Cuban players draw dozens of MLB scouts to Caribbean Series
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) Major league baseball scouts leaned forward as they steadied their radar guns and trained their video cameras on Cuban players who prepared to bat and pitch during Tuesday's Caribbean Series in Puerto Rico.
It is the first time that top Cuban players are competing in the U.S. territory since Cuba and the U.S. moved to normalize relations, opening up the possibility that a greater number could eventually reach the big leagues. Dozens of scouts traveled to the Caribbean Series almost exclusively to assess Cuban talent, jotting down page after page of statistics and observations on players including star second baseman Yulieski Gourriel.
''We're all excited about the possibility of having the ability to acquire Cuban players more easily now,'' Matt Slater, director of player personnel for the St. Louis Cardinals, told The Associated Press. ''The potential is certainly going to increase the talent level of baseball. It's good for the teams, it's good for the fans and the industry in general.''
Cuba returned to the round-robin tournament last year for the first time in 53 years, when it was held in Venezuela. Cuban players had won the series seven times when it was held from 1949 to 1960 - before they were barred in 1961 from playing professionally overseas. In September 2013, Cuba revised the five-decade ban to allow players to sign offseason contracts with leagues in countries including Japan and Mexico, as long as they return home.
Now, the possibility of being able to play in the major leagues excites many, including Gourriel.
''Of course I would like to play where the best baseball is played,'' Gourriel said. ''As long as we have permission, we would always be willing.''
More than 80 Cuban players have defected since the 1980s, typically to countries other than the U.S. so they can become free agents.
In 2014, 25 Cuban-born players played in the majors, according to STATS, and since 1995, 59 Cuban-born players have made it to the big leagues.
Fans and scouts alike hope to see the number of players increase as relations thaw between the U.S. and Cuba.
''This is the best thing that has happened,'' said baseball fan Joaquin Rodriguez, a 58-year-old elevator repairman from Cuba who lives in Puerto Rico. ''Players from the Dominican Republic pretty much dominate the major leagues.''
It's too early to say what kind of opportunities could open up for Cuban players, but some changes have already taken place. The MLB on Tuesday eliminated its requirement that Cuban players obtain a license from the U.S. government before they are eligible to sign with big league teams.
Cuba team manager Alfonso Urquiola said he hopes more negotiations will take place.
''This will be beneficial to us in all areas, not just baseball,'' he told the AP.
U.S. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said in an interview last week that there is great interest in Cuban talent even though he wasn't sure clubs were seeking to build more academies in yet another country.
Currently, contracts for six of the top-earning Cuban major league players total close to $280 million.
''Cuba has a great baseball tradition. It's a great source of talent,'' Manfred said. ''Obviously the president has announced an important policy change. What that means at the nuts-and-bolts level that we operate, we're just not sure yet.''
Some fans, including 45-year-old Roberto Tellez, hope that improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba could mean that Cuban athletes might get the opportunity to participate in tournaments other than those played in Latin America. Cuban-born Tellez lives in Miami but traveled to Puerto Rico with his wife to cheer for Cuba.
He said his dream is to see both Cuban players who live on the island and in the U.S. form one team for the next baseball classic.
''That would be so exciting, for them to represent the country and not politics,'' he said.
AP Sports Writer Ron Blum in New York contributed to this report.