Cuba open to welcoming back defectors to field powerhouse team again

(From left) Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes and Alexei Ramirez are some of the biggest Cuban stars in MLB.

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Could the likes of Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig play on the Cuban national team at next year’s World Baseball Classic?

"Everything is on the table," Cuban baseball commissioner Heriberto Suárez said in Spanish, when asked about the possibility in Havana during this week’s historic trip by President Obama, Major League Baseball and the Tampa Bay Rays.

Suárez went on to explain that any such arrangement would need to be part of a new, overall working agreement among the Cuban and American governments, MLB and the MLB Players Association.

While the sides aren’t close to reaching any deal, it’s noteworthy that the Cuban baseball federation would consider welcoming back defectors to the national team in any circumstance.

For that type of deal to be viable, the Cuban government —€” or perhaps an alternate Cuban entity —€” likely would need to receive some form of "release fee" in exchange for Cuba allowing players to sign MLB contracts without renouncing their citizenship. MLB appears willing to do that, but the U.S. embargo against Cuba (which is enforced by Congress) presently prohibits it.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said this week that a new agreement on Cuban player movement "most likely" will be finalized in the context of the next collective bargaining agreement — on which early discussions are taking place now between MLB and the MLBPA.

The lifting of the embargo against Cuba would give baseball officials wider latitude to strike a deal, but MLB has little choice but to proceed with plans that coexist with current laws. President Obama told CNN Español recently that he believes the embargo will end sometime after his successor takes office next January. MLB and MLBPA don’t want to wait that long to agree on a new CBA; the current basic agreement expires Dec. 1.

Cuba’s interest in adding Jose Fernandez, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Iglesias, and others to their national team is obvious: The country isn’t the powerhouse it once was in international tournaments, simply because so many top Cuban players aren’t eligible to play on the team. Cuba’s current standing —€” fifth —€” is its lowest in the history of the World Baseball Softball Confederation rankings, which began in 2009.

The 27 Cuban-born major leaguers active in 2015 would form a competitive WBC team all by themselves: an infield of Abreu, Iglesias, Adeiny Hechavarria, Alexei Ramirez, and Yunel Escobar; a stacked outfield including Cespedes, Puig, Leonys Martin, Jorge Soler, Rusney Castillo, and Yasmany Tomas; Kendrys Morales at designated hitter; Yasmani Grandal and Brayan Peña behind the plate.

Fernandez, Raisel Iglesias, Roenis Elias, and Odrisamer Despaigne would be the rotation candidates, with Chapman looming as the closer — all supplemented by current Cuban national team players and more recent defectors like infielders Yulieski Gurriel and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

If the Cuban government wanted to take that step, the tournament’s organizers — MLB and the MLBPA — wouldn’t stop them.

"Our view on the WBC is that it should be a competitive event between countries and federations," Manfred said. "There’s a set of rules as to who can play for whom. Federations ought to put the best teams out there . . . That serves to make the event the best it can possibly be.

"That’s a decision they have to make. We certainly would be open to it."

Surprisingly, the U.S. and Cuba have yet to meet in World Baseball Classic play. Perhaps they’ll make a little more history next March, with major leaguers on each side.

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