Cuban phenom 'Lazarito' creating a buzz
16-year-old prospect currently in Haiti during circuitous route to becoming free agent
There's a 16-year-old Cuban prospect living in a rundown house on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, who makes the five-hour drive to the heart of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, each week so he can work out on a field that's not made of rocks.
He's 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, and probably best suited for a corner outfield spot, but he can also play first base and third base. His muscular body is the product of classic exercises from yesteryear: pushups, pullups and chest-dips using two chairs. He is said to run a 60-yard dash in under 6.5 seconds. His full name is Lazaro Robersy Armenteros Arango, but he's known simply as "Lazarito" in international baseball circles.
Scouts have not seen Armenteros in person since late in the summer of 2014, when he starred at the 15U Baseball World Cup in Sinaloa, Mexico.
That could change soon.
Armenteros -- who traveled from Cuba to Central America to Europe and back to the Caribbean in the past six months in pursuit of his baseball dream -- could start with open showcases and private workouts for teams in the next few months. The teenager established residency in Haiti in May, the first step to becoming a free agent, and is in the process of registering with Major League Baseball.
"He's a great-looking kid with lots of tools, size, strength and potential," one American League scouting director said. "He is a front-line guy."
One scout likened Armenteros to outfielder Jorge Ona, 19, another top Cuban prospect with potential five-tool talent seeking a contract from an MLB team. But Armenteros just turned 16 on May 22. When asked if he'd consider himself the Bryce Harper of Cuba, the comparison meant nothing to him. Armenteros doesn't know who the Nationals slugger is.
Lazarito could be poised to join an exclusive list of international players to become eligible to sign a deal with a Major League team after missing the May 15 cutoff date to officially register for the international signing period. According to MLB guidelines, all international players born after Sept. 1, 1995, must register with the league's office by the mid-May date in order to sign during the following international signing period that starts every July 2. However, there have been a total of 12 players to receive an exemption after missing the cutoff date, with Cuban prospects Yordan Alvarez, Jonathan Machado and Omar Estevez serving as the most recent.
Last week, MLB sent a memo to clubs stating the league had reviewed the three players' circumstances and concluded that their failure to register was due to no fault of their own. An MLB official said an international player's eligibility after missing the registration date is determined on a case-by-case basis and the registration policies have not changed.
Armenteros could argue for an exemption based on the fact he was out of the country when the deadline passed and it was also no fault of his own.
When Armenteros becomes eligible to sign does matter. The Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Royals -- who will not be able to sign any pool-eligible prospects for more than $300,000 for the next two international signing periods after exceeding their bonus pools this year -- are still in play for the teen if he becomes eligible to sign. The Angels, D-backs, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees are already in the maximum penalty after blowing past their bonus pools last year.
Also consider this: The international market is already saturated with Cuban players at almost every position, including top outfield prospects like Ona, Yusniel Diaz (who is ranked No. 3 on MLB.com's Top 30 International Prospects list), Eddy Julio Martinez (ranked No. 4) and Henry Quintero, 21, who is waiting to be declared a free agent. In general, clubs are jockeying for position and trying to find out when all of the top Cuban players will be eligible to sign.
"My goal is to sign with a team and make it to the Major Leagues one day," Armenteros said in Spanish from his home in Haiti. "I'm confident I can make that happen. Make an impact. I'm working hard every day to reach that goal."
Armenteros was born in Havana, and he was raised with his three brothers and three sisters in the Jacomino neighborhood in the San Miguel del Padron municipality in the southeastern part of the city. Lazaro Armenteros Sr. is a 6-foot-5 former basketball player for Cuba's national team. His mother Yoany raised the children at home.
"Just like everything, there is good and bad about Cuba," Lazarito said. "It was a tough childhood. My clothes were old and my shoes were all torn, but we had family and we were fine. It was tough to leave everyone, but my future was not in Cuba anymore."
Armenteros' past speaks volumes. He was named to the all-tournament team after hitting .462 with nine runs, three doubles, five triples and eight RBIs in nine games during Cuba's championship run at the U15 Baseball World Cup in Mexico last year.
Armenteros also had 42 hits in 38 games, with eight doubles, three triples, six home runs and 12 stolen bases for Havana's under-15 team in 2014. He recorded five hits, including two triples, in four games for Havana as a 13-year-old.
But life changed for Armenteros early this year when he was sanctioned by the Cuban government before the start of the 2015 season and not allowed to return to his U15 team. The teenager disputes the notion that he was punished for anti-government beliefs among some members his family.
"I still don't know why I was sanctioned," he said. "My father went to the commissioner and nobody gave him a good answer, just a lot of nothing. I knew I was going to leave after that conversation. I wasn't ready to quit playing or stop developing."
Because of the U.S. embargo with Cuba, any Cuban defector who wants to do business with an American company must first establish residency outside Cuba and the U.S. In baseball, that player must also petition for free agency from MLB. Haiti has become a popular destination for prospects seeking to fulfill the residency requirement, and it was Armenteros' mission to get to the country and start his journey to the big leagues.
But things didn't go according to plan. Armenteros left Cuba on a plane with his mother for Ecuador in late spring, but he was denied entry by Ecuadorian immigration officials and sent back to Cuba. He then traveled to Russia -- a known ally of Cuba since the days of the Soviet Union -- with the hopes of flying directly to Haiti from Moscow, but he was once again denied and put on a plane back to the island. The resourceful teen bought a ticket for Haiti during a layover in Germany. He eventually made his way inside the baseball community in the Dominican Republic.
Armenteros is represented by Ariel Nunez of Culture 39, a new sports agency owned by Charles Hairston, the cousin of former Major League players Jerry Hairston and Scott Hairston. He's spoken on the phone with Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig and said he hopes to meet his baseball idol Yoenis Cespedes one day.
"My life is a lot different than it used to be," Armenteros said. "It's peaceful. I go from home to the field to the gym and back home. I know it's going to be worth it."