MLB.com Columnist

Jesse Sanchez

Cuba fighting for relevancy, Serie Nacional

With political landscape changing, Cuba looks to stay competitive, save national league

Cuba fighting for relevancy, Serie Nacional

CARY, N.C. -- The universally recognized MLB logo -- the white silhouette of a ballplayer set on a red and blue background -- was decorated with the stars and stripes of the American flag and stretched across the grass outside of the visitors' dugout on Coleman Field at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.

The symbol, the embodiment of the week-long Americas Baseball Festival, was not lost on the Cuban national baseball team seated on the wooden benches inside. Once among the most feared teams in international circles, the Cuban baseball stars are now a group fighting for relevancy and a way to save their Serie Nacional, the island's top league, while the landscape of sports and politics changes around them.

In an unforeseen twist, Cuban baseball now finds itself rooting for the USA.

Last week, President Barack Obama announced that the United States and Cuba will restore full diplomatic relations and open embassies in an effort to normalize relations between the two countries. The United States began implementing a trade embargo in 1960 and broke off diplomatic ties with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961.

"This is an important and symbolic time for us to be here and we are happy we are here while it's happening," said Heriberto Suarez Pereda, the commissioner of baseball in Cuba. "We are all very pleased with the progress the countries are making."

Defection -- either through clandestine escapes or abandoning a national team at a tournament outside of Cuba -- has traditionally been the only way for players from Cuba to make it to the big leagues since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Improved relations could eventually change that process.

Ninety-five players from Cuba have played in the Major Leagues since the U.S. imposed sanctions in 1961. The list includes recent impact players like Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman, White Sox slugger Jose Abreu, Detroit's Yoenis Cespedes, Arizona's Yasmany Tomas and Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig. More will almost certainly follow.

Two top players from Cuba's national baseball team -- outfielder Yadiel Hernandez and third baseman Yander La O -- defected during the Americas Baseball Festival last week. Several of the Serie Nacional's top prospects, including pitchers Yasiel Sierra, Vladimir Gutierrez and Norge Ruiz along with outfielders Yusnier Diaz, Guillermo Heredia and infielder Randy Arozarena, have also defected this year. Young players such as outfielder Eddy Julio Martinez, 20, and pitcher Yadier Alvarez, 19, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 on MLB.com's Top 30 International Prospects list, were potential stars for the Serie Nacional, but also left the island.

Decimated by defections, the Cuban National Team that competed in North Carolina and will play in the Pan-Am Games that start Saturday in Toronto is considered by scouts to be among the weakest ever. Cuba was no-hit for the first time ever in international play in its first game of the Americas Baseball Festival against a USA Baseball team made up of college players. USA Baseball won three of the five games by a combined score of 17 to 10.

Cuba was also defeated by USA Baseball's Pan-Am team, 4-0, on Tuesday. The Cuban team defeated Canada's Pan-Am team, 4-1, Wednesday morning in a seven-inning game.

"Of course [defections] affects our league, but we have to keep looking for talent because we have a lot of good players in Cuba," Suarez Pereda said. "The Serie Nacional system will never go away. We just have to keep working hard. There's still a great future for baseball in Cuba. The team we have here is not as athletic as in the past, but they can compete."

In an effort to generate revenue for the Serie Nacional and the national baseball program, the Cuban government began allowing its players to play professionally in Mexico, Canada and Japan in 2013 for a percentage of the contracts. The partnerships come at a critical time when the Cuban government is considering reducing the 16-team league to eight teams because of a lack of players and money.

The Cuban Baseball Federation wants a similar relationship with leagues affiliated with the United States.

However, 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. Cuban players must also petition for free agency from MLB and sign a sworn statement that says the player is in compliance with Section 515.05 of Cuban Assets Control Regulations.

The section unblocks "any individual national of Cuba who has taken up permanent residence outside of Cuba, provided certain required documentation is obtained and the individual is not a prohibited Cuban government official or prohibited member of the Cuban Communist Party."

"It's changing little by little and we want it to change, but we can't change it by ourselves. We know it's because of the embargo," said Higinio Velez, president of Cuba's Baseball Federation. "We also know baseball fans in the United States want to see Cubans and Cubans want to see players from the United States."

U.S. and Cuban embassies will open in Washington and Havana on July 20, but many hurdles between the two countries still exist. There's no guarantee Congress will end the embargo.

For now, the rules of the game remain the same.

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.