Will change in US relations lead to MLB academies in Cuba?

After this week’s revelatory shift in US-Cuba relations, many in the baseball industry have speculated about whether Major League Baseball teams soon will operate academies in Cuba, as they do currently in the Dominican Republic (and Venezuela, to a lesser extent).

But there’s a good chance team-operated academies in Cuba won’t be part of a new, legal pathway for Cuban players to join MLB franchises.

The reason: It’s unlikely the Cuban market will be based on full international free agency, as is the case in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. And MLB teams spend the money to operate academies only where they have broad freedom to sign players.

(For example, the Boston Red Sox don’t spend the money to house, feed and train players at a Boston-based youth academy because all 30 MLB teams have the ability to draft them. This is why MLB teams don’t operate academies in Puerto Rico, which also is subject to the draft.)  

The Cuban market is likely to fall under two scenarios — neither of which would be described as true international free agency.

The first is a posting system, similar to what exists between MLB teams and clubs in Japan and Korea: MLB teams would pay a posting fee to the "team" that holds the player’s rights; in this case, the "team" is the Cuban government, which operates the country’s baseball league on an amateur basis.

The other (more remote) possibility is that Cuba would be included in MLB’s effort to expand the draft to cover more countries. MLB officials and team executives would love to have a fully international draft, as is the case with the NBA and NHL, because of the greater certainty in cost and information concerning players.

The players union has resisted MLB’s push toward an international draft — so far — but the matter will come up for discussion again when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2016.

Even if there’€™s a relatively small chance Cuba will be included in the draft, that likely would be enough for MLB teams to hold off on building academies in Cuba — for fear that those infrastructure investments will be rendered moot by a draft.

At present, the Dominican Republic accounts for the second-largest number of MLB players, after the USA. But Cuba has a larger population than the Dominican Republic — with a baseball culture that is every bit as strong, if not more so. A decade’s worth of player transfers could be enough to vault Cuba past the Dominican as the No. 2 supplier of talent to the major leagues.  

For now, the US embargo against Cuba prevents MLB teams from scouting players on the island or otherwise establishing a presence there. But that could change relatively quickly, with the impending relaxation of commerce restrictions. As one player agent told me this week, some teams have worked for years on plans for precisely this moment. Others, he said, have been sent scrambling during a transformative week for baseball in the Western Hemisphere.