Two decades ago, Cuban baseball was the great unknown. There was plenty of talent on the island playing in Serie Nacional, but scouts couldn't get there to see it. So they had to settle for glimpses of big league ready players at international tournaments.
Every now and then, a player would sneak out of the country and come to play in the majors—like Ariel Prieto, Livan and Orlando Hernandez.
But the great mass of players were still as much mysteries as players could be in the 21st century. Then slowly, the unknown became the known. Aroldis Chapman, Alexei Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo, Jose Iglesias, Leonys Martin and more came to the States as the trickle of Cuban talent became a torrent.
Nowadays it's easy for teams to watch broadcasts of Serie Nacional games. Cuban players are playing in Japan in the Serie Nacional offseason with government approval.
But scouts can also see Cubans playing with government approval in New Jersey, New York or Quebec.
There were many times Quebec manager Patrick Scalabrini didn't know if we'd get to this point. There were plenty of meetings, plenty of hurdles and lots of hiccups. But here he is now with four Cuban players on his roster, all playing with the official sanction of the Cuban government.
“We did put in a lot of work. It was a roller coaster ride at times," Scalabrini said. “The Cuban government was always welcoming and open minded with us, but there was always something, always a waiting period. It took a long time, but with patience and hard work we finally got it done."
Canada has no embargo with Cuba, so when the Cuban government began loosening restrictions to allow Serie Nacional players to play elsewhere during the league's offseason (other Cuban players have played in Japan, Mexico and European leagues), the Capitales reached out.
The Capitales now have nights where they have four Cubans in their lineup. There's outfielder Alexei Bell, the Serie Nacional MVP in 2007-08 and the first Cuban player to top 30 home runs in a season in Serie Nacional. He's joined in the outfield by Yunieski Gurriel, the oldest member of the talented Gurriel brothers who have been key members of Serie Nacional and Cuban national teams for years. Yordan Manduley is the team's shortstop and Ismel Jimenez is part of the Capitales rotation.
Last year Gurriel was the test case. The Cuban government wanted to see how he would be treated and make sure that he would return home when the season ended. Gurriel hit .321/.376/.411 in his first season in Quebec and when the year was over he went back to play for Industriales just as promised.
With that test passed, Scalabrini went down to Cuba during the offseason with a list of players who he'd like to add to the roster. Cuba responded with its own list of players it was willing to offer.
Political reliability was paramount in determining who Cuba put on the list. It's important for Quebec too. The Capitales know that if a player leaves the team to try to sign a major league contract, the chances are that this arrangement will quickly end.
Gurriel is hitting .373/.430/.390 for Quebec this year but has little major league projection as a 33-year-old on the downside of his career. Bell would generate some big league interest, but the 31-year-old is not the player he was at his peak. He's hitting .312/.344/.440 with two homers for Quebec with more gap power in batting practice.
Manduley is one of the most reliable shortstops in the Can-Am League, but the 29-year-old has a .512 OPS for Quebec. Jimenez will show an 87-90 mph fastball consistently, but he prefers to pitch off his slider and cutter. It's worked well for the Capitales (he's 3-2, 2.02) but the 29-year-old doesn't have the offerings to land a significant contract if he came to the States.
“The one struggle they have is not used to playing every day. They have a lot of days off in Cuba," Scalabrini said.
Quebec's advantage could end quickly if Cubans are allowed to come to play in the U.S. without restriction. But for now, hard work has a payoff. Quebec is 27-21, helped significantly by a strong Cuban presence.
“We don't know how long it will take before it becomes more open. I'm excited for that to happen. I have gotten to know the Gurriels. I would love to see what (Yuniesky's younger brother) Lourdes Jr. can do if he could sign with someone," Scalabrini said. “I'm a baseball fan and a friend I'm excited to see that opportunity. But you're right, we'll lose that edge we've developed over time."