Martinez paces unsigned Cuban prospects
Outfielder is ranked No. 1 on MLB.com's Top 30 International Prospect Rankings
Cuban outfield prospect Eddy Julio Martinez begins his 2 1/2-mile journey from his apartment in Santiago, Dominican Republic, to the Complejo Deportivo La Barranquita, the sports complex where he trains five days a week just after sunrise.
Martinez is on the complex's track by 7 a.m., and by 9 a.m., the 20-year-old is on the nearby baseball diamond for three hours of batting and fielding practice. He has a break for lunch and some downtime to study English before the outfielder puts in a few hours of weight lifting at VIP Fitness, the same gym where Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo once trained before becoming big leaguers.
Then Martinez goes home and waits. He waits to start the routine all over the next morning. He waits for the right deal to come along so he can finally sign with a Major League team.
Martinez, ranked No. 1 on MLB.com's Top 30 International Prospect Rankings, was among the first Cuban players eligible to sign during the international signing period, and he remains a highly regarded prospect. However, the outfielder now finds himself in a competition for attention with top Cuban prospects like outfielder Yusnier Diaz, 18, pitchers Yaisel Sierra, 24, and Vladimir Gutierrez, 19, and others who are entering the market in search of deals with Major League teams.
Consider this: There have been nearly 75 prospects from Cuba to leave the island in search of a Major League deal in the past 18 months. Some will sign, others won't, and it's an international scouting director's job to see as many of those players as possible, and to get a read on how close those players are to completing the paperwork that makes them eligible to sign.
More players could be on the way.
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. However, improved relations between the two countries could eventually change that process.
In June, 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.
U.S. and Cuban embassies opened in Havana and Washington on July 20, and on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Marines raised an American flag at the embassy in Cuba for the first time in 54 years.
But for now, you can argue a Cuban player's paperwork is as important as his talent. 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, depending on the country. Cuban players must also petition for free agency from MLB before they can enter into a contract with a Major League club. The schedule of open showcases and private workouts for clubs and other competitive factors must also be considered.
In the meantime, Martinez, who has been eligible to sign since June and has been seen by every team, waits out the process.
However, Cuban players who are at least 23 years old and have played in a Cuban professional league for five or more seasons -- like Sierra -- are exempt from the international signing guidelines established by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, effectively making them free agents once they are eligible to sign with a big league club.
Here are four Cuban prospects to watch:
Eddy Julio Martinez, 20, OF
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound outfielder played two seasons for Las Tunas in Cuba's Serie Nacional. He left Cuba in November and established residency in Haiti in February. Martinez, who has been training in the Dominican Republic, had four hits in an open showcase last week with fellow Cuban prospects outfielder Yordan Alvarez, third baseman Lazaro Hernandez and catcher Rafael Vinales. The Dodgers and the Giants were once considered the front-runners, but the Mariners, Cubs, Reds, White Sox and Braves continue to show interest. Martinez is free to sign.
Vladimir Gutierrez, 19, RHP
Gutierrez is free to sign, but he will work out for teams -- likely later this month or in September, and possibly in the United States -- before coming to an agreement with a club.
The 6-foot-3, 172-pound right-hander was the Serie Nacional Rookie of the Year during the 2013-14 season. He went 5-5 with a 3.90 ERA during his rookie season, primarily pitching out of the bullpen. He also sported a 2.45 ERA as a reliever during the current '14-15 season. The pitcher left his Pinar del Rio team during the Caribbean Series in February in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and made his way to Mexico, where he eventually established residency in May and has been training with Cuban outfield prospect Guillermo Heredia, 24, who is also free to sign.
Gutierrez is subject to the international signing guidelines, while Heredia is exempt because of his age and experience.
Yusnier Diaz, 18, OF
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Diaz, who will be eligible to sign once he is declared a free agent, starred last week in an impressive showcase of Cuban players that also featured infielders Adriel Labrada, 24, shortstop Jonathan Machado, 16, and Omar Estevez, 17. Diaz showed athleticism along with some hitting and power potential in the showcase. He ran a 6.5-second 60-yard dash and also impressed scouts with his body projection. Evaluators also liked his bat speed and believe he can play center field.
Yaisel Sierra, 24, RHP
Some scouts believe Sierra can be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Others think he might be best suited for the No. 5 spot. This much is certain: Sierra's fastball was in the 94-97 mph range consistently, and he hit 98 mph during a showcase with right-handed pitcher Ronald Bolano, 19, in front of more than 100 scouts last week in the Dominican Republic. Sierra, who also throws a slider and a changeup, is exempt from the international signing guidelines because of his age and experience. He has worked out privately for clubs, and he is expected to have one more open showcase when he is declared a free agent. Bolano, whose fastball was in 92-95 mph range, is subject to the guidelines for the current signing period and is waiting to be declared a free agent.
Other names to watch
Lazaro Alonso, 20, INF
Randy Arozarena, 19, INF/OF
Raidel Chacon, 20, OF
Yunel Flores, 28, OF
Luis Yander La O, 23, 3B
Julio Alfredo Martinez, 24, LHP
Jorge Ona, 19, OF
Johan Oviedo, 17, RHP
Cionel Perez, 19, LHP
Henry Quintero, 21, OF
Alfredo Rodriguez, 21, SS
Norge Ruiz, 21, LHP
Anibal Sierra, 21, SS
Carlos Sierra, 20, RHP
Alain Tamayo, 24, RHP
Carlos Juan Viera, 26, RHP