President Barack Obama announced a historic thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations on Wednesday when he moved to begin normalizing relations between the two countries.
"Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past, so as to reach for a better future for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere and for the world," Obama said in a statement.
Secretary of State John Kerry will re-establish diplomatic relations, the U.S. will open an embassy in Havana, and some travel and trade with Cuba that has been banned since the U.S.-Cuba embargo began under the Kennedy administration in 1961 will be lifted.
This is obviously bigger news outside of our little world of sport, but what does this mean for Cuban baseball players? For starters, hopefully, this will mean the last stories we have to read about players risking their lives with shady and nefarious smugglers to find their way to the U.S. If travel and trade restrictions are eased, theoretically we'll see more players coming over from Cuba.
But by what method? Right now, Cuban players are subject to the same international signing rules as other Latin American players (Canadian and Puerto Rican players are treated the same as U.S. players, subject to the annual June draft). That means players under 23 and with less than five years of professional experience fall under the international signing bonus pool, which is capped and imposes penalties if teams exceed the cap. Players 23 or older -- like Yasmany Thomas, 24, who just signed with the Diamondbacks -- are considered free agents and are not subject to those guidelines, and thus have received much larger bonuses and contracts.
That system could continue; it's also possible that the Cuban government will negotiate a system similar to what MLB has with Japan or Korea, where players are posted -- essentially, the government selling the players to MLB. Or maybe there's a hybrid system of young players falling under the international bonus pool and older players subject to a posting system.
Right now, it's too early to know what will happen. MLB did issue a statement:
Major League Baseball is closely monitoring the White House’s announcement regarding Cuban-American relations. While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue, and we will keep our Clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba.
There are other issues that will eventually have to be sorted out: Will U.S. scouts be allowed to travel to Cuba? Will teams eventually open baseball academies in Cuba? How will this affect the Cuban league if all the best players leave the country?
Remember, just because relations will become more normalized, Cuba won't necessarily turn into the Dominican Republic, with major league teams signing 16-year-old kids. But maybe we'll see more players making a safe journey to play baseball at its highest level.