Column: Is the Cuban influx in MLB over?
'Beyond the Lines'
When Luis Robert, a 19-year-old outfielder, signed a free agent contract with the Chicago White Sox last week he was touted in some circles as the last of a dying breed: A Cuban ballplayer signing for mega-bucks.
That may or may not be true, but even if it is, don’t count on Robert being the last Cuban player signed by an MLB team.
MLB teams are perpetually in search of talent, the less expensive the better. Furthermore, the competition among clubs to sign the best players is fierce. No team wants to be looking up at 29 other teams in the standings or hearing from the media and their fans how the rest of the league is “smarter” than they are in evaluating talent. It’s because of that competition that over the past seven years teams have collectively guaranteed almost $800 million on mostly unproven Cuban players.
Chief among the big spenders are the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs and White Sox. The Dodgers alone have spent almost one-fourth of that amount on the likes of Yasiel Puig, who may have been worth it, and Alex Guerrero and Erisbel Arruebarrena, who decidedly were not. The Red Sox lavished a $31.5 million bonus on Yoan Moncada, a 19-year-old infielder who they flipped with other players to the White Sox last winter for starting pitcher Chris Sale. They weren’t as fortunate with the $72 million they lavished on outfielder Rusney Castillo, who has yet to distinguish himself in Triple A. In addition to spending $26 million on Robert, the White Sox gave Jose Abreu $68 million.
The bonuses to Moncada and Robert weren’t the only cash outlays required by the Red Sox and White Sox. Under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement, if an international player was younger than 23, MLB teams were allowed to exceed the amount they were allocated for international bonuses. However, doing so triggered a dollar-for-dollar penalty. That means Moncada actually cost the Red Sox $63 million and Robert will end up costing the White Sox $52 million because he was technically covered under the old CBA. Players older than 23 when they signed, like Abreu and Castillo, were not subject to the tax.
Once the international bonus cap was exceeded, teams were limited to a maximum of $300,000 per player for the next two years, which is why the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers were never in the running for Robert.
The new CBA, signed last year, imposed a ceiling on bonuses for international players under 25. In order to protect teams from themselves, they are no longer permitted to throw bonus money at free agents as if they are sitting at a card game — alternately raising the bid until only one team remains in the game. The league imposed a spending cap on international players — a maximum of $5.75 million per team, although teams are allowed to acquire an additional 75 percent of that figure via trades. Teams will now be able to spend a maximum of approximately $10 million on foreign players younger than 25. Few players, perhaps especially Cubans, will be willing to play at home for short money until they reach age 25.
The ideal situation for MLB teams is to include international players, including Cubans, in the June draft and combine the current draft bonus pool with the international bonus pool. However, the players’ union has yet to agree to such an arrangement. Unless they do, teams will continue to operate under two different systems, each with their own rules and bonus pools.
The influx of Cuban talent in MLB may slow, but it is far from over. On a baseball-happy island, players will continue to develop and draw the attention of MLB teams, whose fascination with Cuban players is heightened due to their lack of competition against top-level competition. What’s in the past is the big money deals for players under the age of 25.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.