The Cuban government, for the first time last winter, allowed baseball players to sign contracts with professional teams in Japan and Mexico.
The trade embargo continues between the United States and Cuba. Despite having to defect from the Communist nation and all the inherent dangers that come with such a risk, Cuban players keep finding a way to get to U.S., where the impact in the major leagues is undeniable.
The latest Cuban defector to make a splash was San Diego Padres right-hander Odrisamer Despaigne, who pitched seven scoreless innings in his major league debut Monday night to beat the Giants at San Francisco.
The Padres signed the 27-year-old to a minor league contract May 2 and promoted him to the major leagues to make a spot start despite going a combined 1-3 with a 6.03 ERA in seven starts with Double-A San Antonio and Triple-A Las Vegas.
“That was a hell of an outing,” Padres manager Bud Black said. “Are you kidding me? That was great. I know his minor league numbers don’t show it and we didn’t expect him to be this good, but he’s shown enough flashes that we knew what he could do,”
There are currently 18 Cuban defectors on active major league rosters or disabled lists. Among them are stars such as Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig, Oakland Athletics left fielder Yoenis Cespedes, Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman and Miami Marlins right-hander Jose Fernandez, who was the National League Rookie of the Year last season but underwent season-ending Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery May 16.
Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu has made a major impact this season after being signed to a six-year, $68-million contract in the offseason. He is third in the American League with 23 home runs and his 61 RBIs rank fourth.
The White Sox have four Cubans on their roster, more than any other team, as Abreu is joined by shortstop Alexei Ramirez, left fielder Dayan Viciedo and backup catcher Adrian Nieto.
A lot of other teams wish they had that many players from the talent-rich island. It is why so many in baseball already have an eye on the 2016 presidential election and what effect the result might have on U.S.-Cuba relations.
“There’s a goldmine there if things ever open up,” said a personnel man from an American League, who asked not to be identified because of competitive. “An absolute goldmine.”