MLB Makes Major Change For Cuban Players

It appears that Cuban players will now be given exemptions from Major League Baseball’s registration policy, which would have a major impact on Cuban talent and what teams will be able to sign certain players.

Today, the commissioner’s office declared that 16-year-old outfielder Jonatan Machado and 17-year-old second baseman Omar Estevez will both be eligible to sign during the current 2015-16 international signing period. Under MLB’s registration policy, any international player born after Sept. 1, 1995 (like Machado and Estevez) must officially register with the commissioner’s office by May 15 to be eligible to sign during the following signing period that begins annually on July 2.

That rule has created a problem for young Cuban players, who have to leave Cuba and then establish residency in a foreign country before they can even register with the commissioner’s office. So for players like Machado and Estevez, who were believed to still in Cuba as of May 15, they could not have legally registered to sign. Despite language in the CBA that allows leeway for a player to be eligible if “the player has a compelling justification for his failure to register," the commissioner’s office has previously had a blanket policy of not granting exemptions, even for Cuban players.

However, according to today’s memo from the commissioner’s office, the league reviewed the cases of Estevez and Machado and “concluded that their lack of registration was due to no fault of their own. Because the Commissioner’s Office finds that Estevez and Machado have demonstrated compelling justification for their failures to register by the May 15 deadline, they will be deemed eligible to sign as international amateurs beginning October 18, 2015.”

That decision should have a broader impact beyond Estevez and Machado. Outfielder Jorge Ona, a 19-year-old who ranked as the No. 6 player in Baseball America’s April rankings of the Top 20 players in Cuba with equivalent talent of a first-round draft pick, left the country this summer and would have had to wait until the 2016-17 signing period opened on July 2 to sign. Lefthander Cionel Perez and righthander Ronald Bolanos, two young Cuban pitching prospects, were facing the same timetable. Based on the Estevez and Machado precedent, it now appears that they should all become eligible to sign at some point during the current 2015-16 signing period.

That’s a huge game changer given the structure of the international signing system. Four teams--the Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Royals--have exceeded their international bonus pools and won’t be able to sign any pool-eligible players for more than $300,000 for the next two signing periods beginning July 2. The Blue Jays are also over, though not in the maximum penalty range, which means they are facing a one-year restriction of signing pool-eligible players for no more than $300,000 starting next year. But until then, those teams face no additional restrictions, other than a 100 percent overage tax on their pool-eligible signings.

While it looked like those players would be out of the mix for them, now things have changed, especially with the Dodgers and Cubs two teams that have historically been big players on Cuban talent. With the accelerated pace of the international market, teams have already planned out their strategies for the 2016-17 signing class, including oral agreements for some players to sign on July 2. MLB’s new ruling now could alter those plans if teams want to be involved with a potential impact player like Ona. The current 2015-16 signing class already looked to be stocked with young Cuban talent, with infielder/outfielder Randy Arozarena and righthander Norge Ruiz born before the registration cutoff anyway and expected to become free agents subject to the pools during the current period. Cuban outfielder Yusniel Diaz, who ranked as the No. 17 prospect in Cuba in April, was able to register in time after he left Cuba this spring and is already a free agent, as is righthander Vladimir Gutierrez.

The Angels, Diamondbacks, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees all went over their 2014-15 international bonus pools last year, so they are in the first of two years of the $300,000 limits, which means the decisions might not affect them much, but it magnifies the benefits of a Cuban player being eligible to sign now rather than waiting until July 2 when at least 10 teams will be in the penalty box.

The decision could also impact the pace of young Cuban players leaving the island. While Cuban players of all ages are fleeing the country at an escalating rate, some Cuban player handlers had become hesitant to take on young Cuban players, knowing they not only are subject to the bonus pools but might also have to wait more than a year to be eligible to sign because of the registration rules. Now, it appears the registration bottleneck won’t be a factor, which could mean more young Cuban talent arriving faster to major league teams.