Next wave of Cuban players on deck
More prospects from island expected to soon become free agents, reach Majors
PHOENIX -- Sometime in February, new White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu will walk through the doors of Camelback Ranch, the club's Spring Training complex in Arizona, with confidence, a little swagger and the eyes of two nations upon him.
He'll put on his new black workout gear and a helmet, pick up a bat and stroll to the batting cages just like the rest of his Chicago teammates. But unlike most of the men in black and white, this Cuban slugger will follow a path to that can be traced back to island greats like Minnie Minoso, Tony Perez and most recently by Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes and Abreu's new teammates Dayan Viciedo and Alexei Ramirez.
Abreu, a Most Valuable Player while in Cuba, could be the next best thing to come from the island, but only one thing is certain: More players are coming. There are more Cuban prospects expected to become free agents sometime this winter and there's a chance some of them will show up on a big league field in the near future.
Expect the emerging Cuban talent market to be a topic of discussion at next week's Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
"Cuban players for many years have been talented," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "You have 30 teams, everyone needs more players and the reach is beyond the borders of the U.S., so you have players from Cuba, Dominican, Mexico, Venezuela, Asia and Italy. It all comes down to finding as many good players as you can. That's the bottom line."
Colletti knows of what he speaks. The Dodgers signed Puig to a seven-year, $42 million deal last year and the rookie helped thrust the team back into postseason contention last summer. Los Angeles also signed Cuban second baseman Alexander Guerrero to a four-year, $28 million deal in October and he is expected to contribute in 2014. As for Abreu, he signed a six-year, $68 million deal, also in October.
"I think there is a combination of factors driving clubs' interest in Cuban players at this time," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. "First, clubs have seen the impact that Cuban players can have fairly quickly at the Major League level. Whether it was Puig or Cespedes over the last couple of seasons, Alexei and Dayan over the past several for us, or guys like [Jose] Contreras, El Duque [Orlando Hernandez] or others over the past decade, I believe clubs see an avenue for talent procurement that could reap significant rewards relatively quickly.
"Secondly, the appeal of certain Cuban players is increased due to these free agents being available to the signing club at a younger age than domestic free agents, and without Draft-pick compensation attached to them. Lastly, for the ones that qualify, several of these players are available outside the spending limits of the international caps, which allows certain clubs the chance to flex their financial might in the amateur arena."
The list of Cuban players to make a mark in the big leagues in the past few years also includes names like Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman, Texas outfielder Leonys Martin, current free agent Kendrys Morales, Miami's Adeiny Hechavarria and Jose Fernandez, Tampa Bay's Yunel Escobar, Baltimore outfielder Henry Urrutia and Detroit shortstop Jose Iglesias.
In all, there were 17 players from Cuba who played in the Major Leagues in 2013. There should be more in 2014.
In addition to Abreu, right-handed pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez signed with the Phillies, teenage right-hander Leando Linares signed with the Indians and outfield prospect Dariel Alvarez signed with Orioles this year. Right-hander Dalier Hinojosa signed a Minor League deal worth $4.25 million with the Red Sox in October.
"There is risk involved in any free-agent signing, but, yes, it is slightly heightened when dealing with an international free agent," Hahn said. "When your evaluations are limited to international competition or workouts or video, clubs are forced to make scouting assessments that involve more projection than the ones our scouts are asked to make in the States. Fortunately, between video and international play, our scouts are able in some instances to have evaluated the player over a number of years and against different levels of competition, which improves the caliber of the information they are using to draw their conclusions. However, the task is still a difficult one."
The latest crop of Cuban prospects includes shortstop Erisbel Arruebarruena, 23; catcher Yenier Bello, 28; and right-handed pitcher Raciel Iglesias, 23. They are all on their way to becoming free agents. Other Cuban prospects expected to land on the free-agent market in the near future are first baseman Jozzen Cuesta, 25; catcher Josue Franco, 25; right-hander Rogelio Armenteros, 18; and 25-year old outfielders Rusney Castillo and Dayron Varona.
The road to free agency is a complex one.
Any Cuban defector who wants to do business with an American company must first establish residency outside Cuba and the United States, a process that can take several months, depending on the country of residence. Cuban players must also petition Major League Baseball to become free agents and be unblocked by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control before they can enter into a contract with a club. Unblocking can take several weeks.
Cuban players who are at least 23 years old and have played in a Cuban professional league for three or more seasons are exempt from the international signing guidelines established by the collective bargaining agreement, effectively making them free agents once they are eligible to sign with a big league club.
Although the Cuban government has said it will allow its players to play in foreign leagues, the new guidelines will not make it easier for Cuban baseball players to play in the United States because of the 51-year-old U.S. embargo on the country.
"If these players are anything like the wave before them, they will have a lot of success in the big leagues," said Bryce Dixon, who represents Bello. "I feel like if they were treated like any other country, they would have been out here playing and almost be on par with the Dominicans in terms of talent. Teams are realizing they are worth the investment and are going for it."