Playing Ball With Cuba

by Dish Staff

bialik-datalab-cubamlb

As Carl Bialik’s chart shows, Cuban baseball players are on the rise here in the US, and now with the thaw in US/Cuba relations, many are wondering about the implications for their shared national pastime:

Baseball has long been the most popular sport in Cuba and the island has long been a hotbed of baseball talent. Cubans have been playing professional baseball in the United States for nearly 150 years and even the embargo hasn’t stopped star Cuban players like Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds and Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox from coming to the U.S. to play in the major leagues. But the embargo has meant that players who come to the United States have had to defect and suffer all sorts of risks to escape out of the country—including falling prey to smuggling rings.

But reforming the current, broken system will be complicated:

Fixing the smuggling problem, or at least mitigating it in some way, would likely require fully normalizing relations not just between the two governments, but between each nation’s baseball leagues as well. That first requires major policy changes between the American and Cuban governments. And even if that happens, Major League Baseball and Cuba’s government-run baseball federation would need to set up a system that allows Cuban players to transition from their league to the Majors in a way that is advantageous to both.

Ricky Doyle has the same concern:

[While] hundreds of professional-level Cuban players could become more readily available to MLB teams[, don’t] expect a free-for-all featuring open free agency, though. A more likely scenario would be the implementation of a new system that would allow Cuban players to make the jump to MLB while also ensuring that Cuba is properly compensated for what ultimately could be an exodus of talent. The system could be similar to how MLB clubs currently obtain players from Japan and Mexico.

Meanwhile, Buster Olney examines the possibility of an MLB franchise ending up in Cuba:

Cuban nationals who have defected describe a rabid appetite for baseball in their homeland, and you do wonder if many years from now — say, 25 years or so, depending on how the economy of the country evolves — if Havana might be a natural spot for expansion.

“While having an MLB team in Havana is a fascinating idea, it’s hard to imagine it happening within the next 15 or 20 years,” [agent and Cuban baseball expert Joe] Kehoskie wrote. “Even if Cuba were to become a capitalist country and then do everything it could to welcome foreign investment, it would likely take decades for the Havana area to build up enough wealth to support an MLB team. Adjusted for PPP (Purchasing Power Parity), Cuba’s per capita GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is currently estimated to be only one-third to one-fifth of that of the United States. In terms of the Caribbean region, Cuba is substantially less wealthy than Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Panama, none of which are remotely considered ready to support an MLB team.”

Dan Rosenheck considers how Cuba might look to benefit, as well:

To be sure, the government would salivate over the prospect of tax revenue from MLB contracts so large they can be measured in percentage points of Cuba’s GDP. Moreover, a rapprochement would in theory offer the SN [Serie Nacional, the Cuban baseball league], whose season is centred around winter months when MLB teams do not play, the opportunity to welcome back prominent defectors.

However, MLB has wielded an increasingly heavy hand with other Latin winter leagues, prohibiting high-priced players from participating or strictly limiting their usage to minimise the risks of injury and fatigue. If Cuba maintains its rule that players be available for the full SN season in order to approve contracts with foreign teams—a policy that would sharply reduce their value to MLB clubs—the best Cubans might still choose to follow the money and defect. That would exacerbate the devastation that defections have already wrought on the once-vaunted SN: in order to continue offering fans a quality product, it recently split its season into two halves, and lets the best teams draft players from the worst ones (which then disband) at midseason.

It will probably take years of fraught negotiations to devise a system for Cubans to play in America without defecting that satisfies MLB as well as the governments of both countries[.]