Glut of Cuban defectors seek MLB jobs

GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Aroldis Chapman(notes), whose smile, curiosity and fastball had been a highlight of early spring training for the Cincinnati Reds, carried himself more sedately in recent days.

No one would pry. Perhaps Chapman, who signed with the Reds in January, was feeling ill. The previous week in Arizona had been rainy and cold. His birthday passed Sunday – he turned 22 – and maybe it sparked a bout of homesickness. When reporters greeted him Monday with birthday wishes, translated into Spanish by Havana-born coach Tony Fossas, Chapman nodded and stared at the clubhouse floor. Some guessed he was simply tired; the preceding eight months, beginning with the day he walked through the front door of a Dutch hotel, away from the Cuban National team and into personal and political freedom, had been arduous.

In the Reds’ new facility here, he leaned against a cinder block wall. His shoulders sagged slightly and he studied specks of carpet he’d picked up on his socks. As Fossas began to relay another question, however, Chapman slowly raised his head, revealing life in his eyes. As many as three dozen Cuban ballplayers, he was told, are living in the Dominican Republic and other countries. Most left Cuba in the past 18 months, many since Chapman himself defected.

”I don’t really know why they left,” he said, grinning. ”All I do know is when I left, everybody started leaving.”

In September the Boston Red Sox signed Cuban shortstop Jose Iglesias to a 4-year, $8.2 million contract.
(Nati Harnik/AP Photo)

When he laughed, a thick gold necklace fell over the collar of his red T-shirt. Not two months earlier, Chapman had agreed to a five-year, $30-million contract.

”I understand that a lot of players want to come here and make the money,” he said. ”But, the more important thing is to come here to play.”

Since January 2009, Major League Baseball has cleared 19 Cuban nationals, and is processing the residency paperwork of 10 more. All but three of those 29 were declared free agents, meaning they were not subject to baseball’s draft and therefore free to negotiate with all 30 teams. Most international scouts put the number of former Cuban national players seeking work at about 30. Others said there were closer to 40.

They agreed the one-time trickle of players from the baseball-mad island has become a torrent. In turn, teams are forced to quickly separate the sure things from the prospects and the suspects, often in short, semi-private workouts in the Dominican Republic run not by the clubs but agents or handlers. Chapman has been the headliner. But, in September the Boston Red Sox signed Cuban shortstop Jose Iglesias for $8.2 million. Four months later, the Kansas City Royals signed Cuban left-hander Noel Arguelles(notes) to a $7-million contract. Both were 19. They had slipped away from Team Cuba in July 2008, during a world junior tournament in Edmonton.

From the dozens who have been cleared or await clearance from MLB and the U.S. Treasury Dept.’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which will ”unblock” the players when it determines they would not funnel money back into embargoed Cuba, a handful could find riches at the end of their journey. Chapman said he hears from many of them, some former teammates on the national team, all comrades in baseball and flight.

”Almost every day I speak to some of them,” he said. ”I feel a lot of sympathy because a lot are having a tough time waiting. It’s a long wait.”

The day before, he said, on his birthday, he’d received a call from Adeiny Hechevarria, a 20-year-old shortstop who, Chapman said, has been cleared to sign with a major league team.

”He is a lot happier now that the paperwork is through and he’s getting closer,” Chapman said.

Hechevarria is the best available Cuban player, according to scouts who have seen many of the high-end defectors. One called him, ”Alfonso Soriano(notes) with defense,” adding, ”He’d have been a running back at Nebraska if he’d grown up in the states. There’s not much he can’t do.”

The Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels are believed to have the most interest in Hechevarria. The Yankees privately believe he has the tools to become the heir to Derek Jeter(notes).

Other Cuban players drawing interest include Jose Julio Ruiz, 25, and Leslie Anderson, 27, both left-handed hitters with power and the skills to play first base or the outfield. About a half-dozen teams, including the Yankees and Red Sox, have sent scouts to evaluate both. Jorge Padron, a young left fielder who was unable to break into the deep Cuban national team outfield, has also drawn interest. A scout who has seen both said they remind him of ”the next Henry Rodriguez(notes). They’re good, but they don’t have knock-out tools.”

The most attractive pitchers after Chapman are right-handers Reiner Roibal and Yuniesky Maya, both reputed to possess fastballs with mid-90s velocity. Maya, 28, pitched in the 2006 and ’09 World Baseball Classics, while Roibal, 20, was among the final cuts for the ’09 WBC. They’ve defected.

Yadil Mujica was presumed to be the next national team shortstop. Yadel Marti was the ace of the Cuban staff in the ’06 WBC and outfielder Yasser Gomez is a speedy outfielder who, according to most scouts, possesses major league talent. They’ve defected. Outfielder Juan Carlos Linares was a teammate of Kendry Morales’(notes) on the Cuban junior national team. He’s defected.

”I’ve never seen this many Cubans,” said agent Jaime Torres, who represents Cubans Jose Contreras(notes), Alexei Ramirez(notes) and Yuniesky Betancourt(notes), among others.

Many of the players coming over were young when Contreras, Livan Hernandez(notes) and Orlando Hernandez(notes) famously defected, but were peers of more recent defectors Morales, Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo(notes), or better than them. Lured by the money, displeased with life in their country, excited by big league successes of former teammates they learned about on the Internet, they, too, board idling boats or dash toward waiting cars, suddenly more willing than ever to risk capture and punishment and the limbo period between Cuban and American baseball.

”The situation in Cuba has worsened under Raul Castro,” said Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, Cuban-born Yale professor and author. ”The repression is greater than ever and the economy is worse than ever. The money has always been there. The Cubans have not only coveted the money, but the freedom. The freedom is more important than the money.”

While the consequences remain dire for the families left behind, Echevarria said, ”People reach a point of desperation. They want to just leave, because of the repression and in spite of the repression.”

In the 1995 amateur draft, the A's passed on Todd Helton to select Cuban defector Ariel Prieto who won only 15 games in the majors.
(Sam Morris/AP Photo)

Said one agent who speaks to many of the current and former Cuban players: ”In Cuba, after you’re done with baseball there’s nothing. Those guys are begging for gas and chicken, like everybody else.”

So, they run. Once they’re out, after they’ve survived the trip from Cuba and the sometimes shady handlers who got them out and housed, protected and helped them through the complicated MLB and federal clearing processes [which takes months for even an expert, much longer in an amateur’s hands] – for a fee, often a percentage of their first contract – it’s left to major league teams to sort them out. The process is imprecise. A scouting department will sign its first pick in the annual June draft of American players to, say, a $3 million bonus after seeing him play dozens of times and talking to him for several years. Unless a Cuban free agent has played in many international events, the club evaluates him over a very short period, sometimes only through some workouts, and he could draw the same kind of money.

A month ago, Hechevarria held a semi-private workout for six teams in the Dominican Republic province of San Pedro de Macoris. He took ground balls, threw, ran the bases and took batting practice, but took no live batting practice, in which a pitcher actually threw hard and threw breaking balls. Only after the attending scouts protested did Hechevarria’s representatives relent.

At a harried time when decisions have to be made quickly, mistakes are made. The Oakland Athletics had the fifth pick in the 1995 draft and were all but settled on the sturdy left-handed hitter from Tennessee, Todd Helton(notes).

Except there was a Cuban escapee tearing up the independent Western League, a powerful right-hander named Ariel Prieto who was warming radar guns at a little ballpark in Palm Springs. The A’s couldn’t help but be curious.

”We saw him a couple times,” Billy Beane said. ”He threw 93. We picked him.”

Prieto went on to win all of 15 major league games.

”And Helton’s going to the Hall of Fame,” Beane said, smiling. ”Live and learn.”

While the relationship between the major leagues and Cuba’s revered baseball program has undergone subtle changes in the 15 years since Prieto slipped off the island on a visa – the mystique of the Cuban player remains, even as their numbers build.

Yonder Alonso(notes), a first base and outfield prospect for the Reds, was born in Cuba. In 1994, his parents fled with Yonder and his sister on a small plane. Yonder’s father had played baseball alongside the iconic El Duque, and Yonder, as a small boy, had met him.

In Miami, Alonso grew up with his father’s stories of Cuban baseball, and in communities bound by Cuban heritage. So, of course, he was thrilled when the Reds signed Chapman – the two spend hours talking about Cuba, the baseball there and here, who else is out there – and is as happy to see so many coming.

”I hope 100 come,” Alonso said. ”The one thing I know is they can play. And I know they have a lot of heart.”

Now settling into a new life away from his parents, two sisters, a girlfriend and a young daughter, Chapman slowly is learning the American ways. In camp, he follows the same programs as the rest of the pitchers, knowing he’s likely to begin the season in the minor leagues. The Reds hope he’ll be pitching for them by mid-season, but won’t push it.

”In all aspects,” Chapman said, ”I’m just trying to get better every day.”

Then he goes home and the phone begins to ring. His friends are out there, waiting. It’s worth it, he tells them. Just be patient.

”I always felt I had the ability to come here and compete,” he said. ”It was just a matter of waiting for the right time.”

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Mar 2, 2010