Cuban Thaw Seen Creating ‘Open Season’ on Signings for MLB Teams

Major League Baseball teams might have an “open season” signing Cuban players now that the U.S. and the island nation are taking steps to normalize relations, a baseball historian and Latin American studies professor said.

President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro’s agreement, which begins to mend diplomatic relations that were severed in January 1961, has the potential to open up the country’s baseball to MLB teams looking to sign the best players, said Adrian Burgos Jr., a Latin American history professor at the University of Illinois who’s written several books on baseball.

“How is Major League Baseball going to approach Cuba now?” Burgos said in a telephone interview. “If there’s no systematized way of acquiring talent from Cuba, it can be a free-for-all.”

Cuban players, including current All-Stars Yasiel Puig, Jose Fernandez and Jose Abreu, the American League Rookie of the Year, can go to the highest bidder after defecting. They’re not part of baseball’s system for drafting new players or its rules that limit how much can be spent on those from other countries.

“If Cuba’s not a part of that, then the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Cubs can say, you know what, let’s just throw as much money and get as many prospects as we can right now while we have this open season on Cuban talent,” Burgos said.

MLB, which will be led by new Commissioner Rob Manfred from next month, said in a statement that it didn’t have “sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation” and that it would continue to monitor the situation.

National Sport

Baseball is a national sport in the nation of 11 million people that’s 90 miles off the Florida coast. Though many top performers already have left for the U.S., giving Cubans the ability to play here and then return home would be a boon to the sport, said John Manuel, editor-in-chief of scouting magazine Baseball America.

“If the players are allowed to go play in the U.S. and then go back and see their families, that would be a sea change for baseball,” Manuel said in a phone interview.

Cuba’s best athletes generally become baseball players, as opposed to top American athletes, who can choose football, basketball or a host of other sports, Manuel said. He cited Puig, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers who defected from Cuba in 2012.

“If Puig grew up in the United States, he’d probably be an outside linebacker” in the National Football League, Manuel said. “I think it would be a land rush.”

Obama mentioned sports as an aspect of U.S. culture in which Cuban exiles have made “enormous contributions” during the past five decades. The U.S.’s previous stance toward Cuba was one of forced isolation, with U.S. policies in place to prevent travel and commerce.

Training Centers

If relations are normalized, it doesn’t mean major-league teams necessarily will be setting up training centers in Cuba such as those seen in the Dominican Republic, said Baltimore Orioles Executive Vice President John Angelos, whose club is the only major U.S. sports team to play in Cuba since the sanctions were imposed.

“The Cubans don’t need Major League Baseball to come in and set up academies, because they’ve got a system there, and that’s why you see so many great players,” Angelos said. “Will they want that? Will they welcome that? I don’t know.”

Burgos, whose books include “Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line,” said Cuban officials would have to decide how to structure a relationship with MLB. Among those decisions are whether to keep the current system of open bidding for players, or having a posting system like that in Japan, where MLB teams pay a transfer fee to Japanese clubs to bring players to the U.S.

Cuban System

The state-run Cuban development system is very structured, vastly different from the private system in the Dominican Republic, according to Burgos, who said he’s traveled to Cuba several times for research. While Dominican players are discovered by buscones, or local agents, and then at age 16 signed into academies run by MLB teams, talented young Cuban athletes are placed in free provincial institutes that place a heavy emphasis on academic as well as athletic development.

“Kids spend half their day in class, and the other half at their chosen field of sport,” Burgos said. “They get very structured training, then they move up in age group, and then they’re on the national team and traveling. The issue is that to keep that system intact, they’re going to need compensation, so there’s a compelling state interest to create a posting system in Cuba.”

Reform Skepticism

Joe Kehoskie, a former player agent for Cuban defectors, said it’s premature to expect significant political change, as past reform efforts have failed.

“When it comes to Cuba, I’ve learned to ratchet down the expectations by about 90 percent,” Kehoskie said in a phone interview.

Were the embargo to end, Cuba probably would become just another country in Latin America supplying a crop of young players to fill out American minor-league systems, Kehoskie said.

“The influx has been so big in recent years that, somewhat ironically, the cupboard is just about bare down in Cuba now,” he said.

Angelos said political change is more important to him than the Orioles taking advantage of a paradigm shift in Cuba to bolster their roster.

Overcoming significant political opposition and helped by efforts of people in both countries, including then U.S. President Bill Clinton and his national security team, the Orioles played a two-game series with Cuba in 1999, the first in Havana and second at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

Cuba Visitor

Angelos, who led the Orioles’ delegation, visited Cuba before and after the series. He said the team’s motivation for organizing the exhibition wasn’t baseball-oriented and that he was gratified for any influence it had in improving relations.

“We did it for political reasons,” Angelos, 47, and the son of team owner Peter Angelos, said. “We just happened to own a baseball team, and my father felt very strongly that he could use that as a platform to hopefully make some people-to-people change and a political change.”

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