbacks outfielder Yasmany Tomas, as well as Yankees righthander Masahiro Tanaka when he came over from Japan through the posting system a year ago.
The younger players, though, are subject to the pools, which were designed with a focus on mostly Latin American amateur signings of players age 16-18. Some teams have already spent well beyond their 2014-15 bonus pools, which results in a tax on 100 percent of their pool overage and no signings for more than $300,000 the next two signing periods, without signing any Cuban players. That’s starting to change though, with the Angels breaking their pool to sign shortstop Roberto Baldoquin, while infielders Yoan Moncada and Andy Ibanez are certain to cause teams to exceed their pools to land them.
A sudden splash of pool-eligible players such as outfielder Victor Mesa, shortstop Lourdes Gourriel, righthander Vladimir Gutierrez and outfielder Jorge Ona would just create a larger mess. It would also take money away from the 16-year-old kids from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other countries, the ones for whom the pools were originally designated. Even without an end to the embargo, MLB’s international bonus pool system needs an overhaul, so the pools are an area the commissioner’s office will have to work through after the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires on Dec. 1, 2016.
Future Of Baseball In Cuba
As for the Cuban league, Serie Nacional would still exist, but it would have to change. It’s already changed, anyway. Cuban baseball officials have recognized the intense drain of talent the league has suffered as a result of defections. The league has lost its top stars like Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Abreu, along with top up-and-coming talent like Yasiel Puig, Jorge Soler and Leonys Martin. Even beyond them, players who are no more than organizational types by MLB standards (many of whom never even end up signing) have left Cuba, where many were solid everyday players, some even all-stars in the league.
So two years ago, the league divided itself into two halves. The teams with the eight best records in the 16-team league during the first half continued to play in the second half. Those top eight teams supplemented their second-half rosters by drafting players from teams who were eliminated in the first half (those players return to their original clubs the next season). Even if nothing changed between the U.S. and Cuba, more changes were likely on the way, including talk of potentially consolidating the numbers of teams in the league. Perhaps Cuba could even open up the league to allow foreign players to participate.
One question that MLB and Cuban teams would have to sort through would be whether Cuban players who sign with MLB teams would still play in Cuba. The Cuban agreement with Japanese teams allows players like Gourriel, Despaigne and Frederich Cepeda to play for their NPB teams, then they go back to Cuba and play for their Serie Nacional clubs. Those players all took a breather and didn’t play at the beginning of the current 2014-15 Serie Nacional season, but they’re essentially playing year-round baseball, including stints on the Cuban national team. MLB teams won’t be as accommodating, especially with pitchers, who would be prone to overuse and abuse if they spent their MLB offseason pitching in Serie Nacional. Something would have to be worked out, maybe on a case-by-case basis, to try to satisfy all parties involved. One good thing is that, if a player’s career in the U.S. doesn’t work out and he gets released, he could potentially rejoin Serie Nacional full-time, something that obviously isn’t an option right now for players who have left Cuba.
The Cuban national team is also a great source of pride for the country. The shape of that team could change dramatically. Imagine a 2017 World Baseball Classic that has not just Gourriel and Despaigne, but also gets to use Abreu, Puig, Aroldis Chapman and other Cuban-born stars who currently can’t play for their native country. The WBC would be a relatively easy sell for most teams that aren’t paranoid, but many of the international tournaments Cuba takes seriously occur during the middle of the MLB season. Any player on a major league roster would almost certainly be out of the question for those events, although teams do let their prospects participate in them sometimes, so there could be flexibility there.
The Cuban government is open to its players playing abroad, whether it’s NPB, the Mexican League or MLB. And MLB wants Cuban players to come over. Right now, that can’t happen, but the sense on both sides was that things were on the verge of changing, even before Obama’s announcement of proposed restructuring of the countries’ relationship.
There won’t be an immediate change in baseball because there are still laws to change and steps to work out, but the arrows are all pointing in the same direction. The most likely future will draw from MLB’s relationship with the Mexican League and the posting agreements in Asia. MLB teams would have access to the top Cuban talent. The Cuban league could continue to operate and would make money like Mexican and Japanese teams do by selling players to MLB teams. Cuban players would have more freedom to come to the United States, earn salaries from MLB teams and return home in the offseason.
There are no guarantees that will happen or what will come next, but the commissioner’s office has plenty of options and scenarios it must run through to come up with a solution for its future relationship with Cuba.