Cuba’s identity as a Nation has been forged by revolution. Ironically, change has been less than revolutionary since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. In fact many feel that change since the initial regime change has gone from revolution to glacial pace.
Baseball is more than just a game in Cuba, even if the golden age of Cuban baseball has passed. Hardball still acts as a barometer of the island’s culture and to some degree politics. Francys Romero recently outlined that some 155 Cubans are in the Major League system. We are five years removed from the Tampa Bay Rays playing Team Cuba in Havana. The exhibition game represented a thawing of Cold War hostility. Barack Obama and Raul Castor watched the game together in Estadio LatinoAmericano. A site once though impossible. 2018 saw the announcement that a legal agreement and potential path to MLB for Cubans had been reached. It is now 2021 and the agreement has yet to materialize and in many ways it feels like nothing has changed.
Perhaps, not enough has changed, but certain things have. Francys Romero recently outlined that some 155 Cubans are in the Major League system. This represents a massive increase from just 10 years earlier.
The legal agreement was struck down by politics. It appears that hope for its revival is actually the ambition of Cuba more than MLB. This represents a large change in mentality. This is driven by that number of 155.
What is talked about less is how the contracts of these players have peaked in dollar value. The Major Leagues have seen wage stagnation, or at the very least a push towards wage or contract certainty. Major League rosters are getting younger. Some times as in a Luis Robert scenario, young players can still get big contracts. The White Sox signed him for a healthy bonus in 2017. They also gave him the largest contract extension for a player yet to have an MLB at bat. This looks like an outlier in today’s baseball economy.
When the cohort of yesterday’s National Team stars made their way to America, the market in many cases felt like a pre-cursor to today’s Game Stop Stock scenario. Signing José Abreu looks brilliant at 6 years and $68 million. Yoennis Céspedes delivered on his initial $36 million deal. The Mets and their fanbase would prefer not to discuss his resigning. Teams might not be clamouring to sign Yasiel Puig in 2021 but he did provide value during his original $42 million contract.
Many teams would like a mulligan on Cuban signings. The Red Sox broke the bank for Rusney Castillo. They paid him to be the highest paid Triple-A player ever. Baseball is a game with more misses than hits. Analytics have changed the industry though, as teams use data to increasingly mitigate misses.
This is the same off the field as well. The analytics of cost certainty, a new version of Money Ball rule the sport. It should come as no surprise that as the supply of Cuban players has grown, the scouting has improved and signing bonuses have shrunk. Some of this is systematic but some of it is systemic.
New International signing restrictions truly cap the amount players can sign for. Pedro León received the largest bonus in 2021. This is true for anyone, not just Cubans. The youngster from Mayabeque received $4 million from the Houston Astros. That amount, although still life altering appears eager to sums doled out in the recent past. MLB has limited motivation to push for a legal agreement with Cuba. They get the players they want already. Increasingly they get them at the reduced price point they prefer as well.
The Cuban baseball federation isn’t naive even if they keep their cards close to the vest. They know the country is still an incredible baseball incubator. The difference is they are essentially surrogates. They carry the baby to term but increasingly adoptive parents are raising the child.
The Cuban National Series is suffering from the talent attrition. The Once dominant National Team hasn’t won anything of significance in over a decade. This is where we start to see evidence of glacial movement. I won’t go as far as to say glacial melt but the temperature is rising.
We will not see contracted MLB players playing in or for Cuba anytime soon. However, it wasn’t that long ago that players who left the island weren’t even allowed to return as visitors. Players repatriating in the National Series or for Team Cuba seemed like a dream. 2019 saw Leslie Anderson & Erisbel Arruebarrena return to Cuba. Each had left and signed with MLB teams. They joined Camagüey and Matanzas and even square off in the 59th Cuban National Series final. Yadir Drake a former Dodger’s farmhand followed the same path in 2020.
This brings us to the recent announcement that Henry Urrutia has been named part of the Olympic qualifying roster this June in Florida. Urrutia’s story is lesser publicized even if part of it played out with The Baltimore Orioles. The Las Tunas OF/1B signed for modest dollars in 2013 and had a cup of coffee with The O’s. He has played professionally in the minors, Venezuela and Mexico since. His inclusion carries name brand power in Cuba. He represents a potential lineup upgrade. Likely not enough to propel Cuba to Tokyo, but really represent a greater shift in approach for Cuba.
It represents the acknowledgement that change is needed. A trial balloon to gauge how many players of the hundreds that left want to play for Cuba again. It doesn’t indicate that MLB’er will join a unified Cuban team just yet. The politics of this are still immense. The timing of the Olympics alone would preclude their inclusion anyway. It does provide some hope though that the door is open to repatriate players for the World Baseball Classic.
I will be surprised to see Cuba qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. This transaction though, which might seem minor is actually momentum. The inclusion of Henry Urrutia might even be described as glacially momentous.