By Kevin Baxter
December 3, 2002
Photo: Patty Ortin
Cuban defector Jose Ariel Contreras arrived last week in Nicaragua where he is expected to seek residency, the first step toward becoming a baseball free agent.
According to a story published in La Prensa, Nicaragua's leading newspaper, Contreras was invited to the country by Aníbal Zuniga, general manager of the San Fernando team in Nicaragua's seven-team winter league. According to the newspaper, Zuniga's petition to the Nicaraguan immigration authority said Contreras was seeking entry to the country to work with San Fernando,” said Luis Salazar, assistant to the director of the immigration authority.
Contreras, ace of the Cuban pitching staff and widely regarding as the best amateur pitcher in the world, is expected to give clinics and may pitch for the league-leading Tigers to demonstrate his fitness for major league clubs. But the real reason for the visit is to establish a Nicaraguan address, which would allow him to petition the commissioner's office for free-agent status.
Miami attorney Jaime L. Torres, Contreras' agent, promised last month he would take “whatever steps are necessary” to have his client declared a free agent, which could mean millions of dollars when major league teams line up to sign Contreras. Torres did not return calls seeking comment.
In accordance with U.S. State Department regulations Major League Baseball prohibits its teams from negotiating with Cuban nationals, meaning defectors must first establish residency outside Cuban before they can sign professional contracts. If MLB decides Contreras, who defected in Mexico and was apprehended by U.S. immigration officials near San Diego on Oct. 2, is a U.S. resident, he will be subject to the rules governing U.S., Canadian and Puerto Rican-born players. That is, he will have to enter the June amateur draft and can negotiate only with the team that selects him.
But as a resident of any other country, Contreras would be considered a free agent, able to negotiate with all 30 big league teams. That's the route several high-profile defectors such as Orlando “El Duque” HernÍndez, Rolando Arrojo, Livan Hernandez, Vladimir Nunez and others have taken. But last year MLB refused to accept as valid paperwork presented by two defectors claiming Dominican residency and Sandy Alderson, MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations, said earlier this month at the general managers' meeting in Tucson that Contreras' application would receive similar scrutiny.
The Yankees, Mariners, Phillies and Red Sox have already expressed interest in Contreras, who some baseball sources believe may ask for more than $10 million a year.
Contreras, who turns 31 this month, was 117-50, 2.82 in Cuban league play, including a 13-4 record and league-best 1.76 ERA last season. But he's best known in the U.S. for the eight shutout innings he pitched against the Baltimore Orioles during a televised exhibition game from Havana three years ago. In that game Contreras allowed just two hits and struck out 10, including Albert Belle twice.
Kevin Baxter covers baseball for the Miami Herald.