Cuban defectors enjoy signing freedom
Most are not part of Draft and can choose between Major League bidders
Barbaro Garbey defected from Cuba as a part of the Mariel Flotilla in 1980. Four years later, Garbey became the first Cuban defector to appear in the big leagues since Fidel Castro enacted a ban on Cuban athletes playing abroad 20 years earlier.
While Cuban-born players such as Rafael Palmeiro and Jose Canseco, who fled the island with their families at a young age, played in the big leagues after Garbey, it wasn't until 1991 when Rene Arocha became the next Cuban baseball player to defect from his homeland -- where the economy hit on hard times and the dream of baseball riches fed what has become a steady influx of players from the island country since.
The bidding for the services of Yoan Moncada opened this week, when he was given official approval to sign with a Major League organization. Already this offseason, the D-backs have signed Yasmany Tomas and have begun working him out at third base at their complex in Scottsdale, Ariz., hoping he can make the conversion from the outfield and be in the big league lineup on Opening Day.
Tomas was the 85th prominent Cuban player to defect, dating back to Arocha, and the 45th since 2008, which was the year in which Marlins right-hander Jose Fernandez, only 15 at the time, was among the defectors. Fernandez and his mother joined his father, who already was in the Tampa area, and went to high school, eventually signing with the Marlins as a first-round Draft pick, 14th overall, in 2011.
Arocha and Fernandez, the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year Award winner, are among the 51 Cuban defectors who have reached the big leagues in the past 22 years, including White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, who won the American League Rookie of the Year Award last season.
Just a year ago, five Cubans were on All-Star rosters for the first time in 40 years -- Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman and Alexei Ramirez. And Fernandez, who missed last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, was an All-Star in 2013.
Fernandez, once he defected, followed a more traditional route to the big leagues. However, the majority of the Cuban players defect to a country other than the United States and establish residency there, which provides many of them an opportunity to be free agents for teams to bid on.
Major League Baseball has international signing guidelines for players under 23 who have not played a certain number of seasons of in leagues deemed as professional in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Cuba. This winter, the minimum professional experience level in Cuba was expanded from three years to five years.
Teams are given an amount of money they are allowed to spend on signing -- each club starting with $700,000 and given additional money based on their record the previous year. They are penalized for exceeding their allotment, including being levied a 100 percent tax on their pool overage and prohibited from signing any pool-eligible player for more than $300,000 for the next two signing periods if they exceed the allotment by 15 percent.
The difference between the older and experienced Cuban players from those in Mexico, Japan, Korea or Taiwan is that the Cuban players have no obligations to their teams back home. Major League clubs have to buy the rights to a player from Mexico. They are required to go through a posting system for players from Japan, Korea and Taiwan, with the teams in those countries getting to keep the posted figure in exchange for granting Major League teams exclusive negotiating rights with a player.
As a result, the veteran Cuban players have more freedom in deciding which team to sign with.
And it has shown.
Eleven of the 13 Cuban players who have signed contracts with guarantees of $10 million or more have received their deals since 2011. In the past five months, the Red Sox signed outfielder Rusney Castillo to a seven-year deal with a reported value of $72.5 million deal (the largest total guaranteed for a Cuban defector) and Tomas signed a six-year deal worth a reported $68.5 million (at $11,416,667, the largest annual average value for a Cuban defector).
The Cuban players also can weigh factors other than guaranteed dollars into their decision.
Three years ago, when the A's signed Cespedes, the key was the four-year offer made by Oakland, which included the agreement that Cespedes would become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the deal -- two years shy of the normal service time needed for a player to be eligible for free agency. The other clubs making a run at Cespedes offered considerably more than the $36 million deal with Oakland, but those teams wanted a deal of six years or longer.
As a result, Cespedes, who was traded to the Red Sox last July and the Tigers this offseason, will be able to test the open market in the fall, when he turns 30, instead of being in his mid-30s before being eligible for free agency.
It is a freedom the Cuban defector can enjoy in baseball.