"New ownership came in and asked what were some of the things we needed to do immediately, and we said, 'We need to get engaged in Latin America like today,' and they said, 'Let's go,"' Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "Puig became available and we made a push to sign him, but also to serve notice to other players in Latin America that we are back and we are real and we'll spend money for talent."
The strategy has worked. The Dodgers, who were among the first teams to develop talent in Latin America with an academy in the 1970s, signed Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero to a deal worth $32 million during the offseason and are in the process of working out a deal with Cuban infielder Erisbel Arruebarruena. Pitcher Onelki Garcia, who is also from Cuba, lockers next to Puig and Guerrero at the club's Spring Training facility at Camelback Ranch.
"The Cuban players are typically older than a Venezuela player or Dominican player, so they have a different type of experience to them, an international competition experience, and probably have more league play before they sign," Colletti said. "We signed Alexander and we're trying to sign another player because it's tough in the Draft to find those players. You are pretty limited in the Draft as far as good hitters that can play in the middle of the infield. The way we look at it, we have the need for it in our organization and we've gone after them the way we have."
Cuban players who are at least 23 years old and have played in a Cuban professional league for three or more seasons are exempt from the international signing guidelines for amateur players, effectively making them free agents once they are eligible to sign with a big league club.
In all, there were 17 players from Cuba who played in the Major Leagues in 2013.
"It's probably really the last loophole where you can sign an international player and it does not affect your international pool money," D-backs general manager Kevin Towers said. "You can go outspend clubs and give players opportunities with Major League contracts. That's why I think clubs are spending the way they have on Cuban players. And they have been successful. Cuban players have always been guys that transition pretty quickly into the game because they play at such a high international level. There was a dead period after Livan Hernandez and Orlando Hernandez, but now there seems to be a pretty good trend of position players coming."
The list of Cuban players to make a mark in the big leagues in the past few years also includes names like Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman, Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes, Texas outfielder Leonys Martin, current free agent Kendrys Morales, Miami's Adeiny Hechavarria and Jose Fernandez, Tampa Bay's Yunel Escobar, Baltimore outfielder Henry Urrutia and Detroit shortstop Jose Iglesias.
Moreover, right-handed pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez signed with the Phillies, teenage right-hander Leando Linares signed with the Indians and outfield prospect Dariel Alvarez signed with Orioles. Right-hander Dalier Hinojosa signed a Minor League deal worth $4.25 million with the Red Sox in October.
Jose Abreu, who signed a six-year, $68 million deal with the White Sox in October, might be the best hitter to come from the island, and more players could be on the way. Cuban pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne and shortstop Aledmys Diaz could sign a big league contract by the end of the month.
"We are at a point where it is tougher and tougher to acquire talent in this game, especially young talent, so the fact that there is a great supply is only a benefit to clubs," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. "Part of the scarcity of talent means the prices for the players are going up, which makes the risk a little bit greater, but it's incumbent upon us and our scouts to get to know the players as much as we can prior to them being available."
The road to the Major Leagues for Cubans is not an easy one.
Any Cuban defector who wants to do business with an American company must first establish residency outside Cuba and the United States, a process that can take several months, depending on the country of residence. Cuban players must also petition Major League Baseball to become free agents and be unblocked by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control before they can enter into a contract with a club. Unblocking can take several weeks.
Last summer, the Cuban government instituted a program that allows its athletes to participate in leagues outside the country. The new guidelines do not make it easier for Cubans to play in the U.S. because of the American embargo on that country.
"The way it works down there, [amateur] players come to tryouts at your camp, and we had a hard time getting players to come to the academy [in the Dominican Republic] until we signed Puig," Colletti said. "I was down there about three weeks ago or so, and it was probably the best group of players that I've seen. A lot of it has to do with our ability to spend, and we've increased our scouting internationally three-fold from where it was. We have the finances to be competitive with players from Cuba and amateurs in other countries. Puig was a very key sign for us in more ways than just his talent."