The New York Times’ Michael Schmidt has written a piece on Major League Baseball’s anticipated move into Cuba if/when the country opens up to US business interests. The piece basically repeats everything we already know about MLB’s plans: nobody in baseball is sure exactly how big a resource Cuba can be, but they know they want to open it up for scouting. We’ve known this for years, long before Steinbrenner sent George Costanza down to Havana to create a
Communist pipeline into the vast reservoir of Cuban baseball talent” back in 1994 (a classic).
The interesting tidbits include the potential opening of Dominican/Venezuelan Summer League-style academies (which I discussed with Cuban baseball scholar Peter Bjarkman last month), and potentially relocating a minor league club to Cuba.
It will be interesting to see whether Cuba will allow its players to be subjected to the same completely open market that governs the majority of the international baseball world. Only Taiwan and Korea make MLB wait until their kids hit 18 years old, offering opportunities for higher bonuses and also providing more polished players (as opposed to the crap-shoot that is the rest of the international scouting world). If Cuba undergoes any sort of transitional period at all post-Castro, you have to think there will be significant opposition to a full-fledged opening up of the country’s baseball talent to the same kind of strip-mining that happens in the rest of Latin America.
The article also includes the following:
“Everybody on our side wonders how much talent is really there,” said Lou Melendez, baseball’s vice president for international baseball operations and administration, who oversees baseball’s academies in other countries. “I don’t think it is as strong as the Dominican Republic, but nobody knows. There is a talent pool there, but we just don’t know how deep it is.”
Honestly, I’m not sure why this is even a question. People tend to judge Cuban baseball players by the few who have come over from Cuba’s top league and gone on to play major league baseball. This seems pretty silly. At any given point, there are fewer than a dozen Cubans in the major leagues. These players serve as representatives of their country’s baseball talent not by virtue of being the best Cuba has to offer, but by virtue of having successfully defected.
To me, it is pretty simple. Cuba has an estimated population of about 11.3 million, compared with the Dominican Republic’s approximately 8 million. In the Dominican Republic, baseball dominates, but attention is divided. A lot of people play basketball, and hand ball is surprisingly popular there as well. In Cuba (so I have been told), all of the athletes play baseball. The two islands have a similar colonial history, so genetic makeup should not give Dominicans an innate advantage for any reason. As we covered in the Bjarkman interview, factor in the superior nutrition and education Cubans receive as children, and there is little reason to believe that Cuba won’t out-pace the Dominican Republic as a source of talent if it opens up to the same scouting process.
Thanks to a tip from friend of Global Baseball Peter Bjarkman, we’re happy to inform you that the Radio COCO website is streaming the Cuban League Championships live over the internet! The games are free to watch (and commercial free, to boot).
Santiago de Cuba is currently leading Havana Industriales 2-0. I’m not too familiar with the Santiago team, but Havana Industriales features righthander Yadel Marti and outfielder Yoandry Urgelles, two of the more exciting players who will almost certainly never make it to the United States.
Game 3 will take place at 8:00 EST tomorrow (Saturday, April 21).
Check it out.
Back at the Caribbean Series in Puerto Rico earlier this year, I had the good fortune to meet Peter Bjarkman, author of several books on the international side of baseball, including the recently published A History of Cuban Baseball: 1864-2006, Diamonds Around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball, and Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball. After spending a few days with Mr. Bjarkman in the Caribbean Series Press Box (and serving as unofficial chauffeur to him and Baseball America’s Chris Kline for a few days), it became clear that he was a man with amazing stories to tell and a wide breadth of knowledge about the game of baseball in the one place I am forbidden from traveling to in my year of study: Cuba. Seizing this opportunity, I pestered Mr. Bjarkman with questions about Cuban baseball all week long, and got him to agree to do a Q&A that I could put up on Global Baseball, which I’ve included below. I encourage anyone reading this to visit his website, http://www.bjarkman.com, and buy any/all of his books. You won’t be sorry.
Peter Bjarkman and Frederich Cepeda
GLOBAL BASEBALL INTERVIEW
Peter C. Bjarkman
Author of A HISTORY OF CUBAN BASEBALL, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007)
GB – How did you develop your interest in Cuban baseball, and how do you get away with your several trips to Cuba each year?
BJARKMAN – I have always been enthusiastic about baseball and I first developed an interest in Latin America while working in Ecuador and Colombia (as director of bi-national U.S. Dependents schools in the early 1970s) and again later while pursuing a doctorate at the University of Florida in Spanish linguistics. When I turned to writing about baseball history fulltime (after I gave up my academic career in 1987), the two interests naturally merged. I published my first book on the topic in 1994 (BASEBALL WITH A LATIN BEAT, McFarland). Later, photo researcher Mark Rucker approached me (in 1995) about doing a coffee table picture book about Cuban baseball (this was published as SMOKE: THE ROMANCE AND LORE OF CUBAN BASEBALL, 1999) and that is where the Cuban adventure began. I rapidly fell in love with the island, its people and its baseball (which in 1996 was a most pleasant change from the owner-player financial battles then plaguing the majors) and have been making 3-5 trips a year to Cuba since 1997. I travel legally with Treasury Department (OFAC) license as a researcher, and therefore most of my trips to Havana originate from Miami (on sanctioned charter flights), though I sometimes travel the Cancún route simply for convenience sake. In the Introduction to A HISTORY OF CUBAN BASEBALL, I write extensively about [the] background of my travels in Cuba, for those who want further details.
More below the fold….
Pitcher Serguey Linares signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates this week for a bonus reported to be around $125,000.
When Linares tried out in front of dozens of scouts in the Dominican Republic last July, he was hyped more than fellow Cuban defectors Yohannis Perez and Yoslan Herrera despite worse stats than Herrera in the Cuban league. However, the 23-year-old righthander failed to impress at that outing. He was reputed to hit 97-98mph with his fastball, but at the tryout he was sitting at 85-86. Food poisoning was blamed, and he has since been reported to be both back up to his previous velocity and down to 90-91 at various tryouts. In any case, this is not a bad low risk, high reward signing for Pittsburgh, who also signed Herrera to a $1.95 million major league contract last year.
Supposedly Linares was previously signed by the Red Sox for a bonus in the neighborhood of $450,000, but the contract was voided for some reason. I don’t have any details on why.
Photo Credits: Natali Torres
Today I went to a tryout of 4 Cuban defectors at the Arizona Diamondbacks´ academy. The scene there was wild. The players´agent told me that at least 26 major-league teams had their scouts in attendance. No idea about the identity of the few teams who weren´t interested, but I was able to pick out reps from the Devil Rays, Yankees, Mets, Giants, Cubs, Mariners, Braves, Indians, Diamondbacks, Reds, Twins, Brewers, and Nationals.
The scouts who came were a bit disappointed to find out that the most interesting player, 23-year-old pitcher Sergei Linares, was suffering from food poisoning. Linares is reported to throw in the high 90s, but he was held out of the simulated game and limited to a side-throwing session.
The other three players are 22 y/o shortstop Yohannis Perez, 23 y/o catcher Alexis Fonesca, and 25 y/o RHP Yoslan Herrera.
Perez, who was also suffering from foid poisoning, is a line-drive hitting shortstop who drew wide praise for his footwork and glove. His bat wasn´t on display too much today, as the raw DSL pitchers he faced nearly hit him five times. He ended up taking a couple of walks on pitches nowhere near the zone and hitting a double in what I saw of the simulated game.
Fonesca displayed solid gap power, going 4-for-4 in the at-bats I witnessed, with 2 doubles and 2 triples. Against better defenders, those triples would have been a double and a single, but his bat definitely drew some interest.
Herrera was nowhere near as hyped as Linares, but seemed to handle himself just fine in the tryout. His fastball was sitting between 90-92, and the DSL Devil Rays, who served as the whipping boys for this exhibition, were helpless against his breaking ball.
The prevailing opinion of the people I spoke with was that Linares and Perez were the best of the group. It’s possible that these players could get bonuses north of $1 million.
In terms of market value, nobody´s really sure how to treat Cuban players yet. In the wake of the Contreras signing, the prevailing wisdom was that the Cuban mystique caused teams to overrate – and overpay – defectors. The Yuniesky Betancourt signing, which turned out to be a huge bargain, changed all that. There hasn´t been a significant Cuban signing since Betancourt came over, and none of the scouts I talked to today had any idea what these players´ price range would be.
I should have pictures of the 4 Cuban players in the next couple of days.
Updating a previous item, it appears El Nacional jumped the gun when it reported on Gourriel´s defection.
The story I´ve gotten from a couple of sources is as follows:
Baseball insiders had been speculating about a potential Gourriel defection throughout the Central-American games. One of the biggest reasons Gourriel was considered a low defection risk was the family connection. During the games in Cartagena, however, Lourdes Gourriel was with the University of Havana team competing at a tournament in Ecuador. With the possibility of the simultaneous defections of father and son, the rumor mill ran rampant.
At this point details are still unclear, but the consensus is that Gourriel did not defect, and has no plans to do so.
From El Nacional:
Word is the Cuban national team’s double play combination of SS Eduardo Paret and 2B Yuliesky Gourriel both defected immediately after leading Cuba to a gold medal at the 2006 Central American games in Cartagena, Columbia.
Most baseball fans will remember the 22-year-old Gourriel from the WBC. He was considered Cuba’s top positional talent after the defection of Kendry Morales. According to a Baseball America feature during the WBC, Gourriel was considered unlikely to defect, as his team, Sancti Spirtus, was managed by his father, Lourdes, and also featured his brother, Yuniesky. There’s no guarantee Gourriel will get his visa situation worked out in time to sign this year, but if he does, he immediately becomes the top talent available internationally.
Paret’s prospects for a major league career are significantly less. Already 33, Paret has been an important member of the Cuban national team for years, and won the MVP award at least year’s World Cup in the Netherlands, but he’s not really considered a special talent.
I’m going to wait for confirmation from some additional sources, but if this is true, the international signing period just got a LOT more interesting.
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