Will The American Baseball Invasion Continue For Cuban Peloteros?

The gradual normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba seems to be progressing nicely. Full diplomatic protocol has resumed since the embassies of both countries opened on July 20th and with a bit of luck, American tourists will be able to escape the bitter cold of an an approaching winter by becoming acquainted with the island’s pristine beaches. Sure, it irritates me when the Castro brothers clench their fists in the air and proclaim victory. Then again, I’m pleased that a pending influx of U.S. dollars might help free everyday Cubans from the shackles of poverty.

What grabs my attention more, however, is how this important time in history will affect Cubans wishing to visit our nation. Will both governments approve documentation for families to vacation here and students who wish to attend a university? Or will visas be issued only to political figures and the elite? I’m also curious to see if these changes will enhance the opportunity for Cuban baseball players to prove their talents here without contemplating elaborate schemes to escape an oppressive regime. My gut feeling tells me it ain’t gonna happen and in fact, tighter measures are being explored through legal avenues involving Major League Baseball.

Folks need to understand that baseball is a fiber of life in Cuba.

To fully grasp the situation, folks need to understand that baseball is a fiber of life in Cuba, much like it was in the States before we fell in love with the violence of American football. Cuban authorities are keenly aware of what happened when big league teams built plush training camps and academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, and how it robbed these countries of all their homegrown heroes. An international free agent selection process was soon initiated, and those athletes became eligible to sign enormous contracts. It was this “draft” of sorts that produced super stars like Felix Hernandez, Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez and Robinson Cano, who will bank a staggering $27.5 million this year in salary and endorsements. International free agency has ruined professional summer leagues throughout most of Latin America. And even though Cuba’s prestigious Serie Nacional is played from November through February, the talent drain is starting to take its toll, because once athletes make a decision to leave leave Cuba, they can never return.

During the last three years, more than 350 peloteros have defected from the communist island they used to call home. Only a small percentage have actually made it to “The Show,” but the success stories are well-documented. Rumsley Castillo, Jose Abreu and Yasmany Tomas all signed package deals that range from $68 to $80 million, with Yasiel Puig, Aroldis Chapman, Alexi Ramirez and others not far behind. The Cuban government understands that it is losing the war to prevent the “American Dream,” and is planning a change in strategy to control future damage. Over the past two years, the Cuban Sports Ministry has approved informal deals for a few established, loyal players like Frederich Cepeda, Yulieski Gourriel and Alfredo Despaigne to play in Japan, with the government pocketing a portion of their earnings. Such an arrangement would never be approved by MLB nor the powerful players union here. But if a “posting system” was in place that would require big league teams to bid for the rights to negotiate with a player, business could be conducted with clear-cut rules and the government would create an endless source of revenue at its disposal.

Frederich Cepeda
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“It (posting system) would put an end to player defections, and they would be able to sign contracts like any other player from Latin America,” says Cepeda, 34, a veteran who would likely never reap the rewards of such a deal.

Here’s how the agreement would work:

For scouts, money-hungry agents and underworld “coyotes,” there is no need to panic just yet.

After a player performs for a period of about five to seven years in the Serie Nacional, he would be eligible for free agency and MLB teams could bid for his services. This is the same arrangement that players from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Mexico must follow. The bidding “cap” is set at $20 million with the money going to the player’s former team, which in the case of Cuba would be the Sports Ministry. The club with the winning bid then gains the exclusive rights to negotiate a contract with the player for a set period of time. While Asian players are paid well, especially in Japan, a Cuban player trying to support his family on government subsidies would agree to any pact in a New York minute. Furthermore, the established waiting period would give Cuba plenty of time to develop new talent for the Serie Nacional and International summer tournaments.

Obviously, such a system would be a win-win for the Cuban government, but not quite as attractive for players. Exposure to outside opportunities would be much more limited, and perhaps even controlled by higher authorities. That’s why there has been a surge of defections in recent months, most notably Eddy Julio Martinez, a 20 year outfielder and teenage pitching sensation Yadier Alvarez. And just last month, Serie Nacional regulars Yadiel Hernandez and Yander La O jumped ship during the America’s Baseball Festival in Cary, North Carolina, an event that proved to be an embarrassment for the Cubans. The team was no-hit in one game and beaten by lowly Canada in another.

For scouts and their “bird dogs,” money-hungry agents and underworld “coyotes,” there is no need to panic just yet. There will be lots of buzz regarding Cuban issues during the Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, and I’m guessing Cuban Baseball Commissioner Heriberto Suarez Pereda will be in attendance. There will be plans made for exhibition games between Cuba and MLB teams during training camps next spring as well as other good will events. All that is great for publicity. The bottom line, though, is that the Collective Bargaining Agreement between owners and the Players Association doesn’t expire until the end of the 2016 season. But that means it’s only a matter of time before the Cuban government will be able to control the fate of its baseball players, both on the island and abroad. And amigos, that is indeed a game-changer.