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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Relations with Cuba could have huge impact on MLB

The Chicago White Sox's Jose Abreu hits a

The Chicago White Sox's Jose Abreu hits a two-run home run during the first inning of a game against the Kansas City Royals in Chicago on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. Credit: AP / Nam Y. Huh

The historic announcement by President Barack Obama last week about restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba soon brought to mind the huge impact it could have for Major League Baseball.

Closed off to the United States for a half-century, the small island nation has managed to produce some of the sport's most talented players. But the only way we've seen them is through the sacrifice and hardship they endured to get here.

Whether it was life-threatening boat trips in the middle of the night or facing extortion and worse from what amounted to human traffickers, the major-league dreams of Cuban ballplayers usually started out as nightmares.

Now that will change.

Maybe not tomorrow. But as the two long-time adversaries hammer out the details of this new policy, it will be interesting to see how this might smooth the path for the next wave of Cuban stars. And for the 30 major-league teams, how they can better facilitate acquiring that talent.

Former Mets general manager Omar Minaya, now the senior VP of baseball operations for the Padres, remembers being one of the first to extensively scout the Dominican Republic in the early 1980s. Minaya figures seven or eight teams had a foothold there at the time -- he worked for the Rangers then -- but it was a relatively new enterprise.

Now, with many teams having set up baseball academies on the island, the Dominican influence is profound. Of the 853 players on Opening Day rosters this past season, 83 -- or nearly 10 percent -- were from the Dominican Republic, more than any other country outside the U.S. Cuba had the third-most at 19, a record for that country.

Cuba, with its own large pool of talent, presents a different challenge, however. Minaya compared it to an "oil well" because of the vast reserves and the difficulty in tapping into them. And just because President Obama is ready to open the door to Cuba, that doesn't mean dozens of potential Cuban All-Stars will be able to walk through unimpeded.

"Nobody's seen what the real plan is yet," Yankees president Randy Levine said. "Where does baseball fit in? What's the timeline? I think depending on whatever the final regulations are, it will lead to easier access for players. I think it could lead to getting down there to help developing players early.

"Maybe an academy-type of system like in the Dominican Republic. Maybe they're subject to the draft. That all gets worked out in collective bargaining. But as we've seen, there's a lot of great talent down there."

Others caution that it would be overly optimistic to believe the Cuban government would simply allow Major League Baseball to set up shop there -- or sign its players -- without a significant financial stake in those contracts. This could not be more different from the Dominican Republic in that respect.

One possibility is that Cuba will set up a posting fee system like the one used by professional leagues in Japan and Korea. Under that system, MLB teams bid for the negotiating rights to a player -- with the money going to his former club -- and then work out a contract.

MLB is not a fan of that system, for obvious reasons. Teams don't want to essentially pay an extra finder's fee. But it remains in place, with some recent adjustments, for the sake of diplomacy between MLB and the Asian professional leagues.

Believing that Cuba would approve some form of free agency, like the Dominican Republic, or have its players subject to MLB's first-year player draft seems unrealistic at this early stage. With the contracts signed lately by Cuban players, the potential financial windfall for the government, or the state-run baseball federation, is too immense.

The White Sox signed Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68-million deal in 2013, a contract that included a $10-million bonus. Abreu rewarded them with a Rookie of the Year season in 2014, batting .317 with 36 home runs, 107 RBIs and a .964 OPS.

In 2012, the Dodgers signed Yasiel Puig to a seven-year, $42-million contract. The mercurial slugger compiled a slash line of .305/.386/.480 in two seasons and finished in the top 20 in the MVP voting each year.

Who's next? Yoan Moncada, a switch-hitting 19-year-old shortstop, was declared a free agent by MLB last month after establishing residency in Guatemala. But while the market for Cuban players continues to soar, Moncada's free agency falls under rules that are different from the ones that Abreu and Puig faced.

With the new CBA, international free agents under the age of 23 with fewer than five years in a professional league must be subject to the restrictions of MLB's international bonus pool. In short, clubs are taxed for going over their pool amount to sign players -- and heavily penalized for going above by 15 percent or more.

Despite such artificial restraints on spending, teams still manage to come up with the cash for future stars such as Moncada. If this historic agreement between the U.S. and Cuba proceeds at a brisk pace, we'll be seeing more and more of them sooner rather than later.

As Minaya pointed out, things moved pretty quickly once the wall came down in Eastern Europe. Cuba stood as one of baseball's last barriers, and it could take some time to be cleared. The important thing is that it finally will be.

"I think what happened this week, at least it brought attention and hope to the situation being resolved," Minaya said. "That's what it did."

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