WASHINGTON (Reuters) - There will be no immediate flow of top Cuban players into Major League Baseball despite the major U.S. policy shift toward the communist-run island, experts on baseball in Cuba said on Wednesday.
Any move to let Cuban players leave their country freely will not happen for at least several years, said author Pete Bjarkman, who has written extensively about Cuban baseball.
“I don’t think it will have any real visible immediate impact,” Bjarkman said of the policy change. “Cuba wants to maintain its strong baseball at home. It’s got the only strong domestic league outside of Japan and MLB in the U.S.”
Bjarkman called baseball in Cuba “unique” because it had only homegrown players.
“That’s important to them and it means they want to keep as many good players as possible because that’s about all they have for entertainment in this poor, Third World country.
“It’s a major institution historically and it’s used to build strong national teams to play in big tournaments overseas,” he said.
President Barack Obama said on Wednesday that Washington would move toward normal ties with Havana and open an embassy in Cuba.
Alan Nero, managing director of Octagon Baseball, which represents about 200 MLB players, said he did not expect a free flow of players into MLB.
“The government controls everything,” he said. “Cuba will not let simply let their players go free. They’ve been selling their talent to other leagues, namely Japan.
“The government gets the majority of the money, the players remain contractually the property of the government. I can’t see MLB basically renting players that are bound to the government.”
Cuba fields quality baseball, but its best players have generally had to defect to play in the majors, the sport’s top tier on the world stage.
MLB said it was unsure what the thaw in relations would have on future signings.
“Major League Baseball is closely monitoring the White House’s announcement regarding Cuban-American relations,” it said in a statement. “While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue.”
The top Cuban prospects MLB clubs would like to sign are switch-hitting middle infielder Yoan Moncada, 19, and right-handed pitcher Yoan Lopez, 21.
Current Cuban stars in Major League Baseball include sluggers Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Yoenis Cespedes of the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman.
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Peter Cooney