Stream of Talent Continues to Flow From Cuba, With or Without Permission
By BEN STRAUSS
Published: August 25, 2013
In Los Angeles, the rookie Yasiel Puig helped spur the Dodgers to their
remarkable midseason turnaround. Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes won the Home
Run Derby with a dizzying display at Citi Field. And Jose Fernandez of
the Miami Marlins has emerged as one of the best young pitchers in the game.
Now, the slugging first baseman Jose Abreu is reported to have left
Cuba, and he may soon be available to major league teams, the latest in
a steady stream of talent heading to the United States.
Since Cuba's Fidel Castro-led revolution, which ended in 1959, players
have had to defect to play in the majors, and those who do are barred
from returning to Cuba. For an island nation of 11 million people, each
player lost is a blow to the relatively shallow talent pool of the
domestic league, known as the National Series, and to the national team,
the pride of Cuban sport.
With more and more players leaving the country, the Cuban government
tried an experiment this summer, allowing a player — Alfredo Despaigne,
a 27-year-old outfielder considered by many to be the best hitter in
Cuba — to compete in the Mexican League.
In Cuba, athletes are amateurs, and Despaigne is believed to be the
first Cuban star since Castro took over to be given permission to play
abroad and earn a salary in the prime of his career. It is an effort to
lift the flagging National Series — which stocks the national team — and
help stem the tide of defections by loosening restrictions on players.
"This is very important to us," the longtime Cuban baseball writer
Sigfredo Barros said by telephone from Havana. "Our players are not like
Dominicans, who leave and come back home. The temptation to leave is
very, very big."
Whether this strategy can be effective remains in question. The size of
the contracts signed by Cuban defectors, who are free agents and can
sidestep Major League Baseball's draft, is staggering for those from a
country where most live on about $20 per month.
Puig signed for seven years and $42 million. Cespedes has a contract for
four years and $36 million. Cincinnati signed Aroldis Chapman for six
years and $30.25 million, and Jorge Soler, a 21-year-old outfielder, is
in the Chicago Cubs' system with a deal worth $30 million over nine
years. Once Abreu clears the requisite immigration hurdles, he could
command more than $50 million on the open market. (Fernandez left Cuba
when he was 15 and was thus subject to the draft.)
Other factors have led to the increase in defections, including
continued economic hardship in Cuba and relaxed travel regulations. The
visibility of the success of the Cubans in the major leagues has been
helped by improved Internet access across Cuba. Cuban players know they
can thrive in the majors. Chicago White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez,
who left Cuba in 2007, said, "When I first started playing, I didn't
know about anything outside Cuba."
Dayan Viciedo, an outfielder who signed with the White Sox after he
defected in 2008, said that he was surprised when he learned of
Despaigne's opportunity and that he hoped it signaled a change in
"If guys can go play in Mexico or the Dominican or Venezuela and make
some money, it could make a difference in the decision to come here," he
said through an interpreter.
Despaigne will keep 80 percent of his salary, with the rest going to
Cuba's National Institute of Sport. Arrangements like that, Viciedo
worried, may undermine any progress. "If the players are getting their
full value, then it is a better deal," he said.
Ramirez said money was only part of the equation. "The best league and
the best players are here, not in Mexico," he said. "Good players will
always want to play against the best."
In Mexico this summer, Despaigne played 33 games for the Piratas de
Campeche and hit well, posting a .338 average with eight home runs. He
is not the first Cuban permitted to play professionally elsewhere since
Castro took power, but in the past, the privilege has been a reward
after a successful career with the national team, Peter Bjarkman, of the
Web site BaseballdeCuba.com, said.
Pedro Lazo, the career leader in wins in the National Series, pitched
for Campeche last season, and Orestes Kindelan, Antonio Pacheco and Omar
Linares previously played in Japan. Despaigne was joined at Campeche by
Michel Enriquez, a veteran infielder, and outfielder Yordanis Samon.
Both were released soon after they arrived because of injuries and poor
When Despaigne left for Mexico, there was concern in Cuba that he might
not return, said Barros, the Cuban baseball writer. The fears were
unfounded, although Despaigne has said that he was approached about
defecting. Still, as evidence that the new policy will surely not be a
cure-all, two members of the national team — in addition to Abreu —
defected this summer: pitchers Odrisamer Despaigne and Misael Siverio.
Barros would like to see more players return to Mexico next summer, and
ultimately play freely in the United States, he said, because it would
be a benefit for the players and the Cuban economy. For that to happen,
Cuba would need to allow the players to travel, and the United States,
in turn, would have to ease its embargo and the restrictions on taking
money back to Cuba.
"That would be better than Mexico," Barros said. "It would be the best
if our players could play in the United States and bring the money home.
It would help everyone so much."
Source: "Stream of Talent Continues to Flow From Cuba, With or Without
Permission - NYTimes.com" -