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Change in relations with Cuba will have huge impact on signing players

Cuba's designated hitter Frederich Cepeda is tagged out

Cuba's designated hitter Frederich Cepeda is tagged out by Netherlands' first baseman Curt Smith at first base in a pickle in the second inning of their World Baseball Classic second round game at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Monday, March 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara) Photo Credit: AP Photo Koji Sasahara

Thawing relations between the United States and Cuba after a half-century Cold War will have a wide-sweeping impact on the two countries, including how the business of baseball is conducted between the longtime adversaries.

Shortly after President Barack Obama's history-making news on Wednesday about re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, both Major League Baseball and the players association responded to the groundbreaking development.

"Major League Baseball is closely monitoring the White House's announcement regarding Cuban-American relations," the MLB statement read. "While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue, and we will keep our clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba."

MLB has greatly benefited from the influx of Cuban talent over the years, with some of the sport's brightest stars coming from the small island nation. The White Sox's Jose Abreu was recently named the American League's Rookie of the Year, the Marlins' Jose Fernandez -- now rehabbing from Tommy John surgery -- finished third in Cy Young voting last year and the brash Yasiel Puig has been a sparkplug for the Dodgers.

On Opening Day last season, there were 19 Cuban players on major-league rosters, an all-time high for that country. That placed them third on the list of foreign-born players, behind the Dominican Republic (83) and Venezuela (53).

The dark side of these success stories, however, has been the human cost over the years because of the hardship of defection. Reports of smuggling players, threats to family members and extortion usually followed them to the majors as Cuba remained closed off to the United States.

Wednesday's news suggests Cuba's immense pool of baseball talent eventually will be more available to major-league teams, but it's far too early to tell exactly how this will happen. There is the possibility Cuba could follow the system used in the Dominican Republic, in which players 23 and over are free agents while those under that age are restricted by spending limits for each team.

Would Cuba allow U.S. teams to set up baseball academies there, as they do in the Dominican Republic? A more likely scenario, given Cuba's behavior the last 50 years, would seem to be some sort of posting system -- like the one for Japanese players -- in which in this case the government would be directly compensated by a major-league team for granting negotiating rights to a player.

That could be something the union would have to tackle at a later date.

"We will watch the situation closely as it continues to unfold," the players association said in a statement, "and we remain hopeful that today's announcement will lead to further positive developments."

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