Cuban Crossovers: Yoenis Céspedes, Jorge Soler, final notes

This post concludes my series on a number of high-profile Cuban players who defected to the MLB.
Monday, Jose Abreu.  Tuesday: Yasiel Puig.  Wednesday: Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez.  Thursday: Aroldis Chapman.
This last post on the subject features two more 2011 defectors, Yoenis Céspedes and Jorge Soler.

Yoenis Céspedes was a household name while playing in Cuba, leading the league in all sorts of offensive categories. Jorge Soler was a promising 20-year old who had performed well in the World Junior Baseball Championship. Both defected in 2011, but Cespedes was the first to be approved as an MLB free agent.

Yoenis Céspedes

Céspedes was already proven from his numbers in Cuba, and was also in his prime. Céspedes’ famous YouTube video isn’t one of the gems of modern PR, but it worked. Well, maybe that had more to do with his raw talent. In any case, the deal he signed with the Oakland Athletics in February 2012 was a fairly lucrative one, at 4 years and $36 million.

There were a few questions about Céspedes — mostly about his defense — but his talent was widely recognized. Two years after falling short of signing Aroldis Chapman, the A’s had landed a big-name Cuban talent. The analysis (more from MLB Trade Rumors for specifics) have borne out exactly as evaluated:

Cespedes is a premium athlete with huge raw power, plenty of speed, and a strong arm.  His hit tool and defensive value are more of a question.

Since, Céspedes has placed second in the Rookie of the Year award voting (2012), won the Home Run Derby (2013) and wowed SportsCenter audiences with his spectacular arm on outfield assists to the plate. It seems safe to say the Athletics made a good move in signing him.

Jorge Soler

Later in 2012, Jorge Soler signed with the Chicago Cubs for 9 years at $30 million, only nine days after becoming approved as a free agent. The number of years he’s under control is a huge positive for the Cubs. It averages out to a little over $3 million a year, so if the scouting is right, it’s a definite possibility that he becomes well worth the contract. (It is important to note that Soler could opt for salary arbitration once he qualifies, which could raise the total contract value.)

The length of Soler’s contract may be due in part to impending restrictions from the MLB on international signings. Shortly after he and Puig inked their deals, international pools became much more restrictive. Puig and Soler may have expedited their signings to get what value they could while it was still on the table.

Some believed American-born players entering the MLB really got the raw end of the deal, forced to enter through the amateur draft and rarely able to earn a substantial sum until they are into arbitration years. Perhaps they were (or still are) disadvantaged monetarily, but I doubt the MLB’s policy on bringing in international players is fully fleshed out just yet.

I discussed some of the resulting rule changes for international signings on Tuesday:

There remain all sorts of questions about international residency outside of Cuba at the time for Puig and fellow countryman Jorge Soler, who was signed around the same time. MLB has since put more restrictions on Cuban signings, restrictions which would have made it more difficult for the Dodgers to sign Puig. The distinction between cause and effect is not clear — whether the June 2012 deals were accelerated because of imminent restrictions or the deals themselves pushed the league to effect changes — but regardless, the Dodgers benefited from the old rules.

Soler was hitting minor league pitching well early this year (.381 average across two levels), but ran into injury problems. He’s still rehabbing, and the Cubs can only hope for health as what looked to be a very well-calculated contract could otherwise go to waste. The high ceiling is obviously there for Soler, but injury has held back many a promising prospect before.

Cuban defectors

The idea for this series was sparked by last week’s news of the Reds signing Cuban pitcher Raisel Iglesias to a seven-year contract, with a guaranteed $27 million. The team has control of the 24-year old through 2020. As a side note he, like almost everyone mentioned this week, made more than one effort at defecting. It is ironic that, in an increasingly more information-filled world, Cuban baseball is a platform for a closed-off country. It is also fortunate for American fans that so many top Cuban players have been able to leave and establish residency elsewhere.

There are many other defectors who have not seen as much success as those I’ve discussed this week. Many a player leaves Cuba and never makes it to the major leagues, as Wikipedia’s running list will attest. It’s not all about baseball, though — Ariel Prieto’s story reminds us that the lack of freedom in Cuba is a huge part of all this. I should think defecting would be worth it despite the failure to crack a 40-man roster.

The reality is that great players in Cuba cannot maximize on their talent apart from the confines of the island unless they depart the country, usually fleeing while the national team is competing in another country. This reality will exist until the MLB works out a deal with the Cuban government — a highly unlikely possibility, as the only setups I can see Cuba viewing favorably would end up being to the ultimate detriment of those players — or the Cuban government itself makes drastic changes.

International baseball

As the information continues to become more readily available to interested fans, it becomes more apparent what a task international scouting is. As Japanese players are “posted” for major league teams, who pay Japanese teams for the rights to talk exclusively to a player about a contract, Cuban players flee the country’s control to establish residency so they can, in the MLB’s eyes, legally play in the United States. The rules are complicated and have changed so much even since Daisuke Matsuzaka was the biggest international name.

One thing is sure, though: the MLB will continue to be a place where players from many countries go to exhibit their baseball prowess. Baseball continues to tilt toward the international player. It may be difficult for a child in the states to realize that dream of batting in the bottom of the ninth inning of the World Series, but it is ultimately to the benefit of the sport that this process be fair and bring the best talent into the league.


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