Shift in U.S.-Cuban relations may affect MLB

Those seeking career in Majors may find less restrictive path to America

Shift in U.S.-Cuban relations may affect MLB

The re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, announced by President Barack Obama on Wednesday, could affect Cuban players currently in the Major Leagues and pave the way for an easier passage for Cuban players seeking to play in the U.S. in the future.

"This is a game-changer," one American League general manager said.

As part of President Obama's plan, the U.S. will open an embassy in Havana and ease travel bans to Cuba for family visits, journalistic activities and athletic events, which are all listed under general licenses for the 12 existing categories of travel to Cuba.

"This is historic," said Jaime Torres, an agent who represents Cuban players. "I think we have to look at the changes that are made and how they will be implemented, but I could see this being as important in the history of baseball as the signing of Minnie Minoso and making it to the big leagues as the first black Hispanic in the big leagues. He was Cuban. This is progress."

It's impossible to ignore Cuba's impact on the game. In July, five players hailing from Cuba took part in the All-Star Game in Minnesota, and we've seen the salaries given to elite Cuban players skyrocket in recent years. Earlier this month, the D-backs announced their six-year, $68.5 million deal with Yasmany Tomas. Outfielder Rusney Castillo signed a seven-year, $72.5 million deal with the Red Sox in August, Jose Abreu signed a six-year, $68 million contract with the White Sox last October and Yasiel Puig inked a seven-year, $42 million deal with the Dodgers in June 2012.

The new rules could also pave the way for the return of the Caribbean Series to the island for the first time since 1957. A team from Cuba participated in the annual tournament between the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico in February in Venezuela, and another team is expected to participate in next year's tournament in Puerto Rico. An original member of the Caribbean Confederation along with Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, Cuba won seven titles starting in 1949.

Additionally, President Obama announced that the amount of money anyone in the U.S. will be allowed to send to Cuban nationals, excluding certain government or communist party officials, will increase from $500 to $2,000. The plan also calls for U.S. institutions to be allowed to open correspondent accounts at Cuban financial institutions for the processing of authorized transactions and the use of U.S. credit and debit cards by travelers in Cuba. All three changes could affect Cuban players in the United States.

President Obama's plan to increase the ability of people in Cuba to communicate with people in the U.S. and others around the world could also serve players.

The re-establishment of diplomatic relations was accompanied by Cuba's release of Alan Gross and the exchange of a U.S. spy jailed in Cuba for three Cubans held in Florida. The plans do not overturn the economic embargo on Cuba that was passed by Congress more than 50 years ago. In other words, the path that Cuban players must take to get to the Majors has not changed, at least for now.

"Major League Baseball is closely monitoring the White House's announcement regarding Cuban-American relations," Major League Baseball said in a statement. "While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue, and we will keep our Clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba."

The MLB Players Association followed with its own statement.

"We will watch this situation closely as it continues to unfold and we remain hopeful that today's announcement will lead to further positive developments," the statement read.

Defection has been considered the only way for players from Cuba to make it to the big leagues since Fidel Castro took over power in 1959. Overall, 184 players from Cuba have played in the Major Leagues, including 95 since the U.S. imposed sanctions in 1961.

Because of the embargo, any Cuban defector who wants to do business with an American company must first establish residency outside Cuba and the U.S., a process that can take several months, depending on the country. Cuban players must also petition for free agency from MLB and be unblocked by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) before they can enter into a contract with a Major League club.

Cuban players who are at least 23 years old and have played in a Cuban professional league for five or more seasons are exempt from the international signing guidelines established by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, effectively making them free agents once they are eligible to sign with a big league club.

The Cuban government has allowed its players to play professionally in Mexico and Japan as part of a new program for players whom they do not believe pose a threat to escape.

"The embargo that's been imposed for decades is now codified in legislation," President Obama said in his address. "As these changes unfold, I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo."

Defections can be treacherous, and while Cuban players are still known to abandon their national team during international tournaments, most players escape Cuba by taking a boat and trying to make it to the nearest port in Mexico or Haiti. Once there, they are placed in a safe house or a hotel where a "front man" makes calls on the player's behalf to seek the highest bidder.

Players are often not released until the carriers are compensated and reimbursed for the passage from Cuba. Some players also sell a "percentage" of their future earnings to finance the trip or for a cash advance as a means of surviving in the interim. Those abetting the player's escape often want to get their cut before turning a player over to an agent, or they may ask for a percentage of the final deal.

Top Cuban prospect Yoan Moncada, who is still seeking OFAC clearance, is the only known top player to leave the island legally. He is expected to sign a multi-million dollar deal with a Major League club in the near future.

The first wave of Cuban talent to leave the island and have success in the U.S. was led by Livan Hernandez and his half-brother Orlando in the late 90s, and Jose Contreras a few years after that. Rene Arocha became the first player to defect from Cuba's national team in 1991.

"You look back at Arocha's decision to leave in 1991 as the starting point for this," Torres said. "Hopefully, this will be the beginning of more Cuban players coming to the U.S. and play so we can enjoy their talents."

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.