PC: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
In the heart of summer more than the weather was warming up. Relations between the USA and Cuba were thawing faster than the polar ice caps. This was excellent news for so many Cuban ballplayers who, until now, had only defection as a roadmap to the bigs. With the election behind them, as well as the death of Castro, we’re looking at what these changes could mean for baseball’s future.
The right-handed reliever Armando Rivero is one of the Cubans who was ready to risk his life to fulfill his life-long dream of playing in the MLB. The fear of getting caught or a great chance of dying couldn’t stop Rivero when he boarded a boat in 2011 with his wife, brother and five other people he didn´t know. The boat made it to the Dominican Republic where Rivero spent a year. The goal was to establish residency, become a free agent, and sign with an MLB team. After one year in the Dominican Republic he moved to Haiti and, in 2013, Rivero signed a minor league contract with the Cubs.
Now, five years after defection, Riveiro has finally made it to the bigs. The Braves selected him in the Rule 5 draft during the Winter Meetings in early December. This guarantees him a spot on the Braves active roster for the 2017 season.
One of Cuba’s star players earned his spot in the MLB this year after defecting. Third basemen Yulieski Gurriel left his Cuban team’s hotel with his younger brother, Lourdes, after competing in the Caribbean Series in February. In June the 32-year old was declared an international free agent by the MLB. He didn´t have to wait long for the deal. Only one week after declaring, he was signed to a five-year, $4.75M contract with the Houston Astros. Yulieski made his MLB debut August 21, 2016 and played 36 games. On the season he had a .262 batting average including three home runs. Defensively, he played both 3rd and 1st with a total of 48 putouts, 35 of them during his five games at first.
His younger brother, infielder Lourdes Gurriel, was declared a free agent on August 8, 2016. He waited until October 19, 2016, when he turned 23, before signing a contract in order to be exempt from international spending limits. In that way his market was open to all 30 MLB teams. On November 12th the Blue Jays agreed to a seven-year, $22M deal with Lourdes.
PC: MLB Properties
As in the case of the Gurriel brothers, the most common and lucrative path to the MLB for Cuban players is a petition for international free agency, which means that they can receive far larger signing bonuses. RHP Yoandy Fernandez, 27, took another way. He defected from Cuba to Mexico in 2014, then entered the United States in January this year claiming political asylum. Even though Fernandez had six years of professional experience in Cuba, the MLB declared him eligible for the First-Year Player Draft in June. He joined the list alongside high school and college prospects hoping to get drafted. Every MLB team took a pass however and Fernandez spend the summer in independent ball where he played just seven games in the Florida Baseball League for Team USA posting a 1.17 ERA.
Yoandy Fernandez wasn´t the first Cuban to chose this path to the majors. The most recognized Cuban to come to the States as a refugee and be selected through the First-Year Player Draft was Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez (2011), who was killed in the boat accident this past September. Both the Washington Nationals shortstop Yunel Escobar (Braves 2005) and White Sox Minor League pitcher Onelki Garcia (2012 LA Dodgers) made it to the show via this draft.
Cubans RHP Norge Ruiz (Oakland Athletics), RHP Michel Baez, LHP Adrian Morejon and outfielder Jorge Ona (San Diego Padres), RHP Vladimir Gutierrez and SS Alfredo Rodriguez (Cincinnati Reds) all signed with an MLB team as international free agents in 2016. None have debuted in the bigs yet but the trend is clear. American baseball is interested in Cuba’s talent.
The number of Cubans in the MLB is stunning in comparison with countries that have open trade with the States. For example on opening day last year there were 23 Cubans on 25-man rosters across the league. Only the Dominican Republic (82) and Venezuela (63) had more. Excluding Aruba and Curacao, Europe had just one player, Didi Gregorius from the Netherlands. With the Caribbean that total was lifted to five. Throughout the MLB system the 2016 season had a total of 34 Cubans on rosters. By comparison Puerto Rico, which has always had open borders and draft eligibility, had just 36 players. Considering the embargo lifted mid-season, you would have expected to see those numbers increase significantly in 2017.
What would happen with the amount of Cubans playing professional ball in the States if the country continued to lift regulations and allow Cubans to travel to U.S. freely one can only guess. After Donald Trump takes office the process currently in place, yet again, may change. During the presidential election cycle President-elect Trump threatened to end the normalization of affairs if Cuba won´t meet his demands. His list includes religious and political freedom for the Cuban people and the freeing of political prisoners. Furthermore, mere hours after Fidel Castro’s death was announced in November, Trump posted a series of tweets threatening to undo Obama’s initiatives to lift the embargo.
If that happens it could, once again, separate the interests of the MLB and Cuban players. Like the rest of the world, the baseball community can only wait and see what is to come. For the majority of those involved it is just a game, just business. But, for the few who have taken the risk, it is their lives that hang in the balance.
Yogi Berra famously said, “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical”. With the personal safety and freedoms of yourself and your family on the line, how well could you play? For most of these men the instant they left the island, threats began on their family and still they came. When they stepped foot on dry land outside the U.S. many had to take unspeakable risks, with less than reputable employers, to wait out their eligibility timeline. The reward, the prize at the end of it all was being paid to play baseball. They’ve already handled much bigger obstacles than a 90mph fastball to the helmet.