Until somewhat recently, the most coveted Cuban imports were Cohibas and Montecristos. But while there’s still a certain degree of smuggling and illicit mystique involved, the commodity du jour is talent, specifically ballplayers. These products of the Communist isle are still smoking hot and still have have Americans falling all over themselves to land a couple, but they’re getting just a tad more expensive.
Despite being separated from Florida by only 90 miles, a distance most of us would be happy to drive to attend a ballgame, the theoretical gap from Cuba to America has always been more difficult to traverse. Cultural, political, and philosophical differences are perhaps more daunting than the ocean crossing. Still, Castro’s island isn’t some undiscovered paradise of baseball diamonds.
The history of Cuban ballplayers in Major League Baseball stretches back more than five decades, but the number of players defecting has risen substantially over the last 20 years. The promise of a huge payday and a better life, for both the player and his family, is enough to incentivize more and more young men to escape to the north.
You see, for many of these athletes, coming to America has been somewhat more difficult that it was for Prince Akeem and his best friend Semmi. Clandestine rendezvous, police chases, slogging through crocodile-infested swamps only to swim or sail through shark-infested waters. No one simply walked off the island.
Communist authorities lifted the ban on players signing profession contracts abroad late last year, but that doesn’t mean it’s become an easy process. Due the ongoing trade sanctions, Cuban players must first establish residency in a separate foreign country (Mexico and the Dominican Republic are popular choices) in order to be cleared by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Only then can they be declared free agents by MLB, allowing them to sign that coveted deal.
Those who follow Chicago baseball know all about the increasing impact of Cuban players on the majors. The White Sox in particular have benefited from the influx of talent from the isolated Caribbean nation and the Cubs are starting to reap the rewards as well. More on that later; for now though, I’d like to lead a little history lesson.
Rogelio Álvarez, who played parts of two seasons with the Cincinnati Reds in the early 60’s, is credited as being the first Cuban defector to play in the majors. That, however, was pre-Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, prior to harsh embargoes and strained diplomacy. What’s more, Álvarez defected after having played in the US for several years.
It wasn’t until 1980, when Barbaro Garbey joined some 125,000 Mariel Boatlift refugees welcomed by the Carter administration, that the next Cuban player came to America. Fidel Castro had temporarily lifted his no-exit edict, which was quickly reestablished following the departure of the 1,700-boat floatilla.
Aside from being a trailblazer, Garbey’s career was somewhat unremarkable outside of a rookie season in which he hit .287 with 52 RBI for the 1984 Detroit Tigers. Oh, there was also an incident in a minor league game in Louisville in 1983 when he attacked a fan, earning a 10-game suspension. Sounds sorta like a Cubs player we know, huh?
It’s perhaps a little ironic, or maybe incredibly fitting, that Garbey now makes his living as a minor league hitting instructor for the Atlanta Braves’ Gulf Coast League team. Prior to that stop, he had spent eight years in the Cubs organization as the hitting instructor for the Peoria Chiefs.
Barbaro Garbey is viewed as a hero and pioneer in his home country. “Everyone knows who he is in Cuba,” said fellow defector Jose Contreras. “Everyone knows that he’s the first one.” But given the continued presence of Castro’s edict, he was the only one for a long time.
In fact, it would be eleven more years before another ballplayer would dare to make the harrowing trek to American soil. Pitcher René Arocha fled the island in 1991 and debuted with the Cardinals in 1993. Arocha served as an example to young Reinaldo (Rey) Ordóñez, a diminutive shortstop who defected during the World University Games in Buffalo that same year.
While only two players had escaped Fidel Castro’s reign prior to Ordóñez’s defection, many would follow. Sometimes an invisible wall can be even more substantial than one formed from concrete and rebar, and that had been the case Cuba for decades. But as though he had exploited and marked an infirmity in the wall, Ordóñez led a group of what would become 23 defectors through the remainder of the 90’s.
Taking advantage of this new-found pregnability, players like Orlando and Liván Hernández, Danys Báez, and Rolando Arrojo highlighted the waves of Cuban players washing onto MLB rosters. The trend has continued into the 2000’s as players like Contreras and Yuniesky Betancourt joined the fray.
And the list goes on: Yunel Escobar, Kendrys Morales, Alexei Ramirez, Dayán Viciedo. Several of these players were very good and many have made All-Star teams and been integral players for their respective teams. But it wasn’t until the defection, and subsequent odyssey, of Aroldis Chapman that things really started to get interesting.
El Duque (Orlando Hernández) was accompanied by the hype befitting his sweet moniker and was a big get, but he was past his prime by the time he arrived stateside. Chapman, on the other hand, was presented in a way that conjured images of Sidd Finch, he of the 168 MPH fastball.
And though his heater only reached a pedestrian–and disputed–106, Chapman kept up his end of the over-the-top PR campaign by overcoming the stigma often associated with Cuban players. He’s even got the flaming baseball with “105.1 MPH” indelibly inked on his left wrist to prove it. Odd that the Cincinnati Reds are the team that ponied up the $30.25 million to land him, but c’est la vie.
Chapman also served to reinforce the idea Cuba really only produced top-flight pitchers. Sure, some of the position players who had come over had had nice careers, but none had had the success of the hurlers. Certainly no Cuban hitter had sparked the broad notoriety and appeal of their pitching countrymen.
Enter Yoenis Céspedis, a slugger who broke through old sterotypes and helped to establish some new ones. Leading a group that now includes Yasiel Puig, José Abreu and Jorge Soler, Cubans are no longer thought of as light-hitting middle infielders. There is, however, an unfortunate perception of laziness that seems to have developed around some of these players.
But in this era of suppressed offense, big bats are at a premium and teams are willing to pay through the nose to acquire them, stereotypes be damned. Cespedes received $36 million over 4 years from the frugal Oakland A’s and Puig got $42 million over seven years with the Dodgers. By those terms, the money-hungry, penny-pinching Cubs look to have virtually stolen Soler for 9 years and $30 million.
But that was all just a prelude of things to come, as the White Sox gave Abreu a 4-year deal worth $68 million last October. All he did to repay their faith was slash .317/.383/.581 with 36 HR’s and 107 RBI. This not only served as one of the few beacons of hope on the South Side, it also signaled a sharp increase in the bidding for future Cuban sluggers.
Of the hitters I’ve just named, only Jorge Soler has yet to make an All-Star team, though he was easily one of the Cubs’ best players in his brief time in the Bigs this season. That consistent performance has served to remove a great deal of perceived risk on the part of baseball execs looking for the next big thing.
Such was the case for the Boston Red Sox, who lapped the field in giving 27-year-old OF Rusney Castillo a seven-year deal worth $72.5 million. The Cubs had been thought to have some interest in Castillo but the cost proved far too great. Which brings us to the latest in a growing line of highly-touted MLB-bound sluggers: Yasmany Tomas.
After being cleared by the OFAC, Tomas has been granted free agency by MLB. At just 24 (as of November), Tomas is younger than Castillo and could spark a fierce bidding war between suitors attracted to his youth and promise. The opportunity to pick up a hitter in the early years of his prime on the open market is likely to have execs drooling.
Much of that is due to the fact that, unlike other free agent hitters jumping into the free agent pool this offseason, signing the young Cuban won’t require the forfeiture of a draft pick. Players like Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Victor Martinez, Melky Cabrera, and Nelson Cruz will likely receive, and turn down, qualifying offers from their current teams.
If you’re not sure just what that means in the grand scheme of modern baseball economics, please allow our Tommy Cook to guide you through the value of a protected pick. Teams might be willing to overpay in their courtship of the youngster because his overall value is higher than some of those older available bats.
According to Baseball America’s Bed Badler, Tomas has 70-grade raw power (on the traditional 20-80 scouting scale), which could translate to 30+ home run production. At 6’2″ and 240 pounds, he’s a big man, but he’s reportedly fast and agile…for his size. Decent athleticism plus a strong arm make Tomas a nice fit for a corner OF spot in the majors.
A right-handed hitter, Tomas put up a .290/.345/.504 slash line over five seasons, two of which came when he was still a teenager, playing in Cuba’s Serie Nacional. Put those numbers together with the fact that a seven-year contract would conclude in his age-30 season, thus taking advantage of his prime years, and you’ve got the recipe for a big payday that still looks good for the spending team.
Rumored to be in the hunt for Tomas are the Texas Rangers, who seem to come up in any discussion of hot international prospects. The Rangers held a private workout with Tomas a couple weeks back, but reports that they have only $20 million to spend on outside players this offseason could hamper their chances of landing him.
The Phillies held a workout of their own for Tomas and CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury reports that their interest in him is greater than it was for Castillo. And don’t sleep on the San Diego Padres (who have also worked Tomas out) and Minnesota Twins, both of whom need power in the OF and might be willing to spend in order to make a splash this winter.
It’s certainly not unprecedented for a historically frugal franchise to break from tradition in order to acquire a sought-after Cuban, as evidenced by both the Reds and the A’s. That said, don’t be surprised as more teams to join the fray to land Tomas; it’s going to look like an episode of The Bachelor by the time this is all said and done.
So could the Cubs be trying to get a rose from this guy too? Both Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have spoken recently about the certainty that their team will be active in spending money to bring in talent from outside the organization. They’ve had early success with a Cuban player of their own and have seen several others flourish just a few miles to the south. And it’s a known fact that the Cubs have been looking to load up on bats. Sounds like a perfect fit, right?
Well, maybe not so much. As they’ve been stockpiling offense, there’s a growing concern among fans and the front office alike that the Cubs already have a lineup that strikes out too much. According to Badler, Tomas has shown “swing-and-miss tendencies” and struggles with quality breaking pitches. While Tomas might be able to plug a hole in a power-hungry offense, the team that acquires him might first have to work to plug the holes in his swing.
Epstein just set the lofty goal of winning the NL Central title in 2015, which casts doubt on the idea of spending big on a high-risk, high-reward project who is unlikely to help the team immediately. That’s because, despite the emergence of players like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, the Cubs may need to add veteran leadership from a player who’s been around the block and can teach the younger players about winning.
Remember when I talked earlier about the value of a protected pick and the reluctance of teams to part with one and how that would make Tomas a better value than those vets to some teams? Well, with a protected first-round pick, the Cubs are not one of those teams. To them, there is likely more value in a polished veteran who can help the team immediately.
There was a time when they were willing to overpay for a project, but that time was a few years ago when they signed Soler. Now, not only are the Cubs ready to start contending, but inflation has clearly run rampant in Cuba. Speculation is that Tomas will easily break the record total paid to Castillo, with estimates ranging from $80-110MM. Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors predicts a 7-year, $105MM deal.
That’s not a cheap date and the Cubs are sure to be out of the bidding at those prices. But it’s not because they don’t have the money; this isn’t even close to the same scenario as the one we saw with Masahiro Tanaka last year. While the Cubs were out-bid by the Yankees, that was a run at a polished pitcher who was able to step into the rotation from Day 1.
Cubs fans should take their team’s absence from this party as a good sign. They’re not avoiding Tomas because they can’t afford to compete, they’re doing it because they can’t afford not to. Epstein has painted himself into a corner in a way, finally putting times and specific goals to what had previously been a relatively amorphous game plan.
To that end, the Cubs will be looking for players who can come in right away and provide value in both the lineup and the clubhouse, who fit the team without overshadowing the talent already in place. Tomas simply doesn’t fit the mold the Cubs are looking for at this point.
I know many of you out there see another young Cuban slugger and picture the next Puig or Cespedes or Abreu, but if you’re holding out hope of the Cubs pursuing him, I can say only: No mas, Tomas. But fear not, there will be more players to come as the influence of the mysterious island continues to grow.
Who knows, maybe the Cubs will even re-adopt their 90’s road unis as a way to make them feel more at home.