Even after Cuban players have met the United States government's requirements to sign, Major League Baseball has put into place its own rule that can delay them from beginning their baseball careers.
Due to the U.S. government's sanctions against Cuba, for a Cuban player to sign with an MLB team he must be defined as an “unblocked national” with the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control in order to work for a U.S. company. One way for a player to become unblocked (and the minimum that the government requires) is to present two permanent residency documents from another country, such as Mexico or the Dominican Republic, to a prospective employer.
As of last summer, MLB told teams they could not sign any Cuban player until he had either been issued an unblocking license from OFAC or produced at least two government documents showing permanent residence in another country. Last June, several notable players, including Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig and Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler, signed after presenting permanent residency documents (Puig from Mexico, Soler from Haiti) without going through OFAC.
However, at some point before the end of 2012, MLB stiffened its requirements for Cuban players, telling teams they are not allowed to sign a Cuban national until the player has been issued a specific license from OFAC. The agency’s general licensing of an unblocked national is not a written document and does not require the player to submit anything to OFAC. The specific license is a document from OFAC to an individual in response to a written application.
What MLB is asking for from Cuban players goes beyond the minimum government requirement and will have the effect of slowing down their signing process, with some having to wait six months to get a license.
"OFAC’s regulations contain a general license authorizing persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction to engage in most transactions with an individual national of Cuba who has taken up permanent residence outside of Cuba," said Jeff Braunger, the program manager at OFAC. "If the conditions of the general license are met, no further authorization from OFAC is required for an MLB team to sign the individual."
No law has changed since June 2012, when Puig and Soler signed; MLB has simply stiffened what it requires. MLB has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
"No further authorization is required from OFAC if an individual or entity falls within the scope of the general license provision and complies with all requirements," Braunger said. "When a proposed transaction is not covered by a general license provision, a specific license may be considered in the alternative, which requires the submission of an application to OFAC and is considered on a case-by-case basis."
Several Cuban signings from last summer may have precipitated the change. Puig and Soler both signed days before July 2 last year, just beating the buzzer before the $2.9 million bonus pools for international signings went into place. Had MLB forced them to go through OFAC, they almost certainly wouldn't have been able to sign before then and would have been subject to the bonus pools.
MLB may have raised concerns that Puig became a permanent Mexican citizen the same month he arrived in Mexico, while Soler and three other players represented by Praver Shapiro Sports Management—Cubs righthander Armando Rivero, Yankees lefthander Omar Luis and Orioles outfielder Henry Urrutia—signed using permanent Haitian residency papers despite living and working out in the Dominican Republic.
While Soler quickly received his visa and within weeks was playing in the Rookie-level Arizona League, Luis, Rivero and Urrutia were stuck in Haiti for nearly eight months due to visa issues.
The government’s unblocking process clearly was not created with baseball players in mind. The overarching purpose is to make sure Cubans working for U.S. companies aren’t sending money back to Cuba or funneling it back to the Cuban government. Baseball players defect from Cuba, making themselves outcasts there, so their intention is never to return to the country.
The easiest way for a Cuban player to become an unblocked national would be to come directly to the United States, but then the player would be subject to the draft. For players like Puig, Soler or Jose Abreu, that would cost them and their handlers significant money. So they want to avoid the draft, and at the same time they want to sign as quickly as possible. Every day the player doesn't get signed creates more expenses for his handlers.
The process also creates incentive for fraud to expedite the process. It's not difficult to acquire false passports or other documents in countries like Haiti or Mexico, no different than the way drug traffickers or arms dealers acquire fake identities.
While MLB investigates the ages and identities of Latin American amateur signings, the commissioner's office doesn't have the same incentive or ability to investigate residency documentation in countries like Haiti or Mexico, where documents are easy to manipulate. So the league is instead leaning on the federal government with its policy change. Getting caught submitting false residency documents to MLB would subject a player to being ineligible to sign for one year. Submitting false residency documents to the federal government would be a felony.
If MLB allowed Cuban players who are exempt from the international bonus pools—those age 23 or older with at least three seasons in Serie Nacional—to sign as free agents even if they established residency in the United States, that might simplify things, but there's no indication that will happen.
So the policy change has caused a longer wait for Cuban players to be able to sign, although there appears to be a significant disparity in the wait time. Sources said that some players have received licenses in less than two months, while others have taken closer to six months. Agents who are able to quickly get their players unblocked can also use that as a selling point to acquire Cuban players when they leave Cuba, squeezing others out of the market.
"We are doing our best to quickly process license applications and it is our goal to respond in a timely manner," Braunger said.
The increased waiting time could end up affecting Abreu, who figures to be one of the more attractive free agents this offseason once he becomes available to sign. It already seems to be delaying Cuban shortstop Alexander Guerrero, who is claiming permanent residency in Haiti. Had MLB's old rules been in place, Guerrero likely would already be signed, and while reports from scouts on him are mixed, he might even be in a major league uniform. But if he doesn't receive his license in the next couple of weeks, that would likely will take him out of the picture for 2013.