On December 19, 2018, Major League Baseball (MLB), the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) and the Cuban Baseball Federation (CBF) announced an agreement that could create a smoother path for Cuban players to join MLB franchises and remain eligible to play in their homeland. The agreement is similar to those in place between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball (Japan), the Korean Baseball Organization (South Korea) and the Chinese Professional Baseball League (Taiwan).
Since the 1960s, Cuban ballplayers who dreamed of major league stadiums and ballfields faced considerable hardship and hazard in making those dreams come true. After the Castro-led revolution, Cuban players were banned from signing with foreign teams and the path to playing outside of Cuba required defection – and also led to punishment (playing bans, suspensions and travel restrictions) for Cuban players considered defection risks (i.e. those found to have had conversations with a foreign sport agents). In addition, players who defected were often restricted in terms of returning to their homeland – and, some if those who were not able to secure a contract with an MLB franchise have found themselves “stranded” in the countries (many in Latin America) to which they defected. In a June 6, 2017 ESPN The Magazine article (“The Lost Prospects of Cuba”), reporter Scott Eden refers to these players as “Cuba’s baseball diaspora – a lost tribe of baseball prospects that grows larger and more desperate by the day.”
How arduous has the journey to MLB been for Cuban players? It is wrought with stories not just of harrowing midnight boat rides, but also of blackmail, extortion (even kidnapping) and human smuggling. All three parties to the new agreement agreed on the extent of past danger.
“For years, Major League Baseball has been seeking to end the trafficking of baseball players from Cuba by criminal organizations by creating a safe and legal alternative for those players to sign with major league clubs,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.
“The (new) contract will contribute to stopping illegal activities like human trafficking that for years have put the physical integrity and life of many talented young Cuban baseball players at risk,” The Cuban Baseball Federation.
“Establishing a safe, legal process for entry to our system is the most important step we can take to ending the exploitation and endangerment of Cuban players who pursue careers in Major League Baseball …The safety and well-being of these young men remains our primary concern.” Tony Clark, executive director for the MLB Players’ Association.
Despite the hardships, defections have continued and actually accelerated about a decade ago. According to the an article by Ed Augustin in the December 28, 2018 New York Times (“Can Cuba Baseball Still Be Great When So Many of Its Stars Have Left?”), more than 300 ballplayers have left the country over the past three years (25 Cuban-born player are now on MLB rosters). Going back to Scott Eden’s June 2017 article, he notes that “more players have left Cuba since 2014 than in all the other years under the Castros – over half a century – combined.”
What has been the impact of this outbound migration/defection on Cuban baseball? In our first two trips to Cuba, Ballpark Tours trekkers have had the chance to see and hear about that impact first-hand. Not only could we observe that impact on the diamonds of the island nation, locals we met with pointed out that the talent drain has been hard on the Cuban sport, particularly as it relates to younger players (key to Cuba’s standing in international competition).
However, even before the December agreement, there were some positive signs. In recent years, Cuba has relaxed its restrictions on “repatriation” for Cubans living abroad. A recent (October 23, 2018) Miami Herald article (“Thousands of Cubans Living Abroad Have Applied for Permanent Residency on the Island”) notes that, since the reforms began about five years ago, more than 40,000 Cuban nationals living abroad have applied for repatriation.
Ballpark Tours Cuban contacts have indicated that the repatriation changes and the new agreement should work to bring more players back to the Cuban Diamonds. They indicated that in December (2018), 34 players that had previously left Cuba were back in the Serie Nacional and that, with the new agreement, that number could triple next year.
The new agreement appears to address several issues: 1) giving MLB greater access to Cuban talent; 2) opening new professional opportunities to Cuban players, while also eliminating/reducing past hazards; 3) providing some protection for Cuba’s development and appropriate retention of young talent; 4) enabling players who leave Cuba to return to play (in the MLB off-season, for example); and 5) bringing much needed additional revenue into the Cuban Baseball Federation (which could lead to improved facilities and better economic conditions for players and teams.
Here are excerpts from comments by Cuban-born MLB Star José Abreu, who defected in 2013, who called it a great day for Cuban ball players, His remarks were reported by MLB.com.
“Dealing with the exploitation of smugglers and unscrupulous agencies will finally come to an end … The next generation of Cuban baseball players will be able to sign an MLB contract while in Cuba, they will be able to keep their earnings as any other players in the world, they will be able to return to Cuba, they will be able to share with their families, and they will be able to play the sport they love against the best players in the world without fear and trepidation.”
A few words of caution: There are some indications that the Trump Administration is opposed to the agreement and Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio has questioned its legality (which reports say is based on a past ruling that the Cuban Baseball Federation is not controlled by the Cuban government). We will have to see how this plays out.
Here are some basics of the agreement:
- Any Cuban Baseball Federation (CBF) players 25-years-old (or older) with at least six years of CBF experience are free to sign with MLB clubs (These players will be considered professionals by MLB and their salaries counted toward MLB payrolls). Note: Only players under contract to the CBF are covered by the agreement.
- The Cuban Baseball Federation also has the option to allow player between ages 18 and 24 with less than six years of CBF experience to sign with MLB clubs. These players will be considered amateurs by MLB and subject to MLB’s international bonus pool regulations.
- Players released by the CBF will also be eligible for MLB signing.
- Players signed by MLB teams will be allowed to freely return to Cuba, play in tournaments or leagues in Cuba (with consent of their MLB teams).
- Specific “release
fees” will be paid to the CBF by teams signing Cuban players:
- 20 percent of the first $25 million in guaranteed salary/bonus money.
- 17.5 percent of the salary/bonus paid between $25 million and $50 million.
- 15 percent of player contract monies over $50 million.
- 25 percent of any minor league contract signing bonuses.
Now as a wrap up to this, here is an all Cuban Defectors MLB All Star Squad. But first, a shameless pitch.
If you are interested in learning more about this year’s Ballpark Tours trips – which include our third journey to baseball diamonds of Cuba and a Baseball and Bourbon Tour that will take us from the friendly confines of Wrigley Field to some great minor league parks in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky click here.
Catcher – Brayan Peña (Brayan Eduardo Peña) – Defected in 1999
Peña played 12 MLB seasons for the Braves (2005-08); Royals (2009-12); Tigers (2013); Reds (2014-15); and Cardinals (2016). He played in 638 games (topping 100 games in a season just twice) and put up a .259 career average, with 23 home runs and 164 RBI. His best season was 2015, when he played in 115 games, hitting .253, with five home runs and 267 RBI.
Brayan Peña defected from the Cuban Junior National Team during the 1999 Pan American Games.
1B – José Abreu (José Dariel Abreu Correa) – Defected 2013
In 2019, Abreu will be in his sixth MLB season – all with the White Sox. His is a two-time All Star and was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2014, when the 27-year-old hit .317, with 36 home runs, 107 RBI and 80 runs scored. A powerful right-handed hitter, Abreu has an MLB career .295 average, with 146 home runs and 488 RBI. He has hit 30 or more home runs in three seasons and driven in 100 or more runs in four.
José Abreu played from 2003-1013 for Cienfuegos in the Cuban Serie Nacional (CSN) – collecting 793 hits (.306 average), with 178 home runs and 583 RBI. His best season in the CSN was 2010-11, when he hit .453-33-93 and was the CSN MVP. A true Cuban star, Abreu was Cuba’s starter at first base for the 2010 Intercontinental Cup; 2010 Pan American Games Qualifying Tournament; and 2010 World University Championship. He was the All Star first baseman in the 2011 World Cup, when he hit .442-3-10 in eleven contests. He also started at first base for Cuba in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
2B – Alexei Ramírez (Alexei Fernando Ramírez Rodríguez) – Defected in 2007
Ramírez made his MLB debut in 2008, at age 26. Between 2008 and 2016, he played for the White Sox (2008-2015); Padres (2016); and Rays (2016). He was an All Star in 2014, when he hit .273, with 15 home runs, 74 RBI and 21 stolen bases (at the time playing primarily at shortstop). Ramírez makes the team at second base, to make room for Rey Ordóñez’ three Gold Gloves at short. While Ramírez did play most of his career at short, he had perhaps his best season (.290-21-77, with 13 steals) in 2008, when he started 117 games at second base, 16 at shortstop and 11 in centerfield and finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year race. For his nine MLB seasons, Ramírez hit .270, with 115 home runs, 590 RBI, 601 runs scored and 143 steals.
Alexei Ramírez played seven seasons for Pinar Del Rio in the Cuban Serie Nacional – collecting 680 hits (.332 average), with 73 home runs, 328 RBI, 381 runs scored and 36 stolen bases. With Pinar del Rio, he never hit under .308 and hit .340 or better in four seasons. Ramírez hit .353 for Cuba in the 2005 Baseball World Cup; .375 in the 2006 World Baseball Classic; and .357 in 2006 Central American and Caribbean Games. He helped Cuba reach the 2008 Olympics, playing right field in the Olympic qualifying round and scoring and driving in ten runs nine games – despite hitting just.250.
3B – Yunel Escobar (Yunel Escobar Almenares) – Defected in 2004
Escobar made it to the major leagues in 2007 – at age 24. He has played in 11 major league seasons: Braves (2007-2010); Blue Jays (2010-12); Rays (2013-14); Nationals (2015); and Angels (2016-17). While he spent most of his MLB career at shortstop, he played primarily at third base over his last three seasons. Escobar was a steady on both defense and offense. In 1,434 MLB games he collected 1,501 hits (.282 average), 90 home runs, 519 RBI and 689 runs scored. Escobar hit over .300 in three campaigns and hit double-digits in long balls in three campaigns. His best season was 2009, when he put up a .299-14-76 line (with 89 runs scored) for the Braves. That season he set his career highs in runs, RBI and home runs.
Yunel Escobar played only four seasons (age 17-20) in the Cuban Serie Nacional before defecting – hitting .271, with six home runs and 48 RBI.
SS – Rey Ordóñez (Reynaldo Ordóñez Pereira) – Defected 1993
Rey Ordóñez made it to the major leagues in 1996 and played nine seasons: Mets (1996-2002); Rays (2003); Cubs (2004). While he hit only .246, with 12 home runs and 287 RBI, the flashy defender won three consecutive Gold Gloves at shortstop (1997-99). His best season was 1999, when he won a Gold Glove and reached full-season career highs in batting average (.258) and RBI 60 – helping the Mets earn a Wild Card spot and make it to the National League Championship Series.
Rey Ordóñez defected during the 1993 World University Games.
OF Yeonis Céspedes (Yeonis Céspedes Milanés) – Defected in 2011
Céspedes, at age 27, made his MLB debut with the Oakland A’s in 2012. That season, he hit .292, with 23 home runs, 82 RBI and 16 stolen bases – finishing second in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting (just his luck to be an AL rookie the same season as Mike Trout). Still active, Céspedes has played for the A’s (2012-14); Red Sox (2014); Tigers (2015); and Mets (2015-18). He has a seven-season career average of .274, with 163 round trippers, 524 RBI and 43 steals.
The two-tie All Star’s best MLB season was 2015 (split between the Tigers and Mets), when he hit .291, with 35 home runs, 105 RBI and 101 runs scored. After coming over from the Tigers, Céspedes was a key factor in the Mets’ NL East title run – hitting .287, with 17 home runs and 44 RBI in 57 games. Céspedes has hit .290 or better in three seasons, topped 30 home runs twice and had at least 100 RBI twice.
Yeonis Céspedes played eight seasons for Alazanes de Granma in the Cuban Serie Nacional. He collected 861 hits (.319 average), hit 169 home runs and notched 557 RBI. In his final CSN season, he hit .333-33-99. Among his international credits: Céspedes hit .481-2-5 in six games in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and .500-4-14 in six games at the 2010 World University Championship.
OF – Yasiel Puig (Yasiel Puig Valdés) – Defected in 2012
Puig (still active) has played six MLB seasons (2013-18), all with the Dodgers. (He was traded to the Reds this past offseason.) Puig made his MLB debut at age 22 (2013) and hit .319, with 19 home runs, 42 RBI and 11 stolen bases in 104 games. Overall, he has a .279 career MLB average, with 108 round trippers, 331 RBI and 60 steals. In the past two seasons, he has hit 51 home runs and driven in 137 runs. Puig was an All Star in 2014, when he hit .296-16-69.
Puig, a star in the 2008 World Junior Championships, played two season in the Cuban Serie Nacional for Cienfueges (2008-09 and 2010-11) – hitting .311 with 24 home runs and 73 RBI. He was banned from league play for the 2011-2012 season for a failed attempt to leave Cuba without permission. In 2012, he defected from Cuba (to Mexico).
OF – Yasmani (Yasmani Tomás Bacallao) – Defected in 2014
Tomás makes this squad as much on potential as performance. He came to the Diamondbacks as a 24-year-old rookie in 2015 and hit .273-9-48 in 118 games Then in 2016, he had what seemed a breakout year with Arizona, finishing .272-31-83. In 2017, he was hampered by injuries (season-ending core surgery in August). At the time, he was hitting .241-8-32. Tomás spent 2018 at Triple A Reno – hitting .262-14-65 in 106 games.
Tomás played for the Industriales (Havana) in the Cuban Serie Nacional for four seasons before his defection (at age 23). In the CSN, he hit .290, with 39 home runs and 151 RBI. His best season was 2012, when he put up a .301-16-42 line in 69 games.
DH Kendrys Morales (Kendrys Morales Rodríguez) – Defected in 2004
Had to make a spot here for the still active Morales, who has poked 211 home runs in 12 MLB seasons. Morales has played for the Angels (2006-10, 2012); Mariners (2013-14); Twins (2014); Royals (2015-16); and Blue Jays (2017-18). His stat line reads: .268-211-728. He has hit 30 or more home runs in two seasons (20 or more in seven) and topped 100 RBI twice. His best season was 2009, when he hit .306, with 34 home runs and 108 RBI for the Angels. Morales missed the 2011 season due to ankle surgery.
Morales joined the Cuban Serie Nacional Industriales (Havana) team in 2001 – after being named the Best Junior Player in Latin America by the Pan American Baseball Association. In three CSN seasons, he hit .350, with 32 home runs and 151 RBI. He also played for Cuba in the 2003 Pan American Games and in the 2003 Baseball World Cup. However, it was reported that he had made contact with an American sports agent and he was banned from playing in Cuba in 2004. That year, he defected to the Dominican Republic and eventually signed with the Angels.
SP Orlando Hernández (Orlando Hernández Pedroso) – Defected in 1997
Hernández did not defect until 1997 (age 32), after ten years as a star in Cuba. He played 12 major-league seasons: Yankees (1998-2002, 2004); White Sox (2005); Diamondbacks (2006); Mets 2006-07). He finished with 90 wins (65 losses), a 4.13 earned run average and 1,086 strikeouts in 1,314 innings. His best season was 1999, when he went 17-9, 4.12 for the Yankees. In his final MLB campaign – at age 41 – he went 9-5, 3.72 for the Mets.
Hernández may be the most famous (in Cuba) member of this all-defector All Star team. He played ten seasons in the Cuban Serie Nacional (and Cuban Selective Series) – winning 126 games (47 losses), with a 3.05 earned run average and 1,211 strikeouts in 1,514 1/3 innings pitched. His .728 winning percentage in the Series Nacional and Selective Serie is the career record. He played for Cuba in the 1988 World Baseball Cup; 1990 Goodwill Games; 1990 Baseball World Cup; 1992 Olympics; 1993 Central American Games; 1994 Baseball World Cup; 1995 Pan American Games; and 1995 Intercontinental Cup. In July of 1996, Hernández was banned from Cuban baseball for alleged contact with an American sports agent. Five month later, he defected.
RP – Aroldis Chapman (Albertín Aroldis Chapman de la Cruz) – Defected in 2009
Chapman, primarily a starter in Cuba, became a premier reliever in the major leagues. In nine seasons, the still active Chapman has been an All Star five times. He has pitched for the Reds (2010-2015); Yankees (2016-18); and Cubs (2016). Using a fastball that has, at times, touched 105 mph, Chapman has rung up a 30-24 record, 236 saves, a 2.24 earned run average and 798 strikeouts in just 478 2/3 innings. He has saved 30 or more games in a season six times and had an ERA under 2.00 three times. For his MLB career, he has averaged 15 strikeouts per nine innings.
Chapman pitched for Cuba in the 2006 World Junior Championships; 2007 Pan-American Games; 2007 Baseball World Cup; and 2009 World Baseball Classic. In four seasons for Holguin in the Cuban Serie Nacional, Chapman was used primarily as a starter (63 starts in 76 appearances). He went 24-19, with a 3.73 earned run average and 365 strikeouts in 327 2/3 innings.
For a primer on Cuban baseball history and a look at an All Time Cuban-born MLB All Star squad, click here.
Primary Resources: MLB.com; Baseball-Reference.com; Major League Baseball’s Latin American Connection: Salaries, Scouting and Globalization, by Ezequiel Kitsu, University of San Diego, 2016; “From Cuba to the Majors: Yasiel Puig’s Harrowing Story,” by Linda Robertson, Jay Weaver and David Ovalle, Miami Herald, April 19, 2014; The Lost Prospects of Cuba, by Scott Eden, ESPN The Magazine, June 20, 2017.