Considering the restrictions baseball's most recent collective bargaining agreement put on spending both in the traditional international amateur free agent market and the domestic amateur draft, it's not surprising that the few exceptions to both sets of new rules are becoming more and more highly valued commodities with each passing offseason. After all, the only other uncapped place teams have to spend their money is in the traditional free agent market, where they have the privilege of paying top dollar for older players whose best years may already be behind them -- and organizations like Philadelphia are doing their best to drive that market upwards by willfully overpaying in dollars and years for players they value to be sure they get their man.
All of that is good news for American free agents, of course, but it also has the side effect of increasing the paydays for another kind of free agent: the Cuban defector.
The new spending rules don't apply to international professional baseball players after a certain age and experience level. That means that MLB teams are free to spend whatever the market allows on players from the Asian pro leagues and talents that come over from the Cuban professional league, so long as they meet the requirements (generally put, players must be over 23 years old and have spent over 3 to 5 years in the Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean, or Cuban leagues to qualify).
The Asian leagues, including Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korean Baseball Organization, have long had measures in place to discourage young talent from leaving for America before paying their dues and making money for the owners of the local teams. In Japan, the NPB has the famous posting system that required the Texas Rangers to cough up more than $50 million in exchange for the right to even talk to ace starting pitcher Yu Darvish (a system that's currently up in the air this offseason as MLB angles for more favorable bidding terms). Meanwhile, the KBO has no compunctions about coming down with hard sanctions if the league's perceived right to the best years of their young talent is abridged -- something the Baltimore Orioles found out when they tried to sign then-17 year old pitcher Seong-Min Kim to a contract in early 2012, only to find themselves banned from scouting South Korea indefinitely and Kim banned from playing baseball in South Korea for life.
Players coming out of Cuba, on the other hand, aren't coming from a league with any formal agreements with MLB about the transition of talent from Cuba to America, nor one with any ability to even remotely compete with MLB in terms of financial compensation, as the Asian leagues can for players who are stars in their home countries but whom MLB teams don't see playing well enough in MLB to offer Darvish-level money.
Already this offseason, middle infielder Alexander Guerrero and first baseman Jose Abreu have defected and signed deals with major guaranteed money; Guerrero signed a four-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers that will be worth between $28-32 million, while Abreu signed a six-year, $68 million contract with the Chicago White Sox that included a $10 million signing bonus. Compare this to the seven-year, $42 million contract the Dodgers gave Yasiel Puig and the nine-year, $30 million contract outfielder Jorge Soler received from the Chicago Cubs in mid-2012, along with the four-year, $36 million deal Yoenis Cespedes got from the Oakland Athletics the year before, and the market for high-profile defectors is thriving.
That trend may be about to continue with the most recent name to go on that list (and it's a good one, as far as names go): Erisbel Barbaro Arruebarruena, the starting shortstop for the 2013 Cuban World Baseball Classic team and former teammate of both Puig and Abreu on Cienfuegos in the Cuban national league. Arruebarruena is going to draw a lot of comparisons to Detroit Tigers shortstop and Rookie of the Year finalist Jose Iglesias, which are well-deserved. Ben Badler of Baseball America gives a full scouting report here, and while the good news is that he profiles very similarly to Iglesias, the bad news is that he profiles very similarly to Iglesias, in that his glove is stellar, but it will have to support a below-average bat.
Adeiny Hechavarria, the Miami Marlins shortstop, is another name that gets brought up a lot in conversations about Arruebarruena's future. While Iglesias was able to at least eke out a singles-fueled empty .300 batting average this season, Hechavarria hit .227/.267/.298 in a full season of plate appearances, which is a performance that will test the patience of even the staunchest of defensively-minded executives. It also provides a reminder for fans that when scouts worry about a glove-first guy's bat coming around, they're not wondering if he's going to win a batting title, they're worried about his bat being so bad it could keep an elite defender not only from the starting lineup, but from the majors.
Arruebarruena is 23, soon to be 24, and given his age and profile Badler believes he'll start in Double-A. But given Arruebarruena's age, background, the investment a team is likely to make in him and the success that high-profile defectors have had in the majors recently, I wouldn't be surprised if his timeline for advancement is far more rapid than your usual prospect seeing Double-A pitching for the first time. Depending on his performance and who signs him, he could be in the majors by the beginning of 2015, and would almost certainly see some sort of cup of coffee at the end of the 2014 season unless he's injured or woefully underperforming.
Which brings us to the big question, that being: how does Arruebarruena's defection affect the shortstop market? The answer is: very little. He is a completely different commodity than, say, Jhonny Peralta or Stephen Drew. Though scouts have far more tape on him than they did on fellow defector Guerrero, all that tape does is reinforce the idea that Arruebarruena needs more time to develop before hitting the majors. His most likely suitors will be teams with money to spend and who would prefer it not to count against the luxury tax, which means that both the Yankees and Red Sox should be involved in some capacity. The Dodgers are likely out, but one never really knows with that team, and the Chicago White Sox have a strong recent history with Cubans beyond the Abreu signing -- their current shortstop, Alexei Ramirez, was himself a Cuban international free agent. He would be an excellent signing for the Minnesota Twins, provided the money is there; Minnesota's system lacks any sort of real infield impact prospect up the middle, and the Twins would have the luxury of waiting for him to arrive with Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano in a year or two.
While Arruebarruena is precisely the sort of player that the Tampa Bay Rays would covet, the market on Cuban defectors is probably a bit too hot right now for them to have any leverage in it considering their small-market ways, and the teams that desperately need an impact shortstop right now -- the St. Louis Cardinals immediately come to mind -- will have to look elsewhere. That doesn't mean St. Louis is out of the picture, of course , but if the Cardinals do ink Arruebarruena to a contract, it shouldn't be taken as a sign that they're done with the shortstop market unless they explicitly name him the starter when they do so. And if the Cardinals do that, well, given their recent success with prospects it'd be fair to start asking ourselves what they know about Erisbel Arruebarruena that we don't.
All in all, it's reasonable to expect that Arruebarruena gets a deal similar to the one that Alexander Guerrero got -- and it's even more reasonable to expect that, with the success being seen by Cuban players in the American market and more Cuban stars defecting every year, eventually the Cuban league will try to come to some sort of agreement with Major League Baseball like the ones NPB and the KBO have despite the political differences between their home nations. It's either that, or risk seeing even more talent escape across the water into America just as Cuban teams are beginning to enjoy real international recognition for their ability.