The Oakland Athletics were among 12 other clubs at the showcase for Cuban outfielder Alexei Bell held in Mexicali, Mexico last Monday, reports MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez. The 32-year old Bell ran a 6.65 second 60-yard dash and showed off his power at the plate and his arm strength from right field, according to Sanchez.
The 32-year-old is one of several players given leave by the Cuban government to play in leagues outside of Cuba, including the Quebec Capitales of the independent Can-Am League. He would be exempt from the international signing bonus limits as a Cuban player over 23 years old with five seasons in Cuba's Serie Nacional.
When will Bell be available?
That Bell has the Cuban government's permission to leave and is not a defector complicates his application for major league free agency. The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the agency that enforces the U.S. government's embargo against Cuba, ruled before the 2015 season that Cuban nationals who have defected from Cuba are generally licensed to work as baseball players in the United States after establishing residence outside of Cuba and swearing they have no intention of returning to Cuba. However, that general license does not apply to Cubans who are free to return to Cuba.
How does Bell get permission to play in MLB?
The Cuban government and Major League Baseball are attempting to work out the terms of an agreement that would call on Major League Baseball to make payments to the Cuban government (via its baseball federation) in exchange for allowing some of their players to leave Cuba (Reuters). Since the entire Cuban baseball system is technically a government-run amateur baseball enterprise, the payments are effectively akin to a posting fee paid to a club contracted to a player in Japan or South Korea.
To complete that agreement would require the permission of OFAC, however, because those payments would be to a Cuban government entity. This proves complicated since the policy goal of the U.S. embargo against Cuba is to use economic pressure to encourage "democratization and greater respect for human rights" on the part of the Cuban government.
Why would the U.S. government approve this deal?
The government might be more inclined to grant the license because it would also serve a different U.S. foreign policy goal, the reduction of human trafficking. A's fans know very well the saga of Yoenis Céspedes and his family's hazardous efforts to escape Cuba involving him taking a 23-hour boat boat ride to the Dominican Republic and his family being abandoned for two days 600 miles southeast of Florida, reported in the San Francisco Chronicle by Susan Slusser and Demian Bulwa:
The budding baseball star had fled Cuba with these same people, in search of a prosperous life. He had split from the group and made it to America sooner --- reaping a financial bounty and excelling on the game's biggest stage --- while his family took a longer and much more difficult route.
Their travels included four countries, six boat rides, two trips to jail, an immigration raid, accusations of human trafficking and a dispute with a Dominican baseball agent.
In the end, the Céspedes family story --- told for the first time in The Chronicle --- reflects the extraordinary challenges faced by Cuban players who come to the U.S., the stress it puts on their families, and the opportunity that awaits them all.
Among other Cubans, there's a great reluctance to discuss the harrowing escape from Cuba. "Ask any Cuban player in America how he got there and most will artfully dodge the question, or clam up entirely," writes Grant Robertson in The Globe and Mail.
There's a good reason: It's a dangerous trade. The networks of organized smugglers who escort Cubans to other countries by boat - demanding large sums of cash upfront, a cut of their future earnings, and sometimes holding them captive until the money is paid - tell the players never to talk. Doing so would put future defections at risk, and speaking too freely could bring problems upon your loved ones back in Cuba.
Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig faced threats from "Mexico's notorious Zeta crime organization, which threatened to chop off his arm if it failed to receive the promised $250,000 fee for his passage," reports Daniel Trotta for Reuters, and it's the sort of thing MLB wants to avoid in future.
Trotta spoke with MLB Chief Legal Officer Dan Halem about the prospect of a legal path for Cuban nationals to play in MLB, "There's a willingness on the part of our government to end the trafficking. The White House has been very sympathetic to helping us end some of the abusive practices," Halem said. MLB filed its application for a specific license in June, but it has not yet been ruled upon by OFAC.
How long will a ruling take?
It's hard to say how long a decision may take, or whether the application will even be granted.
The uncertainty is perhaps what prompted brothers Yulieski Gourriel and Lourdes Gourriel Jr. to defect from Cuba by abandoning the national team in the Dominican Republic even though Yulieski was among the players who had permission to leave. Waiting would have meant the 31-year-old Yulieski entering the major leagues a year older, reducing the earning potential of what Baseball America's Ben Badler called the best player remaining in Cuba.
Why doesn't Bell defect?
Bell's reasons for remaining loyal to Cuba are personal and are documented well in Part 2 of Grant Robertson's series on these Cubans who have been allowed to leave in The Globe and Mail:
Bell couldn't [defect]. It wasn't in his character. He couldn't fathom leaving his wife and son, whose names he has tattooed on his left shoulder.
How could he leave? After all, he was from Santiago de Cuba. The city made him. "Being a revolutionary, I owe a lot to the Cuban revolution, as a person, and with the training that I have had," he says.
It's the kind of thing Cuban players say all the time, often to deflect suspicion. Bell let his actions speak: Every day he headed to the ballpark early to work on his swing.
To compare, Yoenis Céspedes still remains separated from his son in Cuba, though he speaks with him all the time on the phone, reports Slusser and Bulwa, "Asked if it's tough not to see his child, Céspedes said, 'Just imagine.' " It's clearly not an easy decision to leave.
How does this affect the A's?
All of this is to say that Alexei Bell is not someone a major league club should count on to be available for the 2016 season, but he is someone that teams want to have a handle on in case the U.S. government and MLB move to integrate Cuban loyalists into the league.
Bell plays right field, and he's perhaps an option to replace Josh Reddick if the A's don't come to terms on an extension with him. In an interview on MLB Network Radio on Tuesday, Reddick remained hopeful that an agreement could be reached and he expressed his desire to stay in Oakland:
Reddick: It's become home, if we can work something out that'd be fantastic, it would be very unfortunate if we couldn't #Athletics— MLB Network Radio (@MLBNetworkRadio) February 16, 2016
Nevertheless, if the timing of Bell's potential approval to play in MLB works out just right, Bell could be on the A's before the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline, enabling the A's to trade Reddick in his walk year and let Bell take his place in right field.
The A's might trade Reddick anyway if they're not competing for a postseason spot at that point, but theoretically Bell could be rated highly enough to simply replace Reddick's production in right field if they were. Then again, with clubhouse chemistry such a point of emphasis this offseason, and with many fans up in arms about what happened the last time the A's traded away a star outfielder while competing for a postseason berth, they might not be so eager to disrupt the roster in that fashion again.