Olympic Qualifier in Miami Provided Opportunities for Cuban Defections
Three Cubans did defect after arriving in Miami for the Olympic qualifier. The biggest name of the trio was César Prieto, a 22 year old second baseman who was considered one of the top players in Cuba. He batted .403 in his last year with Cuba and appeared to have nothing to gain by staying in Cuba.
César did not even play in the Olympic qualifier, leaving his hotel and jumping into a car shortly after the Cuban team arrived in Miami. Cuba was critical of the defection, but they do not want to see players leave without getting some compensation for their departure. They have contracts with NPB teams where players get compensated but the Cuban league also gets some percentage of that salary. Alfredo Despaigne, Livan Moinello and Yurisbel Gracial are three players who have a contract with the Softbank Hawks.
Andy Rodríguez was another one of those players who signed a contract with the Softbank Hawks. Most of his time was spent in the minor leagues. The 22 year old pitcher was supposed to leave for Japan after the Olympic qualifier had ended to return to the Hawks, but as the Cuban Baseball Federation noted he chose to “violate his contract with the NPB team”. It will be interesting how major league baseball handles the defection of Rodriguez since he technically has a contract with an NPB team through Cuba.
The third defection was a 35 year old pitcher Lázaro Blanco. While he is considered one of the top pitchers in Cuba and was good enough to make the Cuban national team, his age may hamper a major league team from signing him. This will not prevent him from getting interest in teams from the Mexican League, which is reported pays a much higher salary that what he would earn in Cuba.
So a big blow for Cuba, not just because of the players they lost, but because they had players abandon the team before they even played a game. That put them at a disadvantage with 24 man rosters dropping to 21. It also plants a seed for other Cubans to defect once they play in international tournaments. Unless Cuba is willing to pay to put these players on 24 hour watch it will be difficult to keep them from defecting.
Rodriguez and Prieto should sign big time contracts with major league clubs. It may not be in the $10 to $50 million contracts they signed a few years ago, but they should reach close to seven figures. Cuban baseball would like to make an agreement with major league baseball to get a small percentage of that coin.
(Photos of César Prieto, Andy Rodríguez, and Lázaro Blanco/AP)