Sports Nut

The Cubans Are Coming!

Dozens of ballplayers are leaving the island for the major leagues. There’s a lot more where they came from.

Check out our Magnum Photos gallery on baseball in Cuba, Japan, and the United States. 

Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman 

Nine months ago, Cuban lefthander Aroldis Chapman walked away from a hotel in Holland and got a $30 million deal from the Cincinnati Reds. Chapman’s defection from the Cuban national team wasn’t an isolated act: Pitcher Noel Arguelles recently got $7 million from the Royals, shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria netted $10 million from the Blue Jays, and first baseman Leslie Anderson scored a minimum of $1.725 million from the Rays. Jorge Ebro, a Cuban exile and reporter for Miami’s El Nuevo Herald who has broken the news of several of these deals, reports that defectors have taken in almost $60 million in contracts since July.

Trade embargo notwithstanding, we are clearly in the midst of a boom in Cuban baseball imports. Yahoo Sports recently reported that at least 19 Cuban émigrés have been cleared to play by Major League Baseball since 2009—more Cuban nationals than entered the majors between 2000 and 2009. What’s behind the sudden push? Big-league money is attractive to Cuban players, who are estimated to make somewhere between $20 to $40 a month. But that’s always been the case. It’s why Rolando Arrojo hopped a fence at an Olympic practice field in Georgia in 1996, and it’s the reason Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez braved (supposedly) shark-infested waters to come to America a year later. It seems that it’s not the big money alone that is getting the island’s attention—it’s who’s getting it.

Consider Jose Iglesias. In July, the Red Sox signed the 19-year-old shortstop to a four-year, $8.25 million contract, an announcement that lost a headline battle to Dustin Pedroia’s pregnant wife in the Boston Herald’s “Red Sox Notebook.” According to Ebro, Iglesias’ signing made bigger news in Cuba, where the teenager wasn’t considered a budding superstar. “Jose Iglesias was never a player on the ‘big team,’ ” Ebro says, referring to Cuba’s top national squad. “I can tell you there are three better shortstops in Cuba right now.”

Then there was the case of Dayan Viciedo. Kit Krieger, a Cuban baseball expert from Canada who runs baseball tours to the island, notes that Viciedo was a power-hitting phenom, signing to play in the Serie Nacional (Cuba’s equivalent to our major leagues) as a 15-year-old. But he never lived up to his early potential, his production and development stagnating while his batting average dropped and his weight shot up. Even so, Viciedo signed with the White Sox in November 2008 for $10 million. “I think people said, ‘My God, if Viciedo gets $10 million, what am I worth?’ ” Krieger says.

The reaction was different when Jose Contreras signed a $32 million deal with the Yankees in 2002. Contreras, the top pitcher in Cuba, was universally thought to deserve his big bucks. It took contracts like Viciedo’s—big money for a faltering prospect—to inspire wanderlust in Cuban ballplayers, perhaps something akin to the feeling that trained vocalists get watching the first few rounds of American Idol.

If Cuban baseball experts are to be believed, these big contracts could very well be the result of poor scouting. Longtime Dodgers scout and Cuba native Mike Brito scoffs at the money the Rays paid out for Leslie Anderson, noting that the 28-year-old has only a good-to-average arm, but “no power to play first base or outfield—and he doesn’t have speed.” But given that Cuban players can be evaluated only when they travel with the national team or after they’ve defected, it’s unfair to be too rough on the major league scouts. It’s also worth being a tiny bit skeptical of the notion that Cuba is littered with scores of better ballplayers.

It’s easy to be seduced by the mystique surrounding Cuban ballplayers—the promise of raw talent, shrouded in mystery and kept out of view to all but a few sources privy to the secrets of the island. Nevertheless, there’s logic behind the argument that Cuba is an untapped hardball gold mine. “If the Dominican Republic can produce so many big leaguers, Cuba will produce more,” e-mails Baseball America Editor-in-Chief John Manuel, who says that the game is taught well in Cuba and is more organized than it is in the D.R. (It’s worth noting that Manuel is one of the few knowledgeable sources on Cuban baseball who doesn’t have anything to gain by talking up the country’s talents.) And Brito says that while he has respect for the talents of the Dominican, Venezuelan, and Puerto Rican players, “Cuba is Cuba.”

It’s an open question exactly how many big leaguers are plying their trade on the island. A few players—center fielder Alfredo Despaigne and third baseman Yulieski Gourriel—are openly lusted over by major league execs. In addition to those frontline stars, Krieger believes “there are 50 starting big-leaguers playing in Cuba right now.” Brito says that if he went from town to town holding tryouts in Cuba, he could fill a big boat with major league contracts.

The only way we’ll know for sure, of course, is if Cuba and the United States come to some sort of détente. A baseball free-trade agreement would have a dramatic effect on baseball in both countries. In Cuba, it would drain the talent pool, potentially destroying—if you believe the mythos—the sport’s last pure reserve, a sort of living baseball museum where the ballplayers are approachable national heroes. (Well, except the players who leave—those guys are forcibly forgotten.) In America, a Cuban influx would create a tighter free-agent market. The more major leaguers there are in Havana, the harder it is for everyone from Texas A&M to Tokyo to get contracts.

One reason that more talent is probably on the way is that the Cuban government’s containment efforts appear to be getting laxer under Raúl Castro. Krieger notes that Aroldis Chapman, a well-known defection risk, was allowed to travel anyway. He also says that Yuniesky Maya, a pitcher who recently worked out for the Mets, managed to defect even after being arrested once before for trying to leave. “When Fidel Castro was in command, he was very aware of the importance of sports to his system,” says Ebro. “I’m not so sure that his brother has the same feeling.”

The recent stampede seems to have shocked the Cuban government into taking at least some measures to stem the tide. The country’s decision to pull out of July’s Central American and Caribbean Games in Puerto Rico has been widely attributed to its fear of further defections. “I knew at least three Cuban players on the team who were very interested to defect in those games,” says Ebro. But even increased enforcement efforts—however minor—likely won’t do much to stop Cuban players from making a break for it.

If the embargo lifts, as appears to be a possibility during the Obama administration, major league general managers will be ready to fill their rosters. One anonymous G.M. told the New York Times in 2007 that the league would never allow teams to treat a post-embargo Cuba like a split piñata; instead of mass free agency, a draft or some other “orderly system” might be more likely. (Major League Baseball spokesman Pat Courtney noted that the league takes “direction from the State Department regarding Cuba” but doesn’t comment on hypothetical scenarios.)

But given the sheer volume of players already making their exit—be it via hotel lobby or high-speed boat—biding time on a Castro deathwatch doesn’t seem necessary anymore. While White Sox fans may sneer at the ever-increasing girth of Dayan Viciedo and his lack of stateside achievement, baseball fans may owe him a debt of gratitude. He could be the man who finally lets the rest of the world see the extent of Cuba’s baseball potential.

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