By Jorge Arangure Jr.
In the fall of 2009, in a hotel conference room on the outskirts of Barcelona, Spain, Edwin Mejia, the then-agent of the then-recently defected Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman, told me in an interview that he believed his client was worth a $100 million contract.
The statement seemed like agent posturing more than an actual set price. After all, it was silly to think that a relatively unknown Cuban player like Chapman, who had been seen by major league scouts outside of Cuba only in a few international tournaments, could command such a monstrous sum.
At that time, Jose Contreras' four year, $32 million contract with the Yankees, signed in 2002, was still the most ever given to a Cuban exile, and that the benchmark had lasted so long spoke to what major league teams thought of the Cuban market and Cuban players in general. For the most part, teams didn't trust Cuban players to perform in the majors.
Aside from the actual on-the-field adjustments, social assimilation to life in the United States proved to be a vast stumbling block for Cuban players. Often the players who had defected were, like Contreras, in their 30s, some well past their primes, and some with a listed age that teams didn't trust.
So while there had always been a mystery surrounding Cuban players, most had not panned out. Even Contreras was a good, but ultimately not great player. Cuban players were such an uncertainty, and something of a novelty, that several executives told me in the late 2000s that they would never sign a recent Cuban exile for a substantial amount of money. Never.
Chapman, after switching agents, eventually signed with the Reds for six years, $30.25 million in January 2010. He did not even come close to $100 million; he didn't even eclipse Contreras' record. But his signing became the turning point for the Cuban exile market. It's safe to say that Chapman, one of the top closers in the game, has been well worth the $5 million per season average salary of his contract.
Less than three years after Chapman signed, the Chicago White Sox reportedly agreed to terms last week with Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu on a six-year, $68 million contract that smashes Yasiel Puig's record seven-year $42 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, signed only last year. Puig in turn had broken Yoenis Cespedes' record four-year $36 million deal with the Oakland A's, signed only a few months earlier in 2012. So after having remained stagnant for 10 years, the Cuban exile contract record changed hands three times in less than two years -- and none of of those three players were older than 27 when they arrived.
With several top Cuban players still yet to defect, Mejia's vision of a $100 million contract for a Cuban exile no longer seems so silly after all.
"It wouldn't surprise me," Oakland general manager Billy Beane said. "It's all supply and demand, and teams are always looking for talent. Regardless of the talent of a player, a lot of money is going to be spent. You're going to use it on whoever is available. And these players have had big impacts. Since they've been coming here, they've been perennial postseason players. They've justified the investment."
The Cuban exile market inflation has happened for numerous reasons, not the least of which has been performance. Chapman is an All Star, Cespedes is the reigning home run derby champion, and Puig is a rambunctious controversy magnet who will almost surely make an All Star Team sometime in his career. In fact, many thought Puig should have been an All Star this season.
"There is some bubble to the market," one high-ranking American League team executive said. "This seems to be the best example. Teams feel more comfortable because of Cespedes and Puig. Japanese pitchers will be more well received because of (Yu) Darvish. Each case has to be viewed in its own context. The bias of recency needs to be recognized. Having said all that, the most recent signing will be proved over time...or not. As with major league contracts for big money and long terms it seems there will be a market correction, sooner or later."
Yet what might have had the most impact were changes Major League Baseball and the Major League Players Association made in the most recent collective bargaining agreement, some of which, ironically, were meant to limit the amount of money teams could spend on amateur and international players.
Cuban players, depending on their age and on their experience in Cuba's top league, are exempt from the CBA's new international and amateur bonus caps, meaning a team could sign them for whatever amount they wanted without having to face any penalties. Teams are otherwise limited to the bonuses they can give foreign and American amateur players. This year, the Houston Astros, the team with the highest international bonus slot, were only allowed to spend roughly $5 million total on international amateurs. Spending more than that would result in them having to surrender part of their bonus total next year.
Also, major league free agent compensation, enacted by the recent CBA, has kept teams who loathe having to surrender a draft pick from signing top free agents. Cuban players are not tied to any compensation.
"There are very few avenues where you don't have ramifications other than the cash you spend," Beane said.
The new economic reality defined by the new CBA has also caused teams to lock up their young talented players years before they hit free agency, meaning future free agent classes will lack big-name talent. Building a team through free agency will be harder than ever. This year, other than Abreu, the only significant free agent hitters are Shin Soo Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury, both undoubtedly talented players, but neither capable of anchoring a lineup.
"This free agency, there's not some obvious big middle of the order bat," said an executive of a team that pursued Abreu. "He suddenly became THE middle of the order guy."
Cuban players are also becoming less of a risk. Teams can not only scout players during international tournaments, they can also access statistics and video of Cuban league performance on the internet. There are several websites dedicated to livestreaming Cuban league games.
"We can access performance in terms of statistics in the Cuban League," Beane said. "It's not as much as we have in other areas, but it's more than before. More players coming over also gives you a baseline to judge these guys too. It just gives you more of a foundation."
But can these statistics be taken seriously?
"We take all statistics seriously," Beane said.
In many ways, Oakland's Cespedes signing proved to be just as important as Chapman's signing.
"That's a great deal and the whole world figured it out," said the executive of the team that pursued Abreu.
While there had been a few examples of Cuban pitchers having success in the majors -- Contreras, Livan and Orlando Hernandez -- a Cuban hitter had yet to make a significant impact.
But once again, it fell upon the forward-thinking Athletics to take the plunge and set the trend.
"Obviously we've been pleased," Beane said. "During the two years he's been here we've won the division. There's obviously a correlation. Our initial reason for signing him was because he was the type of player that wasn't available to a market like ours."
The scouting report on Abreu is that he's a thick-bodied slugger, with average bat speed who can, at best, adequately, play first base, but can't run at all. He's no certainty.
"He's basically going to be Paul Konerko, he's a lot like him as a player," said the executive of the team that pursued Abreu. "All the value will be in the bat."
And yet the biggest deal Konerko ever signed in his career was a five-year $60 million deal in 2005. Times have certainly changed when the unknown Cuban Konerko clone can get a bigger contract than the actual Konerko.
With Cuban players seemingly defecting more often ever because of the escalation in salaries, with more tools available (e-mail, skype, cell phones, etc.) for these players to assimilate while keeping in contact with their home country, and with a less timid attitude once they reach the majors, it stands to reason that the upward trend will continue. The first $100 million Cuban player may soon arrive.
Even the executive of the team who pursued Abreu had to admit, "It's not like the bargain it used to be, is it?"
* * *
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a freelance sportswriter based out of Brooklyn, New York. He is a contributing writer for The New York Times and SB Nation Longform. He was previously a staff writer at ESPN and The Washington Post. He was born in Tijuana, Mexico, grew up in San Diego, and attended The University of Southern California and Syracuse University.