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How the MLB-Cuba agreement could affect the Orioles going forward

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

With the announcement of Wednesday's agreement that will allow Cuban players to safely come to the United States to play baseball in the same manner that professionals from South Korea and Japan can, the Orioles will have an even wider talent base to sift through as they revamp their international operation, which executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has vowed to do.

Previously, Cuban players have had to leave their home country under quiet and often dangerous circumstances to pursue a Major League Baseball career, making them valuable commodities on the player market once they signed but exposing them to inhumane conditions on their way to free agency.

The three-year agreement will treat players who are at least 25 years old with six years of professional baseball experience like free agents who can be released to free agency in the offseason, with a percentage of their contract value going back to the Cuban club as a fee. All other players who are at least 18 years old will be posted for a similar fee as amateur free agents who are thus subject to the international signing bonus pools the same way young players from other Latin American and Asian are.

For the Orioles, Cuban players were actually one of their preferred ways to spend money internationally. The team spent high six-figure bonuses on Cuban products Dariel Álvarez and Henry Urrutia under executive vice president Dan Duquette under the auspices that they were further along in their development than the riskier teenage players from Latin America.

That pipeline will close, and so too will the one that might shake one last defector out before this year's international amateur signing period ends and the millions of dollars in bonus slot money the Orioles accumulated expires.

The Orioles had as much over $7 million in pool money after a pair of trades with the Atlanta Braves, and have spent just shy of $1 million on bonuses this period. They also traded a significant chunk to the Philadelphia Phillies for infielder Jack Zoellner. But the Orioles have millions more than anyone else left on the market after the Miami Marlins beat them for the signatures of outfielders Victor Victor Mesa and Victor Mesa Jr., and after the Tampa Bay Rays signed pitcher Sandy Gaston in November.

There was always a chance a player could end up defecting and getting a quick path to free agency this period so the Orioles could take advantage of their remaining pool, but this makes that unlikely, given the hardship associated with leaving.

What the rule change does do, however, is give the Orioles another area for investment under Elias to cull more talent from the international market. Elias has touted his contacts and connections in the Dominican Republic and Latin America at large from his time heading up international scouting for the Houston Astros, and though there are limitations as to who he can take directly from that organization, their successes in that market show he knows what a proper setup looks like.

So if he gets the Orioles staffed better on an international scouting level in traditional places such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, he can also do it in Cuba where other teams don't have an infrastructure either.

One of the best players the Orioles ended up with in this signing class could be Cuban outfielder Kevin Infante, who signed for $175,000 in October. He was ultimately seen as a consolation prize to the Mesas, though some in the organization tout he could be on their level.

Regardless of which countries are open for player movement going forward, the fact that the Orioles will be in the market for big July 2 signings at all will be what drives their success going forward. That Cuban players can safely be part of that is a bonus to everyone involved.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

twitter.com/JonMeoli

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