At the gate for American flight 1901 on Sunday night, Jaime Torres looked around and saw a dozen familiar faces. All were headed from Miami to the Dominican Republic for the same reason.
To see the kid Torres believes will be the next great Cuban player.
From the time Dayan Viciedo hit his teenage years, hyperbole has surrounded him, so excuse Torres, his agent, for engaging in a little more. Such embroidery weaves itself into the tale of the 19-year-old third baseman, who joined Cuba's professional league at 15, made the All-Star team at 16 and was designated heir to Omar Linares, the greatest Cuban ballplayer of the last 25 years.
"I saw Linares at his peak, and it's a shame that a player of his caliber didn't have the opportunity to play in the U.S.," Torres said. "When I first heard about Dayan and the comparisons to Linares, I wanted to know if it was true."
Linares never left the island, neither the riches nor adulation of Major League Baseball enough to tempt him. Few of Cuba's best players do defect, leaving so many overhyped – Andy Morales and Adrian Hernandez and Maels Rodriguez and Alay Soler – that the busts nearly outweigh the successes.
Though brothers Livan and Orlando Hernandez have thrived in the major leagues, and Jose Contreras won a championship, and Alexei Ramirez and Yunel Escobar look like All-Stars in the offing, post-Revolution Cuba hasn't produced a single superstar in more than 40 years, with Hall of Famer Tony Perez, Luis Tiant and Tony Oliva all leaving around the time Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista.
Whether Viciedo can fulfill such expectations elicits an array of opinions from talent evaluators. One National League scout based in the Dominican said Viciedo "has star written all over him." An American League scout, attending Torres' workout Wednesday in the Dominican town of Boca Chica, said: "Out of shape. But it looks like he can hit." And an NL scouting director couldn't get over Viciedo's burgeoning belly – he's gone from around 200 pounds as a 16-year-old to more than 230 – and said: "What's he going to look like when he's 21? And 25?"
Either way, Viciedo piqued enough curiosity that nearly every major league team sent a representative to see workouts Wednesday at the Chicago White Sox's complex and Thursday at the New York Yankees'.
Once MLB declared last Friday that Viciedo would become a free agent – a determination made because he had established residency in the Dominican Republic and was not subject to the amateur draft, further muddying already murky rules on how Cuban amateurism is handled – Torres' plan nearly six months in the making was ready to go.
Viciedo defected with his family in May after one previous unsuccessful attempt, starting a tortuous journey, first to Mexico, then to the United States, where he trained in Miami with Torres, and ultimately to the Dominican Republic, where he hoped to inspire a bidding war.
Already, Torres said, teams have offered Viciedo a major-league contract, which includes a spot on the 40-man roster. Torres said he expects his client to compete for a starting job in spring training, whether at his natural position or in the outfield.
What sort of contract teams will offer Viciedo is unclear, though there are a number of starting points. The contemporary to whom he is most often compared, San Francisco Giants prospect and Dominican product Angel Villalona, signed at 16 for $2.1 million two years ago. The last Cuban defector to score a big-league contract, Ramirez, also a Torres client, got a four-year, $4.75 million deal. And the richest went to Contreras, who received $32 million over four years.
One general manager speculated Viciedo's contract will exceed Ramirez's in total value and could approach eight figures, though one scout said it's unlikely because it would be overpaying Viciedo during his pre-arbitration years.
"It's not only the most money," Torres said. "It's the best opportunity. His preference is third base. Clubs want him for right field. And that option is open. If the contract is enticing enough, he'd play right field."
Wherever Viciedo ends up, eyes will follow, wondering who he's going to be. Which, actually, is the beauty of his youth. Viciedo can control whether he balloons like Livan Hernandez or sheds weight like Felix Hernandez, whether he is just "easygoing" as the Latin scout put it or "might be lazy" as another said, whether he regressed after hitting .337 as a 16-year-old or, like Torres said, "sometimes his mind was drifting, looking out to Florida."
Perhaps the changing face of Cuba, with Fidel Castro perpetually ailing, will affect the United States' policy toward the country and free its baseball players to arrive in a grand wave. The idea of a Cuban superstar would seem so trivial, what with the smokescreen of who's really best – who Cuba keeps off its national team for fear of defection – finally lifted.
Until then, though, Viciedo is another in a long line of hyped before harrumphed. Maybe just once the hyperbole will turn out to be the truth.
- Jaime Torres