Showcases open doors for Cuban players
Hopefuls have to climb hurdles for shot in front of scouts
A month before Aroldis Chapman became a Red, he stepped on a mound in West Houston to prove he wasn't green.
On the same day, almost 2,000 miles away on a field in the Cubs' academy in Boca Chica, pitcher Zuniesky Maya took center stage as the star of his own showcase.
For Maya, 27, and Chapman, 21, showcases are more than platforms to display their abilities in front of scouts; it's a lifeline to a better future. The Reds were so impressed with Chapman's Dec. 15 workout, they signed him to a to six-year, $30.25 million deal.
Since December, several teams have expressed interest in Maya. Next week, he is scheduled to throw another bullpen session.
A showcase is one way Major League officials can scout a player from the island. Cuba, along with Iran, Sudan and Syria, has been designated by the United States Department of State as State Sponsors of Terrorism, and sending scouts to the island south of Florida is prohibited. Since Fidel Castro took power in 1959, defection is the only way Cuban players can reach the big leagues.
"No other players in the world are subjected to the regulation and hurdles Cuban players are subjected to," said agent Jaime Torres, who has represented players from Cuba since 1993. "First you start with where they are from, and it's the only place where baseball is played but does not allow you to sign a professional contract. Most have to leave the country through illegal means to reach their goals, and then you have U.S.-Cuban relations and sanctions to deal with. They are completely different than any other player you deal with."
The road to a showcase begins with defection. Cuban players escape the island by boat or defect during an international baseball tournament -- just as Chapman did last summer. Next, they find an agent, usually through family, friends or colleagues. Since most Cuban defectors are not allowed to carry passports, they must visit the Cuban Consulate for a passport and to establish residency.
The paperwork is presented to Major League Baseball's Commissioner's Office for review. If guidelines are met, the player is declared a free agent. At the same time, a notice is sent to the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) requesting a license to allow the Cuban player to receive a signing bonus or sign a Major League contract. The case is made to "unblock" the player.
"You must show that he is a resident of another country and that money he makes is not going back to the government of Cuba," said agent Bart Hernandez. "You have to know what you are doing, and I advise these guys not to just jump on with just any agent. The Cuban market is a unique creature, because it presents unique opportunities and if you make mistakes, it can cost a player time and money."
Some Cuban defectors end up in the leagues of the Dominican Republic before jumping to MLB. That was the case with Livan Hernandez when he left Cuba in 1994. A stint in the Dominican Summer or Winter League is also an effective scouting tool for Major League teams interested in Cuban players.
The creation of the World Baseball Classic -- as well as international tournaments such as the World Baseball Cup -- has also exposed Cuban players to Major League scouts. It's common for Major League scouts to attend an international junior tournament; however, scouts are not permitted to talk to Cuban players.
"The obvious risk is investing money in a player you don't know that well, because even if you have a feel for the player, you don't know the character or how he is off the field," said Zack Minasian, manager of professional scouting for the Brewers. "With amateur scouts, they develop a history -- some four to five years long -- but with Cubans, you have no history with them. The reward can be big. Sometimes, you can go get a guy and he turns into Kendry Morales."
It's the agent's job to sell the player to an organization. It falls on him or her to answer any "character" questions a club might have about a player.
"As agents, we have to be the communicator, mentor, mother, father, brother, sister," Hernandez said. "Little by little, you see how they grow and develop and when they start to become independent. Years later, some appreciate it. Some don't, but hey, that's life."
It's unknown how Maya and Chapman will perform in the Major Leagues, but they have a history of success. Chapman throws 100 mph and could be the best player to ever come out of Cuba.
"Our [scouts] feel he could possibly move very quickly, but it's too early to tell," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said. "We need to get him into our program and our camp. Hopefully he is one of our top five starters when we break camp. We'll have him go down and work on what he needs to work on."
Maya went 13-4 with a 1.23 ERA in his last season in Cuba, and is 48-29 with a 2.37 ERA for his career. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound pitcher is believed to be Major League-ready and throws a fastball between 89-94 mph. He expects to be declared a free agent this month.
"Before 1959 and the revolution, the majority of Latin players in baseball were from Cuba," Torres said. "There were hardly any from the [Dominican Republic] and there were some from Puerto Rico, a few from Venezuela and once in a while, you had one from Mexico. But once the doors closed in Cuba, it all changed."
Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.