Baseball’s next great Cuban prospect, Yoan Moncada, is currently cooling his heels in Guatemala waiting to be cleared by the U.S. government’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Once he does get that clearance, Moncada can start receiving offers from major-league teams, which are expected to range between $30 and $40 million.
What the 19-year-old switch-hitter can do behind the plate or at third base is less intriguing than how he got out of Cuba. Dozens of the nation’s baseball stars, from Orlando Hernandez to Yasiel Puig have made their way to America, often via harrowing escapes involving dangerous boat rides and predatory human traffickers. Even when the escape is less dramatic—pitcher Aroldis Chapman, now of the Cincinnati Reds, simply walked out of his hotel room in the Netherlands where the Cuban national team was participating in the World Baseball Classic—defection usually means a player is permanently exiled from homeland and family.
Moncada, by contrast, seems to have just showed up. Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reports that “he did so on what his handlers say is a legal Cuban passport, meaning the government OK’d his departure, something never before done for a high-level ballplayer.” Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs adds:
I was told by Moncada’s agent last week that he was allowed by the Cuban government to leave the country, that Moncada has a Cuban passport and can fly back to the country whenever he wants to. I haven’t been able to formally confirm this, but there’s no reason for the agent to lie about it, and multiple high-ranking club executives told me this is how they understand the situation at this point as well.
If true, this represents a recent change in policy. As recently as last June, Yasmany Tomas escaped to Haiti under circumstances that, according to MLB.com, “remain mysterious.” Tomas has since signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
So, what’s going on here? In 2012, as part of a package of liberalizing reforms, Raul Castro’s government eased travel restrictions for the country’s citizens. Previously, to travel abroad Cubans had needed an exit visa from the government and an invitation from someone in the destination country. Under the new system, only a passport is required.
In September 2013, Cuba also dropped its longstanding policy prohibiting baseball players from signing with professional teams. The era of legally sanctioned Cuban pro ballplayers has already begun in other countries. In April, outfielder Frederich Cepeda signed with the Yoimuri Giants of Japan, becoming the first player to take advantage of the new rules. He will get to keep 80 percent of his $1.5 million earnings. That’s not quite Yankees money, but it’s a lot more than the $100 to $450 a month he would earn in Cuba, and he’ll get to come back home to see his family at the end of the season.
The U.S. embargo still makes the journey to the big show difficult for Cubans, and even if the Castro regime has turned a blind eye to Moncada’s actions so far, it’s unlikely that he’ll still be welcome back home after he signs to an American team. But with Cuba gradually loosening its restrictions and support for the embargo dropping in the U.S., it’s probably only a matter of time before the gates open entirely.