Lazarito is the Big Name, But He’s Just Part of a Wave of Cuban Talent Looking to Impact MLB

A 16-year-old kid is going to reshape the baseball world today. Lazaro Armenteros, better known as Lazarito, is going to announce which MLB team he is going to sign with. It is estimated that there are up to nine teams in the running for his services, including the Cubs. I think the Cubs are a bit of a longshot because of the penalty they would have to pay to sign him. We are talking somewhere between $20 million and $30 million before penalties just to be in the ballpark to sign him. I don’t think Theo is going to put out that kind of money for a 16-year-old who has not played for two years.

On the other hand, two other players left Cuba earlier this week. One is the top player on the island and the other is his brother. 31 year-old Yulieski Gurriel and 22-year-old Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. both could re-shape the international free agent market over the next few months. Although Yulieski’s age might scare some teams off over the next few months, he has been ranked as the top MLB prospect in Cuba. He can play second base and third base and will be an asset to any team that signs him. This past summer he hit .494 with 14 home runs and 37 walks in Cuba’s Serie Nacional. For several years, he has been the best player on Cuba’s national team.

Lourdes, however, is likely the bigger fish to catch. At just 22, he can put off signing until November. Once he turns 23 in October, the younger Gurriel is not subject to any penalty for any team that signs him because of his age and experience. In addition, he has played both positions up the middle in the infield and has been a constant in the outfield for the Cuban national team. I think he could break the bank if he can find the right team. What franchise is not going to want a versatile player who has some present projection left in his 6’3″ 185 pound frame? If I were the Cubs, I would be at the front of the line for Lourdes and then I would double back and get in line again.

Grand Prix de Judo Haban 2014The fact that there are high-priced Cuban players on the international free-agent market is nothing new. What is changing is the frequency at which they are coming to America and the dollar values placed upon them. John Manual and JJ Cooper of Baseball America likened this current wave of Cuban free agents to the early 1950’s when many African-American players began to leave the Negro leagues to sign with a major league club. I thought that was an apt analogy, though the dollar figures in today’s market are far, far greater than what they were 50 years ago, even relatively speaking.

According to Ben Badler of Baseball America, there are over 100 international free agents waiting to be cleared by MLB to play in the US. With the political turmoil in US foreign policy towards Cuba in the next few years, it’s no wonder so many Cubans are trying to get to this country as fast as possible. To think that politics may play a factor might be foreign to the average everyday American, but to those in Cuba it is not. The fact that Jose Abreu left and made $60 million within a year of doing so would be motivation for anyone to escape the borderline servitude of the Cuban baseball landscape.

I think once Lazarito makes his decision it is going to open up the floodgates for many other Cuban prospects who are waiting to sign and have been declared free agents already. When I look at the Cubs, I think more of them signing pitchers Vladimir Gutierrez, Norge Ruiz, Cionel Perez, and Adrian Morejon, along with outfielder Jorge Ona and several other free agents. That list is little more than a pipe dream though. The Cubs still have less than five months before they are limited to sign any international free agent for $300,000 or less. So unless they can get one of these players to sign before July 1, all hope is lost when it comes to players 22 and under.

In the coming months it will be interesting to see two things:

  1. The frequency with which other Cuban players leave the island
  2. How quickly Major League Baseball declares them to be free agents

For the past 50 years, the draft has been the means by which franchises have been built. A Latin revolution and an influx of Dominican players changed baseball in the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s. Now, I think it’s the Cubans’ turn. And what has thus far been but a trickle will soon turn into a flood as more and more talented players journey stateside.

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