President Obama recently announced that the U.S. will re-establish full relations with Cuba. Baseball fans of course have begun speculating excitedly about what this could mean for Major League Baseball. Cuba has produced several star baseball players in recent years such as Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, and Jose Abreu. Rusney Castillo signed a seven year deal with the Boston Red Sox, and Yasmany Tomas inked a six year deal worth $68.5 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Teams are looking to pony up as much as $80-90 million to sign 19 year old sensation Yoan Moncada.
While the influx of talent from Cuba has made Major League Baseball more exciting (who doesn't love a Cespedes home run or a triple digit fastball from Aroldis Chapman?), it has come at a huge personal cost to many of the players who have defected. The story of Puig's harrowing defection has been well-documented. That story isn't over either. Just last spring a member of the smuggling ring that engineered Puig's defection showed up at a team hotel to demand payment. Puig and Chapman's families are both being sued for several millions of dollars based on allegations that they wrongfully accused a man of attempting to set up a prior defection.
The uncomfortable truth is that many Cuban baseball players who defect to the U.S. must endure extreme danger in order to do so and often rely on human trafficking rings to smuggle them off the island. As part of President Obama's announced policy change, the U.S. will reportedly work with the Cuban government on human trafficking issues. In the short term this could make it more difficult for Cuban players to defect. Over the long run this announcement could lead the way toward the elimination of emigration restrictions between the two countries or the lifting of the trade embargo with Cuba. But, this could be months or even years away.
Efforts to reduce human trafficking between the U.S. and Cuba could reduce the number of Cuban ballplayers leaving the island to play baseball in the United States. It's important to remember that players such as Puig, Chapman, Castillo, Cespedes, Abreu, Tomas and other Cuban stars are the outliers. A look at the list of Cuban defectors on Baseball-Reference reveals far more names, many of which never reached the major leagues. Many Cuban defectors never even sign professional contracts. Vice Sports documented the perils and difficulties of the hundreds of Cuban ballplayers who are granted free agency yet never sign a contract with a major league team. Countless other players are unsuccessful in their attempts to defect, which can earn them suspensions from playing in La Serie Nacional, Cuba's premier baseball league. Even worse, they may end up in jail.
A not uncommon scenario which Jorge Arangure detailed involves a trainer or handler approaching players about the possibility of getting off the island by means of a tourist visa. The players could then refuse to return and seek residency status which would allow them to bypass the MLB draft. In exchange for getting them out, the trainer then seeks a percentage of the player's signing bonus. Eager for an opportunity to leave, players often jump at the opportunity. But, for those who are not high-profile free agents, they may be kept in cramped quarters without basic amenities. Their tryouts might be halfhearted events that attract a mere handful of scouts. Oftentimes the players are kept under close watch and not given the liberty to move. One of Puig's fellow defectors stated that the smuggling ring threatened to chop off an arm or finger with a machete if they did not receive payment.
Under Major League Baseball's current draft-eligibility system, few Cuban players will emigrate directly to the United States. Those that establish residency elsewhere, say in the Dominican Republic or Guatemala, are eligible to sign as free agents and receive significantly more money. On the other hand, as Wendy Thurm explained, players who seek asylum in the United States are eligible for the draft. For example, Marlins hurler Jose Fernandez, who came to the United States at 15 after a dangerous boat trip, was selected 14th overall in the 2011 MLB Draft. Prior to his elbow injury he had established himself as one of the best handful of pitchers in baseball. Yet, he was making $635,000 under baseball's pre-arbitration pay scale. Meanwhile, Alex Guerrero, a second baseman who defected in 2013 and was granted free agency, signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $28 million last offseason. He made just 13 big league plate appearances.
Fernandez himself attempted to defect three times without success before attempting to reach the United States by way of Mexico. In the United States defectors can stay (at least temporarily) if they reach shore, while if they are caught in the water they will be returned. However, in Mexico defectors can be deported back to their home country at any time. As a 14 year-old Fernandez spent a few months in a Cuban prison locked in a tiny cell with grown men where he witnessed inmate killings. From there he had to go through the process of getting asylum, which can often be a complex and confusing administrative process.
The combination of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba and Major League Baseball's draft-eligibility rules have served to benefit nobody in this business except the human trafficking rings. Leaving Cuba and going directly to the United States involves a high risk of deportation, and the defector must navigate a complex and often unreasonable immigration law. Furthermore, the financial rewards are not nearly as significant as they would be if the player first establishes residency outside of Cuba. However, this path is fraught with danger because it requires a long process of first escaping Cuba and then attempting to stay in a third country long enough to establish residency. A player often has to pay smuggling rings to leave Cuba and to remain in a third country.
Don't expect the process for Cuban players to come to the U.S. to be streamlined any time soon. In the short term, players will still attempt to defect, though potential efforts between Cuba and the U.S. to prevent human trafficking could slow the number of players attempting to come to the U.S. If the U.S. lifts the trade embargo we could see a posting system similar to that with player in the Nippon Professional Baseball League or Korean Baseball Organization where clubs post their players for bidding with MLB teams (the Cuban government would likely take a large cut). Let's hope that the U.S. and Cuba and Major League Baseball can create a more humane process for the next wave of Cuban ballplayers seeking to play in the U.S.
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Chris Moran is a former college baseball player at Wheaton College and current third-year law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He's also an assistant baseball coach at Wash U. In addition to Beyond The Box Score, he contributes at Gammons Daily. He went to his first baseball game at age two. Follow him on Twitter@hangingslurves.