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The Cuban Pipeline


The Cuban Pipeline

Matt Milligan

So your team is gearing up for the rookie draft.  Basketball, Football, Hockey… you sort of know what you’re getting into for the most part.   You probably watched the talent in college, you watch the draft, and you know which teams they wind up with.  GM’s making rookie investments: sometimes they pay monster dividends, and sometimes they make you look like the disgrace your fanbase thinks you are 90% of the time. 

Learned time after time, the guarantee of a starting job in the pros doesn’t necessarily equate to production.  Greg Oden and Kevin Durant.  Patrick Kane and James van Riemsdyk.  Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.  Lebron James and Darko Milicic.  Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf.  Players that were separated by a single pick in their respective drafts have made such monumental differences for their franchise that it seems the line between success and failure is sometimes so blurred that it could come down to a coin-flip.

But baseball… baseball’s player pool is a constantly evolving target, with players being brought up and sent back down to the minors every week.  Top 10 prospects with All Star talent sometimes flop and never make it to a single MLB at-bat.  Undrafted prospects sometimes rise through the ranks and make for feel good stories.  But at the end of the day, without major league at-bats, it’s generally impossible to pinpoint the success of a player based solely on stats at a lower level.  They’re general indicators, not necessary guarantees. 

But something that's been becoming more and more evident over the last few years is a particular pool of players that seems to defy that way of thinking.  The players that play for more than a contract; they play for a chance of a new life.  Cuban defectors inserting themselves in the MLB player pool are a completely different breed altogether.

The current list of Cuban defectors making their way to the majors dates back to 1963, and is sprinkled with varying success over the decades.  From that first prospect all the way to 1999, 26 prospects had made their way into the MLB system, with 22 eventually making MLB debuts. 

The most recent sensation to hit the scene was a 26 year old Jose Abreu.  Leading up to the 2014 spring training, there was a ton of hype around him – I saw a couple at-bats and was instantly a fan.  There was no lack of skepticism surrounding him – after all, the only stats for predicting what type of season he’d have in his first major league year were solely from Cuban national teams.  As high as I was on the guy, I couldn’t have seen it coming: he smashed 36 home runs and a whopping 107 RBI at a .317 clip, was named an MLB All-Star and finished with unanimous AL Rookie of the Year honors. 

Prior to that, we were introduced to an already household name in Yasiel Puig: a 22 year old right fielder who came into the league an absolute force, making his name as a legitimate threat in the heart of a Dodger order that needed a spark more than ever.  It’s not every day you come across the talent the likes of Puig – his strike out rate is on the high side, but the guy is still young with a ton of raw power.  But that’s what makes baseball’s player pool so unique  – in no other sport can teams simply bid on the services of exceptional new talent.

In the last 7 seasons, 19 players have defected from Cuba that have made major league debuts.   Of those 19, 6 have moved on to become MLB All-Stars.  Aroldis Chapman, Alexei Ramirez, Yoenis Cespedes, and the lights out Jose Fernandez – these are players that made their mark almost immediately.  Add in the players who have made midseason debuts in 2014 who have All-Star stamped on their forehead (Rusney Castillo, Jorge Soler, Odrisamer Despaigne) and we’re now flirting with one crazy ratio: almost half of the players defecting moving on to become All Stars, all whose services became available to the highest bidder. 

When my team failed to acquire the services of the most recent phenom to make the jump, I must admit I was a little disappointed.  Yoan Moncada will only be 20 in May, batted .277 in the Cuban national league with only four home runs in 2 years, and yet was just signed to the Red Sox with many suitors not far behind in the bidding.  How much?  The 19 year old Moncada will receive a $31.5 million dollar signing bonus.  To put that into perspective, Mike Trout, arguably the best player in all of baseball potentially of the last decade, made just under $1 million dollars for his first two years combined (not including his $10,000 bonus for his runaway Rookie of the Year award).

The fact of the matter: it’s hard to argue against giving these players that kind of dough, even to a 19 year old kid with still much to prove.  In the meantime, we’ll continue to see this trend of forking over major cash until the gambles stop paying off.  That, or until we bleed Cuba dry of all of its talent.  Either way, one thing has become undoubtedly clear: the reward is almost certainly outweighing the risk.