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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cuban players dot MLB draft

Kevin Baxter Miami Herald

MIAMI – It’s not nearly as interesting as the fact the Florida Marlins are the only team with three first-round picks. Nor will it affect Tuesday’s amateur draft as much as Scott Boras negotiating contracts for as many as seven of the first 30 players selected.

But that doesn’t make the record number of Cuban defectors in this week’s draft any less significant. In fact, time might ultimately prove that to be the most unique – and important – element of the two-day affair.

This has nothing to do with the Cubans’ talent, however. Just two of the seven defectors – rocket-armed shortstop Yunel Escobar and right-hander Maels Rodriguez – have drawn any real interest from scouts. Even then, Escobar’s uncertain background – he hit .250 in his last year in Cuba, not the .321 he claims – and Rodriguez’s history of back trouble could push both players to the third round or later.

“I guarantee you he’ll go before the second round,” Escobar’s agent, Mike Maulini, protested.

That’s quite a change from a couple of months ago, when Maulini thought Escobar could pick up a lucrative signing bonus by cashing in his U.S. residency for Dominican citizenship and forgo the draft for free agency. Maulini told Escobar he would be foolish not to try.

Same with Rodriguez, who is on his fourth agent and in his third country since leaving Cuba 19 months ago.

But a new government in the Dominican, new laws in the United States and a new assessment on the part of big-league clubs about the talent of Cuban defectors have conspired to change Maulini’s approach. And it could change his client’s future for the better.

Ever since pitcher Rene Arocha walked away from his country’s national team in a Miami airport concourse in 1991, Major League Baseball has struggled to come up with a procedure for dealing with Cuban defectors.

For political reasons, big-league teams can’t negotiate with Cuban residents, so defectors are forced to acquire residency in another country before they can sign.

Since establishing residency in the U.S. means defectors are subject to the amateur draft, many of them have sought residency elsewhere in order to become free agents.

At its most basic, the choice is clear: You can keep U.S. residency and a small signing bonus or gamble it all away for a chance at big free-agent bucks.

Do you take dollars over sense? More often than not, the players – and their agents – have gambled on the big bucks. But the number that have succeeded is dwarfed by those who have failed.

Kendry Morales, the top position player to come out of Cuba since the revolution, had to accept an incentive-laden deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Alay Soler, who is still cooling his heels in the Dominican waiting for his passport, got less than $1 million a year from the New York Mets – close to what he could have asked for had he entered the draft.

Yet, both were lucky because 33 of the 40 Cuban players who have left the island since October 2003 remain unsigned, with most stranded somewhere between Cuba and the United States.