In the most recent process of signing players with international major league franchises, several talented Cuban ballplayers achieved million-dollar contracts. The number of eligible players could have been higher if the MLB-Cuba Agreement, established in December 2018, had been kept; but the Trump Administration cancelled it a few months later. Now, with Democrat Joe Biden in the White House, is it possible to unfreeze that agreement?
The short early life of the MLB-Cuba Agreement
After a long period of negotiations, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the Cuban Baseball Federation reached a historic agreement that established a legal and safe way for Cuban players to sign with Major League franchises.
The idea of the Agreement was to end the trafficking of athletes, a sad reality that quite a few had to suffer in the last decade. The dramatic stories of how Yasiel Puig, Randy Arozarena, Leonys Martin, and José Dariel Abreu, among others, left Cuba and went through smugglers who demanded large percentages of their contracts have even made it to court in the United States. Arozarena’s odyssey, the great sensation of the 2020 playoffs, will be brought to the big screen in a biographical film produced by Wonderfilms Media.
The agreement between MLB and the Cuban Federation was pretty similar to that reached with three other international leagues: the Japanese (NPB), the Korean (KBO) and the Taiwanese (CPBL). In the pact, Cuba pledged to release all players over the age of 25 and six seasons or more of experience in the National Series so that they could sign with Major League teams. In addition, the Cuban Federation would provide a list of young prospects, over the age of 18, who could also strike an agreement with any franchise.
For each ballplayer signed, the Cuban Federation would receive a single “release payment”. The fees were set at 15% to 20% of the total guaranteed by a major league contract and 25% of the signing bonus for minor league contracts. Players could travel to the United States with their family and return to Cuba when they decided. In addition, they could represent the country in international competitions and in the National Series, provided that the franchise granted permission.
According to Major League Commissioner Rob Manfred, the Agreement “will allow the next generation of Cuban players to pursue their dream without having to endure many of the difficulties experienced by current and previous Cuban players engaged by the major leagues”.
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From the outset, the MLB-Cuba Agreement was very well received by some and criticized by others. Several players, including Puig, Abreu and Yohan Moncada, supported the agreement, while Orlando “The Duke” Hernandez always showed his disapproval.
Four months later, Cuba unveiled the list of 34 players under the age of 25 who could be signed by major league teams. The Trump Administration’s response was immediate: it attacked the Agreement through its weakest point and managed to cancel it.
The biggest concern regarding the Agreement was always the relationship between the Baseball Federation and the Cuban government. Under the laws of the Embargo, no U.S. company could make payments that went to the government, but the Obama Administration considered the Federation an independent entity. That position changed with Trump.
In April 2019, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sent a letter to Major League authorities stating that “payments to the Cuban Baseball Federation were not authorized… because payment to that Federation was a payment to the Cuban government.” This provision completely froze the Agreement.
An open door to thaw MLB-Cuba relations
The possible implementation of the historic Agreement has been identified as one of the most likely scenarios in the new context of relations that could be established between Washington and Havana, following the arrival of Joe Biden at the White House.
According to Raúl Fornés, first Vice-president of the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER), they were prepared to unfreeze the Agreement and close the cycle of defections and talent drain.
What position the Biden Administration will adopt remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Cuban side could create control mechanisms to certify that money paid to the Federation from franchises is used exclusively in the development of national baseball.
The exodus of Cuban ballplayers continues
The dialogue between MLB and the Federation remains frozen, but what has remained unchecked is the departure of the most talented Cuban players through different means. Extensive research conducted by Francys Romero, collected in his excellent book “The Dream and the Reality: Stories of the Emigration of Cuban Baseball Players (1960-2018)” showed that, in the period between 2011 to 2018, more than 600 Cuban players left the country. That number is even higher today.
Yoelkis Céspedes and Norge Carlos Vera appeared on the 34-player list sent by the Cuban Federation to the Major League in April 2019. A few months later, with the ongoing Frozen Agreement, these two players left the Cuban national team which was participating in the Can-Am League. Both had to establish residence in a third country in order to sign a contract because, due to their Cuban nationality and the ongoing Embargo, they were not authorized to do so. Had the Agreement existed, these two players would have signed much earlier, without any risk and with an open path to live with their families and travel between their home country and the one that would welcome their professional career.
Céspedes is 23 years old. His physique has undergone an impressive transformation, and his major league debut with the Chicago White Sox – a team that signed him for $2.05 million – may not be long now. Meanwhile, Vera, a 20-year-old right-hand pitcher with a fastball that reaches 97 miles, will also play with the White Sox which offered him $1.5 million.
Other promising players who recently achieved contracts were Pedro León (4 million with the Houston Astros) and Yiddi Cappe (3.5 million with the Miami Marlins). In the future they could sign Oscar Luis Colás, considered one of the biggest prospects, hailed as the Cuban “Shohei Otani” for his ability to bat and pitch.
Will the MLB-Cuba Agreement be unfrozen? The arrival of a new “director” to the visiting team opens up new expectations; meanwhile, the home team should know by now that with the strategies of the past neither side wins, whether in baseball or in life.