Linares defects, begins international signing process

Cuban center fielder will seek residency in DR, Haiti, Costa Rica or Nicaragua

Yordanis Linares, a former youth league star-turned-teenage softball hero, is transitioning once again.

Add the center fielder to the long list of players on the expanding Cuban market.

Linares, who played three seasons with Villa Clara in Cuba's Serie Nacional, the island's top league, defected this week and is now in the Dominican Republic. The outfielder will seek residency -- the first step to signing with a Major League team -- in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Costa Rica or Nicaragua.

There are an estimated 75 Cuban players in the Dominican Republic seeking a contract with a Major League team.

"I've always wanted to play against the highest competition in other countries, and that's why I left," Linares, 26, told in Spanish from the Dominican Republic. "I feel like my game will play well in the United States. My first goal was to leave Cuba, and that's accomplished. Now I just want to work hard and sign with a good team, be a good player in the Major Leagues."

Linares left the island without incident, he said. He simply traveled from Havana to Panama on a plane earlier this week and later made his way to the Dominican Republic. He told Cuban officials he was going on vacation to Central America.

"It's the biggest decision of my life, the biggest decision a man can make to leave, but I wanted to do it," Linares said. "One day, I want to have my family with me, but I know I have a lot of work to do."

Linares is a career .318 hitter with 15 home runs, 96 RBIs, 33 doubles and seven triples in 191 Serie Nacional games since his debut in 2012. He hit .322 with 17 doubles, four triples, four home runs and 34 RBIs last season in Serie Nacional play.

Linares was also part of the Cuban team that participated in the 2014 Caribbean Series in Venezuela.

Because of his age and experience, he will be subject to the international signing guidelines when he becomes eligible to sign. Linares must also petition Major League Baseball once he establishes residency in a country outside of Cuba or the United States. The process could take several months.

"I'm here with my trainer Victor [Baez] working hard, and when it's the right time, I'll sign," Linares said. "I want to get what I always wanted, and that's to play with the best."

Linares grew up in the Remedio neighborhood of Villa Clara, and began playing baseball competitively at an early age. He walked away from the game at age 14 after becoming disenchanted with the selection process for the country's top teams. Three years later, a friend convinced him to return to the field, this time as a softball player. Linares eventually became one of the sport's top players in Cuba.

At 19, Linares' softball career was interrupted by the country's required military service. He returned to baseball two years later, and made his Villa Clara debut at age 22.

"I just want to make my dream come true," Linares said. "I've made the first step to get here. I just need to keep working."

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.