As the hot stove continues during the MLB offseason, it is important to consider an increasingly popular means of signing players: international free agency. This isn’t about the “Japanese Babe Ruth,” Shohei Otani, who will begin his MLB career with Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels. I’m instead talking about the dangerous side of international free agency.
The issue stems from a loophole in Major League Baseball and the United States Treasury Department rules surrounding the signing of Cuban baseball players. Since the beginning of the Cold War, direct trade talks between the United States and Cuba have been practically non-existent. On November 8, President Donald Trump announced that he would roll back achievements from the Obama administration in regards trade with Cuba. Despite icy relations between the two countries, Cuban defectors are able to come to the States and immediately set themselves on the pathway to becoming a legal resident. As legal residents, these players can declare for the MLB draft, where they can be chosen by any team setting themselves up to be paid around the league minimum salary, about $500,000. However, if defectors are smuggled into a second country before signing with an MLB club, they can be signed as an international agent and forgo low rookie contracts.
According to Baseball Reference, 76 Cuban defectors have played in the MLB since Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1959. MLB teams have identified Cuba as a hotbed for young talent. According to American sports agent Joe Kehoskie, “Cuba is a very close second in terms of overall talent…If you are comparing Cuba and the major leagues, if the major leagues are the American League East, Cuba is the American League West.”
Much of this talent is untapped as a result of the travel restrictions to Cuba. Despite difficulties in scouting players in Cuba, many defectors have been able to make it to the forefront of the MLB – this includes Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman and 2014 Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu. There has been no shortage of success for Cuban defectors in Major League Baseball, but getting them into the country and into the league has proven to be a far more difficult task.
Yasiel Puig took the MLB by storm in 2013. That year, the 22-year-old Cuban defector hit for a batting average of .391 and an OPS of .925 with 19 home runs and 42 RBI in 104 games with the Dodgers. Throughout his career, he has been known for his eccentric behavior and questionable off-field antics. In 2013, he was arrested on a reckless driving charge for going 110 mph in a 70 mph zone. On a separate occasion, when asked why he licks his bat during the 2017 World Series, Puig replied, “I make love to the bat and he pays me back with hits.”
Puig’s journey to American baseball was similar to many other Cuban defectors. He was approached by a Miami air conditioner repairman, Raul Pacheco, who told Puig that he would be able to smuggle him into Mexico where he could take up residence before being signed as an international free agent. In return, Pacheco would get 20% of Puig’s MLB earnings. Puig was smuggled into Mexico by a drug cartel and held captive during negotiations between Pacheco and the cartel. Once negotiations were settled and Puig was able to escape, he was scouted by MLB clubs and signed to a seven year, $42 million deal with the LA Dodgers. Puig’s saga, however, was not over. On December 16, 2014, a Miami man named Gilberto Suarez was convicted of smuggling the Dodgers’ star outfielder to Mexico and was forced to forfeit the $2.5 million that Puig owed him after signing his contract. According to the Miami Herald, Raul Pacheco organized Puig and others’ escape from Cuba to Mexico, while Suarez smuggled the group into the United States. Suarez spent a month in federal prison for his crimes.
Gilberto Suarez was not the only smuggler to be arrested for trafficking Cuban baseball players. Sports agent Bartolo Hernandez was sentenced to nearly four years in prison and a forfeiture of $15.5 million on smuggling charges. Many Cuban MLB players, including Jose Abreu, testified to being smuggled into Mexico or Haiti using forged documents. In order for Cuban players to be signed as free agents, the Treasury Department needed to amend its stance on normalizing relations with Cuba. On March 21, 2016, United States President Barack Obama made significant strides towards implementing these policies by becoming the first president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. The trip was a highlight of Obama’s efforts to lift the Cuban embargo imposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. Featured on the trip was an exhibition baseball game played between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. The game was symbolic of progress made by the Obama administration. Just before his trip on March 15, 2016, the President announced that his administration would allow Cuban citizens to work in the United States. As a result, Cuban players would be able to be signed as international free agents right out of Cuba.
The change in policy never got a chance to influence Major League Baseball. On November 8, 2017, President Donald Trump’s administration announced its decision to overturn the decision made by the Obama administration to loosen restrictions on visitation and trade with Cuba. As a result, Cuban players are, once again, unable to be signed as free agents without having to take up residence in a third country. In light of this issue, there are a number of different policies that both Major League Baseball and the United States Federal Government should enact to lessen the threat to Cuban defectors playing in the MLB. Unfortunately, the MLB owners and the Players Union have already agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement through 2021. Hopefully, at that time, changes would be able to be made in regards to the integration of Cuban defectors into the MLB. One potential solution to the issue is to end the financial incentives that persuade defectors to take residence in a third country. The MLB would be able to force all international players to enter into the draft, meaning that whether a defector is signed from Mexico or from the United States, he would make the same salary. However, the MLB Players Association is one of the strongest unions in sports, and this legislation may seem like an effort to decrease player salaries, and likely would not be agreed upon. Another potential option would be to allow Cuban players to sign as international free agents from Cuba. According to the New York Times, the MLB is currently on board with this plan, but needs permission from the Treasury Department in order to engage in trade with Cuban players. Such consent from the Treasury Department seems increasingly unlikely given the Trump administration’s current policies towards trade with Cuba. There is still potential for a resolution to come from outside of the MLB, if the current administration changes its attitudes towards Cuban relations.
Unless MLB fans want to see the next Yasiel Puig or Jose Abreu subjected to drug cartels and kidnapping, they must call their representative in Congress and make several other initiatives to vocalize their support of normalized relations with Cuba.