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What the Cuban embargo easing means for baseball

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No more death-defying defections for cubans like Yasiel Puig.  photo mlb.com

No more death-defying defections for cubans like Yasiel Puig. photo mlb.com

With the sudden and surprising announcement that president Barack Obama plans to “normalize relationships” with Cuba on 12/17/14, one cannot help but wonder how this move will affect the market for Cuban baseball players.

Here’s a smattering of links to post-announcement baseball industry impact analysis:

If you read any of these links, read Olney’s.  Its ESPN insider only, but he extensively quotes one Joe Kehoskie, who has worked as a player agent within Cuba for years.  Kehoskie states some important points, namely and most importantly, the US-Cuba embargo is NOT what was preventing Cuban players from playing in America; it was always the Cuban government.  Proof?  Cuba does not have an embargo against it with any other country with a large organized league (i.e., Japan, Korea, Mexico, Europe, any of the winter league countries, etc) yet their players were barred from playing even in them until just recently.  The Cuban government took these steps just recently to enable its players to play elsewhere; in Sept 2013 Cuban players were allowed to play in foreign leagues, which has subsequently led to a number of additional defections (and rising player contracts) here in the states.  But as Kehoski points out, there’s still huge hurdles to foreign ownership of property in Cuba (preventing the immediate building of academies by MLB teams for example), and it is worth saying that the country is still a communist dictatorship, with huge amounts of government control over the activities of its people.

Lets dream a bit though, and imagine that the Cuban government relents and releases the market for baseball players.  Immediate questions from a baseball perspective include:

  • Can MLB scouts immediately (and freely) travel to Cuba to scout?  It seems so: the Obama press release talked about immediate easing of travel restrictions and stated limits on import/exports (they had to answer multiple questions about bringing back cigars in the press conference :-) )
  • Will the Cuban league negotiate a posting system similar to what MLB has with the Asian leagues?
  • Or, will MLB teams set up their own academies similarly to what they do in the Dominican Republic?

MLB teams will want the academy route clearly; it won’t take but a few million dollars of infrastructure to setup teams and dormitories, and 16-yr olds could be signed for a few thousand dollars outside of harsh international FA spending limits much as they are in the DR.  But the Cuban government may want to do a posting system to help protect its local leagues and to earn much-needed money.   Not to mention the fact that Cuban culture values education and they’d likely be aghast if kids started dropping out of conventional school in their mid teens to enroll in baseball-only academies for a shot at a baseball lottery ticket.  Also, can you imagine billionaire owners negotiating with the cronies of the communist Cuban sports bureaus looking to hoard cash on the backs of their penniless players?

A huge benefit that could start immediately?  The possible return of the Cuban winter league, which used to be the clear preeminent winter league, drawing future hall of famers to the island for a winter vacation.  Now, Havana in the 50s isn’t what it is today of course … but if the Cuban government relents to foreign investment, there’s no reason for Cuba not to turn into another tourist-heavy island nation in the same way that other Caribbean countries operate.

One last thing: I’ve always taken an interest in the World Baseball Classic, and one of the things I’ve always wondered is what a united Cuban team could look like.  In the wake of the 2013 event, I wrote about what such a “politics-free” team could look like.  And now, two years and a number of high-profile defections later, I think a Cuban team could be even better.  Will we get to see a united team in the next version?   Hopefully so; the next WBC isn’t until 2017, by which time we’ll hopefully have a lot more clarity.   If you look at the 2013 version of the unified Cuban team, It lists Jose Abreu as a sub; now we know he’d be the marquee hitter in such a lineup next to Yoenis Cespedes.  And more players are coming.  In fact, you may put a unified cuban team as the 2nd or 3rd favorite in the WBC (behind the DR and USA).

Here’s a quick proffer on what a unified Cuban all-star team could look like right now.  Using the 2013 team as a starter and adding in recent defectees:

  • C: Yasmani Grandal
  • 1B: Jose Abreu
  • 2B: Yunel Escobar
  • 3B: Yonder Alonso
  • SS: Yoan Moncada (backed up by Alexei Ramirez)
  • LF: Yoenis Cespedes
  • CF: Yasiel Puig
  • RF: Yasmani Tomas
  • Starters: Jose Fernandez, Odrisamer Despaigne, Miguel Gonzalez
    (Gio Gonzalez was born in Cuba, but has already played for the US, so we eliminate him from consideration).
  • Relievers: Aroldis Chapman

That’s quite a good squad to start with, even without looking at the lesser Cuban players and/or the guys in the pipeline.

Post publishing link collection: Sports on Earth’s Phil Rogers on the future of the Cuban National team: he basically does a more researched and thoughtful version of the lineup above.  Nathaniel Grow of Fangraphs does his own version of this post in general.   Chris Moran of Beyond the box Score also does a version of this post.  Craig Calcaterra pipes in too.  Thom Loverro puts up his 2 cents.  BusinessInsider quotes super-agent Ron Shapiro and his “sea of questions” regarding baseball players.

What could a full Team-Cuba look like without Politics?

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Team Cuba looks good so far; imagine them with Cespedes and all their other MLB stars. Photo wiki/flickr hj_west

I just finished re-reading The Duke of Havana, a great book about the back story of Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, his rise to the top (and subsequent political fall from grace) in Cuban professional baseball, his escape from his home-land, his rise with the 1998 New York Yankees, and the general politics/life of typical Cubans in the post-USSR era.  Despite the crushing effects of the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba over the last 40 years, the island continues to produce MLB-quality baseball players.  Of course, thanks to the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries, when it comes time for the World Baseball Classic, we can’t see a unified Cuban team.   Cubans who have escaped to play in America can never go back, and (as detailed in the book), often times leave behind wives, children and family who are subsequently pressured politically by Castro’s hacks.

I wondered what could an all-Cuba team really look like, if MLB players and other expatriots were allowed to re-unite with the current set of known Cuban amateur stars?  Using some of the same methods as in my “All Virginia” post, by searching for those born in Cuba along with some well-known Cuban Americans (per the politics link above), here’s a possible WBC roster of maximum strength for Team Cuba:

Manager: Fredi Gonzalez of the Atlanta Braves.  We’d get Cuban hall-of-famer Tony Perez out of semi-retirement (he was coaching at a small college in Georgia recently).

Positional Players:

  • C: Yasmani Grandal or J.P. Arencibia
  • 1B: Kendrys Morales or Gaby Sanchez
  • 2B: Yunel Escobar or Sean Rodriguez
  • 3B: Yonder Alonso
  • SS: Yuniesky Betancourt or Alexei Ramirez (2006 WBC Team Cuba member)
  • LF: Yoenis Cespedes (2009 WBC team member)
  • CF: John Jay (parents born in Cuba, emigrated to US before birth)
  • RF: Leonys Martin (2009 WBC team member) or Dayan Viciedo

Reserves: Yasiel Puig, Jorge Soler, Alberto Castillo, Jose Iglesias, Juan Miranda, Adeiny Hechavarria, Brayan Pena, Eddy Rodriguez

Best Cuban amateurs (aka, the leading defection candidates): Alfredo Despaigne (just named MVP of round 1 of pool play), Alexei Bell, Yulieski Gourriel,  Jose Abreu (the consensus #1 Cuban amateur prospect right now).

Thoughts: There’s some talent in this lineup; Cuba has developed some power hitters over the past few years but seems to specialize more in middle infielders (most of these reserves are middle infield prospects).  But a potential 3-4-5 of Morales-Cespedes-Alonso is nothing to shake a stick at.  I think this team could score some runs and would be excellent defensively.

Starting Pitchers

  • Gio Gonzalez
  • Jose Contreras
  • Livan Hernandez
  • Yunesky Maya (2006 and 2009 WBC team member)
  • Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez we’ll get him out of retirement; i’m sure he can still throw)

Relievers

  • Aroldis Chapman (2009 WBC team member)
  • Francisely Bueno
  • Raul Valdez
  • Danys Baez (retired in 2011)

Thoughts: So, we’re a little light on pitching, it seems.  We make use of Gonzalez’ first generation in USA status to steal him away from Team USA.  But after him the starting pitching gets light (even if you push Chapman into a starting role as Cincinnati is looking to do in 2013).   Contreras is a career 101 ERA+ guy, Livan may not have a job in 2013 and all nats fans can speak to what Maya brings to the table at this point.  I threw in El Duque despite him probably being close to 50 at this point (B-R lists his birthday in 1965); he was always in great shape and probably could throw a few junk balls up there right now.

Miscellany: Here’s links to Cuba’s 2006 WBC roster, their 2009 roster and their 2013 roster.  And here’s as complete a list of Cuban defectors as I can find on the internet.