Thawing US-Cuba relations open new doors for Major League Baseball

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A Major League Baseball team in Havana? It just might happen.

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro both announced last week that the two countries reached an agreement to normalize relations between the two after 50+ years of hostility. And there are few products Americans want more than Cuban baseball.

Although the agreement does not end the embargo, it opens up the possibility of Cuban players legally coming over to the US to play for MLB teams in addition to the potential franchise located on the island.

In Demand

Clubs have been clamouring for players like 19-year old shortstop Yoan Moancada, 30-year old third baseman Yulieski Gourriel, and 28-year old outfielder Alfredo Despaigne.

If these ages are to be believed (Cuba is notorious for players lying about their age), these three along with many other players would get big deals from major league teams. This announcement is the first step of many that will have a big impact on the league.

The biggest worry for the Cubans is the possible diminishing of their own league Serie Nacional. Lately the Cuban government has been loaning players like Gourriel and Despaigne out to the Nippon League in Japan and to teams in the Mexican league.

As of now, the Cuban players are put out on loan for the summer months, but return home to Cuba to play for their Serie Nacional team from September through the end of April. It is believed a similar deal would be worked out between a potentially negotiating team and the Cuban government.

MLB Update

MLB put out a statement hours after President Obama spoke saying they will continue to monitor the situation and inform clubs on how it will affect future business Player control remains another hurdle. Would the Cuban team have more say over a player or would his new team? So far that has yet to be answered.

The most recent players to defect from Cuba have been given large contracts by their new teams. Back in November Outfielder Yosmany Tomas signed a six-year $68.5 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, though reports have since stated Tomas will likely play third base for Arizona.

Fellow outfielder Rusney Castillo signed a six-year $72.5 million contract with the Red Sox back in late August. With these deals as the benchmark for Cuban players, both Gourriel and Despaigne likely wind up with similar contracts.

Yoan Moancada is a different story. Moancada has already left Cuba and has been sought after by many Major League teams but has yet to be cleared to sign with anyone. Moancada likely receives less money due to his age and perceived readiness for the Majors, but the talent appears to be there.

Cuban Greats

Cuba has seen many great players come over to the U.S. in exile and flourish. Players like former Minnesota Twins outfielders Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Cookie Rojas, Cincinnati Reds first baseman Tony Perez, along with recent stars like Reds flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman, Detroit Tigers outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, LA Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig and Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu have each had large levels of success.

But often these Cuban players risk their lives to come across the Carribean. Those who successfully escaped the island went on to make millions, but those who failed faced harsh punishment including imprisonment and ban from Cuban baseball. Orlando Hernandez famously was held in a Bahaman prison and was going to be turned back around to Cuba until U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno put Hernandez on Humanitarian Parole.

Hernandez went to play many years for the New York Yankees and Mets, along with the Chicago White Sox. Yasiel Puig attempted to defect multiple times and was eventually smuggled through Central America in order to successfully reach freedom, as well.

Back in 1999 the Baltimore Orioles held an exhibition game against the Cuban national team. With this new agreement it would not be strange to see that happen again soon.

At the game, former Cuban president Fidel Castro told then MLB executive Sandy Alderson that he would be open to the idea of having baseball academies on the island, similar to how teams operate academies on smaller islands like the Dominican. While this agreement does not put a team in Havana or Cuba, it allows in-roads to be made.

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