One of the big questions when Barack Obama talked about softening relations with Cuba was what impact this would have on Cuban ballplayers. After talking to industry sources, some think we already have a new policy that will speed the process for Cuban defectors to become Major League players.
This new policy is online if you want to read the whole thing, but I’ll excerpt the important passages below, with all of this becoming official in the last ten days:
§515.505 Certain Cuban nationals unblocked.
(a) General license unblocking certain persons. The following persons are licensed as unblocked nationals, as that term is defined in §515.307 of this part:
(1) Any individual national of Cuba who:
(2) Any individual national of Cuba who has taken up permanent residence outside of Cuba, provided that the required documentation specified in paragraph (c) of this section is obtained and the individual is not a prohibited official of the Government of Cuba, as defined in §515.337 of this part, or a prohibited member of the Cuban Communist Party, as defined in §515.338 of this part; and
(c) Required documentation. In determining whether an individual national of Cuba qualifies as an unblocked national under paragraph (a)(2) of this section, persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction must obtain evidence demonstrating that the individual satisfies the requirements of that paragraph. Such evidence may include copies of documents issued by government authorities demonstrating citizenship or lawful permanent residence in a third country. These could include, depending on the information provided in the document in question, a passport, voter registration card, permanent resident alien card, national identity card, or other similar documents. Where such documents are unavailable, persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction may also rely on evidence that the individual has been resident for the past two years without interruption in a single country outside of Cuba, or a sworn statement or other evidence that the individual does not intend to, or would not be welcome to, return to Cuba.
I put in the ellipsis where I skipped a couple sections, but you can go to the above link for the full context of this excerpts.
The (2) and (c) sections are the parts of this policy that appear to be different than the previous policy. In the points under section (1) (which I edited out), it details the typical process that Cuban players go through with the government. The full process in layman’s terms, including MLB’s involvement, is:
1. Defect from Cuba
2. Establish residency in a third (usually Latin) country: takes weeks after defecting, normally
3. Be declared a free agent by MLB: take weeks after residency is established, normally
4. Be unblocked by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the government agency that makes sure you aren’t funneling money back to Cuba: takes months, sometimes many months, and varies case-by-case
Sections (2) and (c) outline a new way to do this process that appears to completely cut out the 4th step of being unblocked by OFAC. This is presumably because Cuba is now seen as less threatening, so the U.S. government would be less/not concerned about money being sent back to the island.
I hedge by saying “appears” because that is what the policy looks like it says, but sources have indicated MLB is working with the U.S. government and their lawyers to determine if this new policy means what it looks like it means. While the government is moving towards dropping most/all sanctions toward Cuba, recent reports about the negotiations aren’t painting a picture free of conflict. If the government walks back some of these policies or if MLB is just too aggressive in implementing changes to their policies regarding Cubans, it could open MLB up to litigation, so they are understandably being deliberate and working with the government.
While it may appear to current Cuban free agents waiting for unblocking from OFAC that they are waiting for either 1) OFAC to clear them or 2) MLB to tell them that isn’t necessary, they are likely waiting for OFAC and MLB to get on the same page, with plenty of lawyers involved. You could even say the Cuban government is a third party in the process, because if the talks with the U.S. go any worse, that should also slow down the whole process or reverse it entirely. So, if you’re a Cuban free agent waiting to be unblocked, you’re essentially waiting on executives, diplomats and lawyers from three big organizations to agree on contentious issues before you may be allowed to sign with a big league team.
Enter Yoan Moncada
I’ve written three times about the Cuban super prospect Yoan Moncada if you want all the details, but here’s the short version: he’s a 19-year-old switch hitting infielder with Yasiel Puig type ability and is the best prospect from the island in years, but is currently in Florida with his agent, stuck in OFAC limbo, possibly because he’s the first prospect to be legally allowed to leave the island, ever. Since Cuba is currently loaning players to Japan and, until a player was booted for using false documents, was loaning them to Mexico, in both cases for a rumored 10% of their contracts, there’s suspicion that a high-profile prospect like Moncada being allowed to leave legally could have a similar, under-the-table deal in place.
Under the old rules, this possible sending of money to Cuba is why the OFAC part of the process existed, so it makes some sense why Moncada’s OFAC process is taking longer than others. I reported two weeks ago when Cuban righty Yoan Lopez cleared OFAC (and shortly after got a record-breaking bonus from the Diamondbacks) that indications were Lopez submitted his papers about a month later than Moncada did.
After talking to Moncada’s agent, David Hastings, he indicated that his communication with OFAC stopped around when Obama gave his speech about U.S.-Cuban relations in December, presumably due to the complications to the process that Obama’s speech created. Hastings also said he has spoken to MLB and they acknowledged that they are investigating the implications of this new policy and what it could mean for Moncada and MLB’s policy toward Cubans going forward.
Moncada was declared a free agent by MLB on November 15th and there is no hard or circumstantial evidence that he has a deal with the Cuban government. The rumored price tag, with deep-pocketed teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers the rumored front-runners, is roughly a $40 million in an up-front signing bonus, which would trigger another roughly $40 million in penalty payments to MLB (see the three links at the beginning of this section for details about the process). A source confirms that Moncada has already had private workouts with all three of these teams that are seen as favorites to land him, along with a few workouts for other clubs as well.
There could be another case to monitor, as sources indicate that another notable Cuban prospect, second baseman Andy Ibanez, also got out of Cuba legally, similar to how Moncada did, but with different agents (Bart Hernandez and Praver/Shapiro). Ibanez is in the Dominican Republic working out (after it’s believed he first established residency in Nicaragua) and is waiting for his OFAC clearance, with rumors he may be getting unblocked soon. I realize that’s a lot of ifs and maybes; I’d love to give more concrete answers or timetables for these players and issues, but, excepting only a few high-ranking government officials, this is a big question mark to everyone involved, including the concerned MLB teams.
Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.