Baseball Migrant Crisis

The situation at the U.S/Mexican border or as often dubbed Migrant Crisis is one of the biggest stories of 2021. Cuba and Mexico don’t share a border, but twelve members of the Cuban U23 tournament squad walked off in Mexico during the recent World Baseball Cup. This is on the heels of high profile defections during June’s Olympic qualifier in Florida. César Prieto, Andy Rodriguez and Lazaro Blanco all decided their futures were brighter outside of Cuba. The trend is obviously not new but still staggering in sheer numbers. Although these players are in much different circumstances than most of those trying to get to the U.S. from Mexico, their motivations might be very similar in seeking a better life. This particular cohort of defections might represent a Baseball Migrant Crisis.

Covid-19 and the response to it has ravaged the island and veritably shuttered it’s key industry of tourism. Scarcity has always been a thing in Cuba but some are calling this the second “Special Period”. Mirroring the hard times in the shadow of the collapse of the U.S.S.R in the early 1990s. Anecdotally I have had many Cuban friends reach out after venturing legally to Russia or Mexico hopeful for better opportunities.

This summer saw Cubans take to the streets in protest en mass for the first time in the past 61 years. The broader narrative attempted to paint these protests as demanding Covid Vaccines. This no doubt was a factor but shouts of Libertad (liberty) and the rallying cry of Patria Y Vida (Country and Life) combined with the governments response to quell the assemblies points to a broader demand for change or at least for more for the average Cuban.

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Loidell Chapelli w Camagüey during his 2019 Rookie of the Year Season in Cuba

2021 represents a peak year for Cubans in professional baseball. A year where Yuli Gurriel won the American League batting title. José Abreu barely missed out on leading the American League in RBI for the 3rd straight season. Adolis Garcia and Randy Arozarena are both finalists for Rookie of the Year. Luis Robert began cementing potential superstar status and might be the best of all of them. 2021 might have been the greatest year for Cuban baseball ever, just not on the island.

This success and the riches that frequently accompany has become increasingly alluring for Cuban youngsters. Represented in the dozen not returning are some of Cuba’s brightest young talents. MLB teams are likely lining up to at least take a look, however it is unlikely that all will find professional contracts. The risk in the face of worsening conditions appears to be worth it though. This is surprising if only for the timings specifically with Loidel Chappeli and Geisel Cepeda. The two outfielders have both had success at a young age in the Cuban National Series. Both scheduled to play professionally in Mexico in 2021. Cuba has farmed out more players to professional leagues. Allowing them to make modest sums by conventional standards but decent money when brought back to Cuba.

They probably look at the recent signings of Yoelqui Céspedes, Pedro Leon or Victor Victor Mesa and feel they match up favourably with them. They are players they competed against on the island. Céspedes and Leon showed flashes in their first pro season and Mesa rebounded after being demoted to Single A. The path for them and to the majors in general is a tough one, but each one of those players signed for millions of dollars. Will either of Chappeli, Cepeda or the ten other players be the next to do so?

Andy Rodriguez (pitching) and César Prieto (baserunner) both left Cuba to pursue Pro baseball careers

The timing is tough as the next international signing period will start in January of 2022. It is unlikely that they will qualify as free agents for this period. It is even less likely that teams will have much left in their budgets. Even if deemed free agents for 2023 there will be tough competition for these lucrative deals. That is just if you consider the number of top Cuba prospects now in the pipeline and disregard the similar talents from other Caribbean Nations.

A unique path or at least one worth monitoring is that of Andy Rodriguez. He was considered the top reliever in Cuba and as mentioned left during the Olympic qualifier. He is applying for political asylum and will play college baseball in Florida, this could make him eligible for the draft held annually in June. Reports are that young catcher Loidel Rodríguez who was one of the twelve will also pursue this path.

Lazaro Blanco is also seeking asylum. He was perhaps the most shocking departure. He is the top pitcher in the National Series and has anchored a Granma Alazanes dynasty with three championships in the past five years. Blanco is 35 years old and few would consider him a bona fide MLB prospect. He originally indicated he was leaving and leaving baseball behind. It is much more likely he has his eyes on a pay day in the Korean Professional league.

Fellow countryman and former MLB’er Odrisamer Despaigne has played there for the past few seasons. He has earned roughly One million dollars per season. Regardless if Blanco could achieve such a pay day, playing in Korea would represent a chance to alter his financial future if he could earn even a fraction of that sum. He would not be able to pursue a path to the KBO if he were still in Cuba.

The number of defections was apparently thirteen except young outfielder Yuddiel González had a change of heart and asked to return to the team hotel.

It is hard to gauge the value of this particular tournament as it is relatively new and obscure. The WBSC has been aggressive in trying to grow the game internationally. This is evidenced by initiatives such as the U23 World Baseball Cup. The field for this competition was lacking some key participants such as the U.S. and Canada but still provides a bit of a report card on the health of a countries baseball youth.

Cuba has seen diminishing returns on the international stage. The fourth place finish in Obregon, Mexico ironically represents their best placement in such a competition in quite some time. Playing increasingly undermanned, their results were uneven. They won 4 games in a row in the opening round before stalling out in the championship placement round and coming up short of a bronze in their final game.

César Prieto is the most accomplished youngster to leave in Cuba in the past half decade

Cuba perhaps more now than ever needs the vetoed 2018 agreement with MLB to be revived. The Trump administration squashed the deal. A deal that would have provided a legal path to MLB for Cubans and a large infusion of cash to the island. The Biden adminstration appears to have little incentive to revisit this structure. MLB also doesn’t appear to be motivated as they are still gaining access to the coveted players much younger and often for fewer dollars than the proposed posting system would have allowed.

Cuba now sets their sites on sending a roster to the Junior Pan American games in Cali, Colombia at the end of November. Early reports are those that returned to Cuba will be the foundation but how much talent do you have to choose from at this point? Do you pick from players you assume aren’t flight risks and does such a player exist anymore? This is especially precarious as we have seen an explosion in defections of players in the 17-22 year old age cohort.

There has been no announcement of when the 61st Cuban National Series will commence. Original rumours were that a conventional September start was likely. That deadline has come and passed with no updates. The federation had announced in early 2020 that their ambition was to move to a 125 game season being played in a continguous calendar year. This would see the season begin in April and wrap up in December. The ambition was to give young talent more opportunities to develop in front of local fans with enough flexibility to shift the schedule for tournaments such as the WBC.

This is in the shadow of the passings of Federation President Higinio Velez and commissioner Ernesto Reynoso in May. Juan Reinaldo Pérez Pardo moves over from his position running the countries softball program to assume the latter position. He will have his work cutout for him in navigating a post-covid recovery. Cuba has always been resilient and found unique ways to navigate around scarcity. They might not be able to overcome human scarcity though as their baseball migrant crisis shows no signs of stopping.

Phil Selig

Canada’s Top Expert on Cuban Baseball. I first ventured to the island in 2012 with camera in hand and captured some of the future baseball stars of the world. I have returned many times immersing myself in the game and culture. Get inside the Dugout for a unique look at Cuban Baseball.