More than ever, the future of baseball in Cuba, at least as it relates to America, is in the glare of a spotlight created by last week’s death of Fidel Castro and then the threat by president-elect Donald Trump to roll back diplomatic relations between the two countries.
At stake is the hope that Cuban players will eventually be free to play in the U.S. without risking punishment for defecting — a hope that gained momentum in the last two years, as President Obama established improved relations with Cuba.
Freedom could mean a wave of major league-ready talent, according to Jaime Torres, an agent who has represented Cuban players, including Jose Contreras and Alexei Ramirez, for some 25 years.
Indeed, even after stars such as Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman, and Jose Abreu have defected in recent years, Torres says there is still a depth of player talent in Cuba that would produce more major leaguers than any other Latin American country.
“The moment the doors are fully open, Cuba will produce the most talent,” Torres said by phone on Monday night. “Within three to five years, the talent in Cuba (coming to the U.S.) would surpass even that of the Dominican Republic in quality and quantity.”
As famous as the Dominican Republic is for producing players, Torres says Cuba’s fervor for baseball is unlike that of any other Latin American country.
“They live the game there,” Torres said. “It’s the only place where you can find that everyone is a baseball fan. There’s a tradition there. They have funding to identify the best players at 10-12 years old, then put them in a program and train them. They learn the game from a young age.
“All of that is why they have so much talent. If they are ever free (to play Major League Baseball) you will see more and more of it.”
Torres believes that Castro’s death could help open those doors he referenced.
“From what I understand,” he said, “Raul (Fidel’s brother and the current Cuban president) doesn’t care about baseball. Fidel used it as propaganda, promoting the idea that could produce such greatness.
“It could be different now, but I don’t know if Cuban officials would ever agree (to allow players to leave the country freely). They would be losing control of their players.”
As for Trump’s threat to “terminate the deal” President Obama made if Cuba doesn’t come to a more favorable agreement with the U.S., Torres sees that as mostly negotiating rhetoric.
Aroldis Chapman is part of a current crop of talented MLB players from Cuba.
“I don’t know what to make of Donald Trump’s statements,” the agent said. “It seems to depend who he’s talking to and at what moment. He’s going to be looking after his empire, his golf courses (in Cuba). I hope he doesn’t retreat from what Obama has accomplished, but to tell you the truth, I am more concerned about the CBA.”
As Torres spoke Monday evening, the threat of an international draft still seemed significant. Later Monday night Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reported that owners backed off that demand, and on Tuesday a source on the Players Association side confirmed that the international draft is “not a sticking point” in the ongoing negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.
Torres, a native of Puerto Rico, says that’s good for baseball. He says the depth of major-league talent diminished noticeably after players from his country were made eligible for the MLB amateur draft, beginning in 1990.
“Before the draft,” said Torres, “scouts in Puerto Rico identified a young player like Pudge Rodriguez, who wasn’t a highly-regarded prospect. They signed him and he turned into a great player.
“Since the draft was implemented in Puerto Rico, scouts don’t have the budget or the authority to sign players like that. And when kids aren’t getting signed, they are being discouraged from playing baseball, and some of them do other things.
“The same thing would happen in the Dominican Republic and other countries. Players are identified by scouts at ages 14 and 15, and they are put in academies run by (major league franchises) until they can be signed at 16. If a draft was in place, teams wouldn’t have the incentive to do that kind of scouting or training, and the talent would go down the drain like it did in Puerto Rico.”
Of course, agents like Torres have a personal stake in such matters. As Contreras’ agent in 2002, he benefited from a rather famous bidding war between the Yankees and Red Sox, and negotiated a four-year, $32 million contract with the Yanks, the biggest ever at the time for an international free agent.
Contracts like that, and those of Cespedes, Chapman, etc., in recent years, are part of the reason MLB people have been talking about an international draft for some 20 years, as Torres recalls.
“The Players Association has fought against it since the early 1990s,” Torres said.
It appears they’ve fought it off again. Now that Fidel Castro is dead the question is how soon, if ever, Cuban players become free to pursue such deals without putting their lives at risk.
Source: NY Daily News Headlines Sports News