The Cubans Are Coming!
Dozens of ballplayers are leaving the island for the major leagues. There's a lot more where they came from.
Check out our Magnum Photos gallery on baseball in Cuba, Japan, and the United States.
Nine months ago, Cuban lefthander Aroldis Chapman walked away from a hotel in Holland and got a $30 million deal from the Cincinnati Reds. Chapman's defection from the Cuban national team wasn't an isolated act: Pitcher Noel Arguelles recently got $7 million from the Royals, shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria netted $10 million from the Blue Jays, and first baseman Leslie Anderson scored a minimum of $1.725 million from the Rays. Jorge Ebro, a Cuban exile and reporter for Miami's El Nuevo Herald who has broken the news of several of these deals, reports that defectors have taken in almost $60 million in contracts since July.
Trade embargo notwithstanding, we are clearly in the midst of a boom in Cuban baseball imports. Yahoo Sports recently reported that at least 19 Cuban émigrés have been cleared to play by Major League Baseball since 2009—more Cuban nationals than entered the majors between 2000 and 2009. What's behind the sudden push? Big-league money is attractive to Cuban players, who are estimated to make somewhere between $20 to $40 a month. But that's always been the case. It's why Rolando Arrojo hopped a fence at an Olympic practice field in Georgia in 1996, and it's the reason Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez braved (supposedly) shark-infested waters to come to America a year later. It seems that it's not the big money alone that is getting the island's attention—it's who's getting it.
Consider Jose Iglesias. In July, the Red Sox signed the 19-year-old shortstop to a four-year, $8.25 million contract, an announcement that lost a headline battle to Dustin Pedroia's pregnant wife in the Boston Herald's "Red Sox Notebook." According to Ebro, Iglesias' signing made bigger news in Cuba, where the teenager wasn't considered a budding superstar. "Jose Iglesias was never a player on the 'big team,' " Ebro says, referring to Cuba's top national squad. "I can tell you there are three better shortstops in Cuba right now."
Then there was the case of Dayan Viciedo. Kit Krieger, a Cuban baseball expert from Canada who runs baseball tours to the island, notes that Viciedo was a power-hitting phenom, signing to play in the Serie Nacional (Cuba's equivalent to our major leagues) as a 15-year-old. But he never lived up to his early potential, his production and development stagnating while his batting average dropped and his weight shot up. Even so, Viciedo signed with the White Sox in November 2008 for $10 million. "I think people said, 'My God, if Viciedo gets $10 million, what am I worth?' " Krieger says.
The reaction was different when Jose Contreras signed a $32 million deal with the Yankees in 2002. Contreras, the top pitcher in Cuba, was universally thought to deserve his big bucks. It took contracts like Viciedo's—big money for a faltering prospect—to inspire wanderlust in Cuban ballplayers, perhaps something akin to the feeling that trained vocalists get watching the first few rounds of American Idol.
If Cuban baseball experts are to be believed, these big contracts could very well be the result of poor scouting. Longtime Dodgers scout and Cuba native Mike Brito scoffs at the money the Rays paid out for Leslie Anderson, noting that the 28-year-old has only a good-to-average arm, but "no power to play first base or outfield—and he doesn't have speed." But given that Cuban players can be evaluated only when they travel with the national team or after they've defected, it's unfair to be too rough on the major league scouts. It's also worth being a tiny bit skeptical of the notion that Cuba is littered with scores of better ballplayers.
It's easy to be seduced by the mystique surrounding Cuban ballplayers—the promise of raw talent, shrouded in mystery and kept out of view to all but a few sources privy to the secrets of the island. Nevertheless, there's logic behind the argument that Cuba is an untapped hardball gold mine. "If the Dominican Republic can produce so many big leaguers, Cuba will produce more," e-mails Baseball America Editor-in-Chief John Manuel, who says that the game is taught well in Cuba and is more organized than it is in the D.R. (It's worth noting that Manuel is one of the few knowledgeable sources on Cuban baseball who doesn't have anything to gain by talking up the country's talents.) And Brito says that while he has respect for the talents of the Dominican, Venezuelan, and Puerto Rican players, "Cuba is Cuba."