The only certainty in baseball is the cost certainty owners have fought for in each successive collective bargaining agreement. Wages have effectively stagnated over the past 20 years. This is no more evident than in the International Signing market. The push for limits on signing international but frequently latino prospects was likely accelerated by the Cuban Free Agent market of the 2010s. The World Baseball Classic often acted as an Auction showcase for a market regarded as the last unexplored baseball territory.
We’ve seen MVP’s (Jose Abreu) Batting Champions (Yuli Gurriel) ALCS MVP’s (Yordan Alvarez, Adolis Garcia) and World Series MVP’s (Jorge Soler) sign for huge sums. They have largely delivered on these big gambles. However we have also seen Yasmany Tomas, Rusney Castillo, Hector Olivera and others receive life altering money to occupy AAA roster spots.
The market has shifted and bonuses have shrunk. Many top talents are restricted within a team’s pool allocation of roughly $6 million. Many organizations are spreading that sum amongst multiple signings. The success of the players mentioned, at least financially has created a tsunami of defections. The days of a mature player honing his craft in the Cuban National Series and walking into the top tier of a Major League organization are largely over. The exception may be a Right Hander recently declared a free agent and likely to set off a bidding war in Yariel Rodriguez.
Rodriguez in certain ways is following the script written by the previous generation. He is a veteran of six Cuban National Series. Yariel put up solid numbers but his development has really excelled playing for Chunichi in Japan. He has worked exclusively out of the bullpen for the Dragons. Most recently posting a minuscule 1.15 ERA in 54.2 Innings giving up just 32 hits while striking out 60. More similarly to other Cuban stars his MLB stock rose with an appearance in the World Baseball Classic. He became the number one starter for Cuba who surprised many in advancing to the Quarter Final.
Cuba is facing a veritable mass exodus. Ballplayers and any average citizen that can find their way off the island is doing so. It shouldn’t come as complete surprise that Rodriguez would follow suit however he did risk much in making the decision. His ascendance in Japan represents the opportunity to make millions of dollars while still being able to return to Cuba. Rodriguez might be the last player to develop in the Cuban National Series and move on to a Major League career. The recent trend is youngsters who haven’t even learned to drive a 1959 Buick such as Cristhian Vaquero or Brando Mayea leaving as teenagers.
The Cuban Baseball Federation has been trying to find creative ways to effectively act as agent for players leaving the island. This is motivated by the loss of talent and lack of financial remuneration. The agreement with NPB was one such way to provide professional opportunities to top talents. The Fed receives a rumoured 10% of contract riches. More recently a deal with an academy in the Dominican to send youngsters to develop and sign professionally has been announced. This may allow a work around of United States sanctions that currently forces players to seek citizenship in a third country before being able to sign in America.
There is a precedent of Cuban players walking from their lucrative Japanese contracts to try their luck in the highest league in the world. Adolis Garcia recently had a playoff run for the ages. He set the single post season record for RBI with 22 and hit home runs in 4 consecutive playoff games. The Cuban Baseball Federation had granted him the opportunity to play for Yomiuri before he would leave and sign with the St. Louis Cardinals. The former Cuban MVP would receive a modest $2.5 million signing bonus. Garcias was famously released by both the Cardinals and Rangers. On a pure dollar basis he may have been able to make more in Japan than he has or might in the Majors.
There was speculation as to whether Chunichi would allow Rodriguez to break his contract. Also whether he might fall prey to the same spending restrictions that recent signees have. He was likely to earn more in Japan in 2023 than many other signees have received lately. The difference for Rodriguez is that at 26 he is a true free agent. Early speculation has his price tag approaching $50 million.
Francy Romero has reported that no less than 10 teams are speculated to be in the market for the fireballer. Rodriguez has a diverse repertoire featuring five different pitches. He throws a wipe out slider, curveball, changeup and splitter. His fastball averaged 96.2 MPH in a recent showcase for the majority of MLB teams. Teams will likely explore his viability as a starter even if his professional success has been in relief. His biggest issue in Cuba was walks of which he has increasingly limited. This also might be attributable to relying more on his two pitch combo of Fastball and Slider. As a starter he might be better off simplifying his pitch selection and keying on a third pitch instead of trying to master five pitches.
We haven’t seen a true impact starter come out of Cuba since perhaps Orlando Hernandez or to a lesser extent Jose Contreras. There is also the untimely death of Jose Fernandez. He was on a trajectory to be if not the best at least the most dynamic opener from Cuba. Of note though Fernandez left Cuba when he was 10. Fernandez really grew of age in baseball in the United States. This is more to point out we really don’t have a comparison in skill set or contract structure for a player like Yariel Rodriguez.
The 2023 World Baseball Classic did a fabulous job of showcasing the best baseball talent on the planet. New stars were created or at the least profiles were increased while new fans were captivated. Perhaps no player earned themselves a bigger payday at least in the relative aftermath than Yariel Rodriguez. It will be intriguing to see where the contract value lands. Whether he is viewed as a starter or a reliever and how fast he can rise through a Major League system. At the very least Rodriguez now represents the most coveted Cuban talent since perhaps the 2013 World Baseball Classic.