MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

New stance with Cuba should provide influx of talent

New stance with Cuba should provide influx of talent

With the phrase "normalization of relations with Cuba," some people automatically have this thought:

"Oh, good. Better cigars and rum."

This is not about that. No, this is about better baseball players.

Prior to the first World Baseball Classic in 2006, there was considerable opposition in the United States to allowing Cuba to participate in the tournament.

Our government, after all, had cut off diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba in 1961 and wasn't moving away from that stance. Why should we allow Cuba, a nation that was essentially on our enemies list, into this prestigious global event?

Well, Cuba is a nation that happens to produce a lot of exceptionally good baseball players. Based on its record in international play, its performance merited a place in this event.

This did not have to be about politics. And, in the end, it wasn't. The Cuban baseball team, allowed into the World Baseball Classic, demonstrated how much it deserved to be there by advancing all the way to the finals, where it lost to Japan. The Cubans were even better than advertised.

What didn't change as a result of Cuba's participation and its impressive showing? The Castro regime didn't gain any ground in Latin America or anywhere else. Everyone who saw the games was suitably impressed by the Cuban baseball players, but this was not widely viewed as a triumph for the Cuban dictatorship.

What did change? North American baseball people had a better understanding of just how good Cuban baseball was. Since then, a growing number of Cuban players have made their way into the Major Leagues -- in several cases emerging as stars.

The problem, of course, is that to reach North American baseball, Cuban players have to defect. This is a dicey and often dangerous undertaking. Even then, the player who successfully defects has to leave family and friends behind in Cuba.

With President Barack Obama's move toward normalizing of relations with Cuba, the possibilities can be seen for a much larger influx of Cuban players. Complete normalization of relations with Cuba, including the end of a trade embargo, would require Congressional approval. So this is a long way from a done deal.

But North American baseball people would likely be among the first to get in on the ground floor if relations were normalized. Major League Baseball issued this statement shortly after the president had announced his direction on normalization of relations:

"MLB will continue to track this significant issue and inform clubs about how the White House announcement may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba."

It is too early to tell what will happen on this issue, but baseball's interest is obvious. Look at the Cuban players who have been impact players in the Majors in the years since that first World Baseball Classic. The list includes Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig and Alexei Ramirez. The fact that some were essentially Major League-ready players when signed underscores the quality of Cuban baseball.

The list of Cuban prospects on the doorstep of stardom is longer than that. An earlier generation of Cubans who became legendary performers in the Major Leagues includes Hall of Famer Tony Perez, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva and Luis Tiant.

If relations with Cuba were normalized, it would be safe to assume the Cuban government would place some restrictions on the outward movement of Cuban baseball players. It is possible that something similar to the posting system now employed for players from Korea and Japan could be implemented.

This sort of thing is still a long way from reality. But the notion that a baseball hotbed might be open for business as a talent pool is more compelling to North American baseball people than even cigars and rum.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.