Friday, December 19, 2014

What lies ahead for Cuban baseball?

Fidel Castro at the plate in 1962.
Baseball is big in Cuba. Cuban players -- including such stars as Yasiel Puig, Ardolis Chapman and Jose Abreu -- are big with major league teams.

But there is little reason to believe that this week's breakthrough in diplomatic relations will bring a flood of Cuban talent to American stadiums. Certainly not while the embargo remains -- and that is codified in federal law, with the incoming Republican Senate majority apparently intent on keeping it in place.

Ben Badler of Baseball America covers Cuban baseball for that publication and probably knows about as much on the subject as any American. This piece, posted Thursday, details why there will not be a land rush for Cuban talent.

In a nutshell, there won't be because:

  • The Cuban government doesn't want that; and
  • the commissioner's office doesn't want that either

It's all about the money, of course, which is why the embargo is a major impediment.

The Cubans don't want to wreck the Serie Nacional, their domestic league. MLB recognizes Serie Nacional as a foreign professional league, as it does the Japanese and Korean leagues, and Badler says the Cubans want a relationship with MLB that combines aspects of MLB's ties to the Asian and Mexican leagues.

Most notably, that would include a formal arrangement in which the Cuban teams are paid for Cuban players. That, as matters stand, would be a violation of federal law.

For its part, the commissioner's office has a deep distaste for seeing players get paid; that's the thinking that has brought baseball the draft and bonus pools. It probably would prefer a straight-up player draft, but that figures to be a non-starter with the Cuban government (as it has been with other Caribbean governments, which is why there still isn't an international draft). More practically, MLB will settle for the same kind of arrangement as the Cuban government wants -- something that will restrict player movement and keep at least some of the money out of the hands of the players.

Beyond that, there's a legitimate competitive division between MLB's teams. Some are deeply, if clandestinely,  involved in scouting Cuba, and others are not. The teams that aren't heavily involved in Cuban talent (and the Twins are probably one of them; they certainly haven't been known to be a contender for any of the primo defectors in recent years) will want the others restrained.

As for the notion of an expansion team in Havana: Not happening. The Cuban economy is nowhere near mature enough to sustain such a piece of  indulgent flippery.

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