When you think of Cuban exports your mind likely turns to Cigars, Rum and baseball players. Cuban’s are quite proud of their distilled Island rums. The most popular Rum drink the Cuba Libre, sees it mixed with Cola. Coca Cola can be found sparingly on the island but Tukola (think store brand Cola) rules the Cuban pallet. In fact Tukola can often be easier to find than fresh water. A record Thirty Cubans played in Major League Baseball in 2019. Myriad more in the Minors and an increasing number in professional leagues in other foreign countries. The most exciting might be Oscar Colas, a player many are calling the Cuban Ohtani.
The Cuban Baseball Federation has built a healthy relationship with Japan in recent years. The Softbank Hawks have won five championships since 2014. Cuban players have been key contributors. Alfredo Despaigne, Yurisbel Gracial and Livan Moinelo have all had success with the Softbank Hawks. This agreement seems to be a decent opportunity for many players that might not be quite Major League Calibre.
They are still very talented and make good money and bring much of that back to Cuba. After the Japanese season The players are expected to play in and for Cuba. Early 2019 saw some of the first signs of descension or at least concern from players that this grueling schedule could be putting their health and earnings at risk.
Playing for Cuba was once the apex for Cuban baseball players. Increasingly players are playing for the betterment of their own financial lives. Many more want to test themselves at the highest levels of baseball in the world. One current player’s story ties together all these threads together. He played under the Cuban/Japanese agreement. The prestige of playing for Nation having less allure and he wants to explore the path to greater earnings and competition. That player is Santiago de Cuba’s Oscar Colas. He debuted in 2016 at 17 with The Avispas in the Cuban National Series. Colas headed to Japan to play in the Softbank Minor League system. He made his top level debut in 2019 hitting a Home Run in his first at bat. More on what makes him truly tantilizing to baseball front offices in a bit.
The roster of the Premier 12 Olympic Qualifier originally listed the youngster. Oscar Colas was removed as the tournament approached. I follow Cuban baseball very closely but this was the first time he appeared on my radar. It also might have been the first sign that he had grander ambitions.
We’ve seen a fervor over Cuban defections before. Some of this is for good reason. Cuban veterans like José Abreu and Yuli Gurriel stepped into Major League Lineups and had an instant impact. Yordan Álvarez ran away with the American Rookie of the Year award in 2019. Luis Robert Was the prohibitive favourite to follow in his foot steps in 2020. Colas could end up surpassing all of them, in hype anyway.
Oscar Colas has shown the rare ability to hit and pitch. He is being dubbed as the Cuban Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani debuted with the Anaheim Angels in 2018 and took the world by storm. He was the first real two-way player since Babe Ruth. In Colas We have a 21 year old player who has been playing professionally since he was 18. He has shown glimpses of excellence. Relative to his age he put up decent numbers against grown men. The fact he can potentially play on both sides of the baseball is incredibly rare. There is Videographic evidence of him pitching for Softbank but statistics aren’t available.
It isn’t hyperbole to think every Major League Team will at least kick the tires on the Cuban youngster. Even though Colas was under contract to Japan he still technically defected from Cuba. Before becoming a Major League free agent, Colas had to wait. Cuban defectors have to establish residency in a third country, usually Dominican, Haiti or Mexico.
He was declared a Free Agent in the late summer of 2020. This coincided with the delay of the international signing period. International signings were delayed until January 15th, 2021. This was due to Covid-19 and the havoc it wrought. Two signing classes were effectively consolidated into one. International spending rules have also been revamped over the past few years. If you can understand all the rules you have a future working in a Major League front office. I’ll try to break down as best I can the likely path for Oscar Colas to the Majors and where he might land.
The max starting spending pool for 2019/20 was $6,481,200 teams can add money to this to a maximum of 60% of the original value. Teams get this pool money as a reward for losing players in free agency. Organizations can also lose money based on signing free agents. Eight teams started at this max amount. The Pools then drop to $5,939,800; $5,398,300; $4,821,400; $4,321,400 and lastly $0. The Braves represent the $0, they broke spending rules in a previous year.
For the purpose of ease, let’s focus on the $6,000,000 number. I suspect this is the baseline to start. Note teams seldom spend their full pool on one player. The shear number of teams that will be in and Colas Versatility could break this policy. As a point of Reference the Miami Marlins did use the greater majority of their pool space to sign Cuban Outfielder Victor Victor Mesa in 2018. He signed for $5.2 Million and it left little wiggle room to sign other players. Relative to the upside for players such as Mesa and Colas this could represent a pittance.
Looking at another young Cuban Star, Luis Robert signed under the previous agreement in 2017, The White Sox gave him a $26 million signing bonus and have subsequently extended him for Six years and $50 million before ever having seen a Major League pitch, all to say, $6 million to $10 million for Colas will have teams salivating at the prospect.The White Sox, Padres, Dodgers and Astros have been the most aggressive in the Cuban free agent market over the past decade, but I also think we will see a bevy of moves by teams to garner more International spending space, it wasn’t crazy to think the bidding could have approached $10 million if a team could’ve created that space, however international spending looks to have rationalized at lesser amounts.
Fellow Cuban Pedro León received the largest bonus during the 2021 period (still ongoing but teams appeared maxed on dollars) at $4 million with the Astros. The question then when we’re talking about a relative pittance in baseball dollars is does the highest bidder win or the best fit. Would a lower offer from a better team such as the Yankees, Dodgers or Red Sox mean they get a crack at this two way lottery ticket? Chicago’s South Siders picked up two key Cuban pieces in the current period, inking Yoelqui Céspedes (OF Granma) for $2 million and Norge Vera (P Santiago) for $1.5 million. This essentially capped them out but Increasing chatter leans towards the White Sox and Colas having a handshake agreement which would delay his signing until January 2022.
The Cuban free agent market has been intriguing and often full of misinformation. The reason I even have a voice in this arena is because I have seen many of the players in Cuba. This is access not available to everyone, especially American scouts. Projecting performance across countries and leagues is still not a science, even in an age of advanced analytics.
Colas is one of the few players I haven’t seen in the flesh. Taking his pedigree into consideration. His experience, two-way capability and the spending caps. If I was in charge of Major League team I would find myself leading the charge to sign him. Returning to my original point of this article. People will always clamour for certain Cuban exports. Many will pay a premium for, cigars, baseball players and in this case Rum & Colas.