Batter Up

Is Major League Baseball Ready For Cuba’s Players?

Cuban athletes have been highly prized in the U.S. despite the embargo—and even because of it. How the thaw will affect our national pastime.

12.19.14 10:45 AM ET

The end of the embargo and resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba could transform Major League Baseball. While the impact of the Obama Administration’s deal with the Castro regime for those who love cigars or simply want to vacation (like Jay-Z and Beyoncé) has been obvious, it will likely have a big impact on America’s National Pastime as well.

Baseball has long been the most popular sport in Cuba and the island has long been a hotbed of baseball talent. Cubans have been playing professional baseball in the United States for nearly 150 years and even the embargo hasn’t stopped star Cuban players like Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds and Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox from coming to the U.S. to play in the major leagues. But the embargo has meant that players who come to the United States have had to defect and suffer all sorts of risks to escape out of the country—including falling prey to smuggling rings.. However, the embargo has also made Cuban players more highly valued than athletes from any other country.

The most recent Cuban defectors to come to the United States have signed for eye-popping sums, especially for players who rarely faced elite competition. In the past year alone, the Arizona Diamondbacks have signed outfielder Yasmany Tomas to a six-year contract worth $68.5 million while the Boston Red Sox signed fellow outfielder Rusney Castillo to a seven-year contract worth $72.5 million. This is because Cuban players fit within a loophole in baseball’s rules that allow any international player over the age of 23 with at least five years of professional experience to become a free agent and able to make as much as the market can bear. These big paydays have incentivized a record number of Cuban players to defect. There were 19 Cubans on big league rosters for Opening Day 2014 and, according to one count, 255 players have defected in recent years. The question is how much will the end of the embargo change this and what impact will this new era of diplomacy have on Cuba’s beloved domestic baseball league, the Serie Nacional.

According to Ben Badler,  a writer for Baseball America, the deal with Cuba shouldn’t have immediate impact. “I don’t think we’re going to suddenly see Cuban players immediately coming to Major League Baseball in a massive quantity because I think its going to take time for both Cuba and the United States to change their laws.” Instead, he anticipated that, in the short term, teams would simply do behind the scenes preparations for whatever new system is implemented. This would take time since, under current law, even scouting Cuban baseball players on the island is illegal.

It’s also complicated to judge how many Cuban players are ready for the Major Leagues.  Badler noted that while there are players like Alfredo Despaigne and Yulieski Gourriel “who could step into a major league lineup tomorrow,” the Serie Nacional also has players as young as 15 years old and others who could never crack a low-level minor league in the United States. Further, unlike leagues in Japan, South Korea or Mexico, there are no foreign players. As a result, there’s “no league out there like it,” according to Badler. In fact, the best comparison might be to Major League Baseball from over a century ago where the talent levels ranged from all-time greats to drunken scrubs and even an occasional oddball trotted out as a good luck charm.

The change is also likely to impact the potential paydays of Cuban players coming to the United States. Whereas many players defecting from Cuba could become free agents right away (provided they had played for five years and were over 23 years old), Major League Baseball will likely have to negotiate a deal with Cuban government. Badler points out this would likely lead to a situation where the player’s team in Cuba or the Cuban government would get a cut of their salary.

Major League Baseball, though, is still being tight-lipped about what the end of the embargo might mean for the sport. It declined to comment to The Daily Beast and simply referred to a statement that the league put out yesterday stating: “Major League Baseball is closely monitoring the White House’s announcement regarding Cuban-American relations.  While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue, and we will keep our Clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba.”

In the meantime, it’s safe to assume that within the next few years, the end of the embargo will have as big of an impact on readers of Baseball America as it will for those of Cigar Aficionado.