HAVANA One of Cuba's top baseball players is reported to have abandoned the Communist-run island to become the latest emigre seeking a multi-million-dollar Major League contract in the United States.
José Dariel Abreu, 26, an all-star first baseman for one of the island's best teams, the Elephants of Cienfuegos, failed to show up this week for training for Cuba's upcoming national championship, fueling rumors of his defection.
Baseball America magazine, a leading U.S. authority on the sport, reported this week that Abreu left Cuba and is hoping to sign with a Major League team in the United States. Other media reports say he is now in Haiti or the Dominican Republic.
Baseball analysts speculate his talent could earn him a professional contract worth tens of millions of dollars, similar to those signed by other recent Cuban defectors.
"All I can say is that right now he's not training. He didn't show up," Liván Angarica, the head of the Provincial Baseball Academy of Cienfuegos, told Reuters. "If he defected or not, that's a matter for the provincial sports authority."
"There are very strong rumors in the streets here," he added, referring to reports of Abreu's defection.
Abreu, known as "Pito," is a former teammate of Los Angeles Dodgers' rookie sensation Yasiel Puig, who left Cuba in 2012 and signed a seven-year, $42 million contract. Puig made his major league debut on June 3 and has since led the league in hitting.
Defection has been the Achilles heel of Cuban baseball for decades. Players have chosen various routes to leave the island, including homemade rafts and smuggler boats. In the last four years alone, some 30 players have found their way to the United States.
The Cuban government has repeatedly denounced what it calls the theft of its talent as part of the half-century ideological conflict with the United States.
The exodus of players is attributed to state-controlled salaries they earn of only about $20 a month, contrasting sharply with the potential big money abroad.
"The players now are seeing the success of those who came to the U.S. before them. It's opened their eyes," said Jaime Torres, a baseball agent in Boca Raton, Florida, who represents Puig.
Abreu, a powerful 6-foot-3 (1.9-meter), 250 pounds (113 kg), hitter, is expected to seek residency in a foreign country to avoid Major League Baseball's draft process so that as a Cuban professional he is eligible for a more lucrative free-agent contract.
In 8 seasons in Cuba, Abreu hit 128 home runs, drove in 430 runs and had a .334 batting average. In 2011, Abreu won Cuba's Most Valuable Player award with a .453 average and 33 home runs in 293 plate appearances.
"He's definitely a legitimate Major League player, no doubt about it," said Torres.
Abreu follows other Cuban defectors to seek fortune in the Major Leagues, such as New York Yankees pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernández and his half-brother Liván Hernandez, who left in the 1990s.
The pace picked up after hard-throwing pitcher Aroldis Chapman defected in 2009 and signed a $30 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds.
Oakland Athletics outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, winner of this years Home Run Derby, the popular competition the day before the annual All-Star Game, defected in 2011 and signed a $36 million, four-year contract.
Pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, 26, defected earlier this year, and media outlets have reported he is on the verge of signing a lucrative long-term contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Cuban baseball players appear unsatisfied by the government's decision in July to allow them to play abroad in professional leagues, including Mexico and Japan, under special government-approved contracts.
(This story was refiled to fix headline)
(Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by David Adams and Philip Barbara)