Before he was allowed to sign for $30 million, Cincinnati Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman had to wait until he was thousands of miles away from everyone he ever knew just to sneak away. According to reports, when he defected from his Cuban national team he did so by fleeing a hotel in the Netherlands with nothing but a passport and a pack of smokes.
Before Yasiel Puig was allowed to sign with the Dodgers for $42 million, he was smuggled, threatened and almost starved, according to reports.
But before the Red Sox signed 19-year-old Yoan Moncada for $31.5 million this year, Moncada was allowed to leave Cuba legally.
Many details of Moncada’s journey from mystery international free agent to very expensive minor leaguer are still unknown, but his relatively peril-free passage is believed to be a small byproduct of Raul Castro’s immigration reform. The landmark legislation, put into effect in 2013, made it easier than it had been for more than 50 years for citizens to leave the socialist country.
Many Cuban travelers now only need a passport. This includes baseball players not on the national team, which Moncada wasn’t.
“They’re free to go,” Antonio Diaz, a spokesman for Cuban baseball’s governing body, recently told the Washington Post.
Which probably means they will keep coming.
A record number of Cuban players are expected to make MLB rosters again this season in what is becoming an annual tradition. That’s even with Moncada — whom the Red Sox really paid $63 million for because of an overage tax — starting the season in as low as Class A ball.
Many of these players are making similarly big money.
And they are disproportionally becoming big stars — modern baseball’s version of an international slam dunk.
The White Sox paid Jose Abreu $68 million for six years, and he was named American League Rookie of the Year. Outfielder Yoenis Cespedes ($36 million) debuted three years ago and already has won two Home Run Derbies. Puig is among the most popular and marketable players in the league — and he still lost the 2014 National Rookie of the Year award to Miami’s own Cuban star Jose Fernandez. Chapman is a three-time All-Star.
Their successes have made teams more comfortable handing over eight-figure contracts to players the rest of America knows only from gaudy YouTube workout videos. In many cases, Cuban defectors excel at the major league level without spending much time in the minors.
The Dodgers were so confident that infielder Alex Guerrero would be a star they offered him a $28 million contract that allows him to reject a minor league assignment. They were also confident enough to sign Cuban infielder Hector Olivera for $62.5 million in March despite reported injury concerns.
The Red Sox were so confident they spent a record $72.5 million on outfielder Rusney Castillo, their preexisting outfield logjam be damned.
Despite having been sent to the minors Wednesday, Castillo is just one of a few Cuban defectors who could break out in a big way in 2015. Guerrero could contribute in a backup role. New Diamondback Yasmany Tomas, who signed for six years and $68.5 million in the offseason, is expected to hit but struggled defensively at third base this spring.