The Cubans Are Coming

I saw this list from MLB.com of the 30 top international prospects to be signed since the beginning of the current signing season in July 2016.  What is most notable about the list is that eight of the top 11 (and 11 of the top 19) are Cubans .  Of these eight, only Lourdes Gurriel, who turned 23 in October, is old and experienced enough not to count against international signing bonus limits.

Of the top 30, 12 are Cubans, ten are Dominican and eight are Venezuelans.  These are the kinds of numbers one would expect to see if there were essentially no limits or restrictions on Cubans leaving Cuba to play in the MLB system.  It makes me wonder if young Cuban players are now essentially being allowed to defect by the Cuban government for the purpose of allowing them to make big money in the U.S., and thus pay high taxes and/or spend money back in Cuba if they are allowed to return there freely.

In a situation in which Cuban players could freely join the MLB system, I would expect that Cuban “amateurs” would rank more highly than young Dominicans or Venezuelans by virtue of the fact that many of the young Cubans have played in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, a very good league.  The 16 and 17 year old Dominicans and Venezuelans who are signed every year have never yet played in a league comparable the Serie Nacional, since the Dominican and Venezuelan Winter Leagues rarely field even home-grown players who haven’t reached at least the A+ level in the MLB system.

In short, the difference between signing a 16 or 17 year old Dominican or Venezuelan and signing a 19 or 20 year old Cuban with Serie Nacional experience, is similar to the difference between U.S. high school and elite college players.   College players selected in the draft consistently out-perform high school players drafted in the same slots, at least when taken as a whole, because college players are much further along in their development and have played against a much higher level of talent than high school players and are thus easier to project as professional players.  College pitchers also tend to out-perform high school pitchers by virtue of the fact that highly drafted college pitchers have at least proven they can handle college pitching loads without experiencing a major injury.

It is a bit interesting that not one young amateur from Curacao, Columbia, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan or Japan made MLB’s top 30 list.  Nowadays, there are usually a couple of players from these countries on the list each year.  It looks like this year the increase in Cuban amateur signings has squeezed all of these countries out of the running.

Needless to say, with so many Cubans ranked as among the top foreign amateur signings, a number of these players will eventually reach the majors, and clearly the number of Cubans playing in MLB at any given time will continue to rise.  However, normalization of relations with Cuba is unlikely to continue under a Trump administration at the same pace as during Obama’s second term, so this year’s signings could be a high-water mark, at least until Trump is no longer in office.

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