Alfredo Despaigne is one of the biggest stars in Cuban baseball, a 27-year-old corner outfielder with tremendous power and multiple Serie Nacional MVP awards on his resume.
Thanks to Cuba loosening its restrictions and allowing its players to participate in foreign professional leagues, Despaigne is currently in the Mexican League playing for Campeche, not as a defector but with the permission of the Cuban government.
Except Despaigne is playing there with an interesting twist: Baseball America has confirmed that he's in Mexico on a Dominican passport, giving him dual citizenship in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, a rare distinction that has raised eyebrows.
Cuba made news in September when the government announced that it would allow some players to participate in foreign professional leagues in the summer (the offseason for Cuba). The players would then return to Cuba when their seasons overseas ended.
The Mexican League was expected to be a prime candidate for Cuban talent. Despaigne and fellow outfielder Cuban Yordanis Samon played for Campeche in 2013, and the league was counting on more of the country's top talent arriving this year.
That hasn't happened. Mexican League teams aren't affiliated with major league clubs, but they are associate members of Minor League Baseball. While Minor League Baseball cannot govern the roster rules of the Mexican League, Minor League Baseball officials told the Mexican League at the Winter Meetings that they would prefer the league did not sign Cuban citizens because it could create logistical issues with the Cuban embargo enforced by the United States Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control. So the Mexican League now asks Cuban players to have a passport from another country in order to play in the league.
Gabriel Medina, the media coordinator for the Mexican League, confirmed in an e-mail that Despaigne is using a Dominican passport. What is not clear is how a Cuban resident could acquire a Dominican passport while living in Cuba, or whether Despaigne even knew he was using a Dominican passport.
Despaigne was born in Cuba and has lived there his entire life. The date of issue on Despaigne’s Dominican passport is April 24, 2013, which means he would have had a Dominican passport prior to his June 21, 2013, debut for Campeche last year. Despaigne was in Cuba playing for Pinar Del Rio in April 2013 and played in a game on April 24, 2013. Given how challenging it has been for Cuban defectors to obtain Dominican residency (many recent ones who actually were living in the Dominican Republic have gone through Haiti instead), Despaigne's acquisition of a Dominican passport stands out. Despaigne could not be reached for comment.
"Regarding the investigation—at least for now—we have not considered to make an investigation about the legality of the passport," Medina said.
The Cuban government allows players to play in foreign professional leagues only if it believes they won't defect. The government’s trust in Despaigne is certainly high, as major league teams would pay premium dollars to sign him if given the opportunity. Given that Despaigne now is in possession of a Dominican passport and is in Mexico, he theoretically could announce tomorrow that he has defected, present his Dominican residency documents (which would qualify him for an OFAC unblocking license) to Major League Baseball and request that the league make him a free agent immediately. Another possibility for Despaigne would be to apply for Mexican residency because he is already in Mexico on a work visa.
What would happen from there isn't clear. Despaigne is under contract to Campeche, and if he defected it's not clear whether Campeche would control his rights. For typical players under control of a Mexican League team that want to sign with major league organizations—such as Julio Urias when the Dodgers signed him from the Mexico City Red Devils in 2012—the Mexican League team receives about 75 percent of the signing value.
Despaigne, who is hitting .333/.377/.611 with five home runs in 18 games for Campeche, isn't the only Cuban player who's abroad this year. Frederich Cepeda, one of the best hitters in Cuba, has already taken advantage of the country's new rules, as Cuba negotiated a one-year, $1.5 million contract for him to play for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball. Star third baseman Yulieski Gourriel is expected to join him in Japan to play for the Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars on a contract reportedly worth around $1 million. By contrast, the most Despaigne could be making as a second-year player in Mexico is $10,000 per month, though the terms of his deal have not been made public. Lefthander Norberto Gonzalez and first baseman Juan Carlos Pedroso have also signed to play for Nettuo 2 in the Italian Baseball League.