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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, Gio Gonzalez, Odrisamer Despaigne, Miguel Gonzalez
  • 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.

William Taft??

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Is William Taft a more random choice for the 5th racing president?  Who here, prior to today, would have even named Taft as a short-list candidate?

Aside from the fact that, last time I checked, there was still only four presidents on Mt. Rushmore, did we really need a 5th racing president?  Does this mean we’ll be introducing a new president every few years from now on?  Does this mean that eventually we’ll have a dozen charicatures of former statesman “racing” to the finish line (inexplicably greeted by a giant felt Lizard, to pay homage to the ever present commercialism rampant in today’s game)?

I will say that after reading Dan Steinberg‘s article in the Saturday Washington Post, that I understand the selection a bit more.  I fully admit that I had no recollection of Taft’s presidency in general, nor did I remember that he and Teddy Roosevelt had a massive argument (which of course is now ripe for mocking during every race), nor that Taft is apparently responsible for both throwing out the first pitch and (by urban legend) establishing the 7th inning stretch.  I’m a bit more on-board now.

However, had I known that making a change was in the works, I think I would have gone in a different direction.  I would have either selected arguably the last remaining inarguable “great” president this country has had (Franklin Roosevelt), or I would have dumped all four of our existing presidents and simply created characatures of the last four sitting presidents to do the racing.  Imagine a race with Barack Obama, the  younger George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and the older George Bush.  How funny could that be?  On a nightly basis you could have each president’s predecessor messing with his successor, or you could play off of each president’s nuances.  There’s equal balance between Republicans and Democrats here, and I’m sure that W. wouldn’t mind being the “Teddy Roosevelt” lovable loser of the group :-)

Written by Todd Boss

January 26th, 2013 at 9:33 am