Potential Major League stars: 5 Cuban players to watch
Moncada, Ibanez highlight list of top prospects nearing eligibility
By Jesse Sanchez
The news of improved diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba has the baseball world buzzing about the future of Cuban players in the Major Leagues.
Here's what we know: The new plan does not overturn the economic embargo on Cuba that was passed by Congress more than 50 years ago or change the path that many Cuban players must take to get to the Major Leagues, at least for now.
We also know it's impossible to ignore the contributions of Cuban players in the last few years and there are more players already making their way to Major League stadiums near you.
Here are five Cuban players to watch:
Yoan Moncada, IF, 19
Moncada is the most celebrated young prospect to leave Cuba since Jorge Soler. The 6-foot, 210-pound Moncada debuted for Cienfuegos in Cuba's Serie Nacional at age 17 and hit .277 during parts of two seasons. He made a name for himself by dominating the 16-and-under and 18-and-under leagues in Cuba.
Moncada established residency in Guatemala and has been declared a free agent by Major League Baseball. He must still be cleared by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the United States Department of the Treasury before he can sign with a team. Because of his age and experience, Moncada will be subject to the international signing guidelines.
Andy Ibanez, 2B, 21
Ibanez is considered "a gamer" in international circles, and he has been compared to players such as Omar Infante, Miguel Cairo and Placido Polanco. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound infielder is fundamentally sound and has solid tools across the board, although he does not have one tool that blows scouts away.
Ibanez starred for the island's 16-and-under and 18-and-under national teams, and later for Isla De La Juventud in Cuba's Serie Nacional. He was also the youngest player on Cuba's 2013 World Baseball Classic roster.
Ibanez established residency in Haiti and has been declared a free agent by Major League Baseball. He must also be cleared by the OFAC before he can sign. Like Moncada, Ibanez will be subject to the international signing guidelines.
Yoan Lopez, RHP, 21
Lopez throws a cut-fastball, a change, a curve and a slider, but he is best known for a fastball that hovers in the 93-to-95 mph range. In Cuba, Lopez played three seasons for Isla de la Juventud in Cuba's Serie Nacional, the island's top league. He sported a 3.12 ERA with 28 strikeouts and 11 walks in 49 innings in his final season before defecting.
Lopez, who established residency in Haiti, has been declared a free agent by Major League Baseball. He must still be cleared by the OFAC and he is subject to the international signing guidelines.
Hector Olivera, 2B, 29
Olivera is in the early stages of his paperwork and is in the process of establishing residency in Haiti. A veteran of Cuba's Serie Nacional and the island's national team, including the World Baseball Classic team in 2009, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound infielder was once considered the top second baseman on the island before injuries slowed down his career.
Olivera has shown the ability to hit for average and power, and he has been drawing interest from several Major League teams. He can sign as a free agent when he becomes eligible.
Jorge Despaigne, RHP, 23
The cousin of Padres pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne, Jorge Despaigne also uses different arm angles and changes speeds to get batters out. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder throws a fastball in the 92-94 mph range along with a curveball, slider and a changeup.
Despaigne has earned praise for his ability to set up hitters, and he projects to be a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher. Despaigne is free to sign and will be subject to international signing guidelines.
Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.