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Saturday, February 15, 2014
Dodgers becoming a safe haven for Cuban players

By Mark Saxon

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- On one side of the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring training clubhouse, three players spent part of a recent afternoon sitting and talking in animated, fast-paced Spanish.

Pitcher Onelki Garcia, second baseman Alex Guerrero and outfielder Yasiel Puig all knew each other before they defected from their native Cuba and they’ve been reunited across the continent in far more plush surroundings.

Yasiel Puig
Yasiel Puig has made a name for himself with the Dodgers and more Cuban players could do the same.
Their lockers are lined up side by side, probably no accident. Next to Puig’s space, there is an empty locker, one where the Dodgers might, once they finalize the contract, situate shortstop Erisbel Arruebarruena, another Cuban defector. It has helped ease the transition for one of the Dodgers’ newest players.

“I feel more comfortable with these guys," Guerrero said. "Obviously, I know them and they’re from my country and I don’t know any other players. Little by little, I’m getting to know everyone else.”

The small conclave of Cuban players could represent an important part of the Dodgers’ present and future. But if the Dodgers are viewed as an increasingly comfortable destination for Cuban defectors, it’s nothing more than a coincidence: At the very moment they began their aggressive spending campaign under new ownership, a trickle of Cuban players leaving the island became a reliable stream.

Unlike players from the Dominican Republic, who are subject to international spending caps, or Puerto Rico, who are subject to the draft, Cubans who have played long enough in their country’s highest league are considered major league free agents, allowing teams who write the biggest checks to land them.

“There’s nothing specific about Cubans that we are pursuing. We are pursuing whatever opportunity presents itself,” Dodgers president Stan Kasten said. “Recently, there have been opportunities which are Cuban. If some other country releases a flood of major league-ready players, we’ll be interested.”

The Dodgers have looked for every loophole to add talent even as Major League Baseball has made more and more efforts to rein in spending. They signed Hyun-Jin Ryu out of the Korean national baseball league. They made a push for Masahiro Tanaka from Japan.

“We’ll consider whatever possibilities wherever they’re from,” Kasten said. “Now, the fact is we have become a place that appears to be a good fit for Cubans. That doesn’t bother me a bit if people think that. I kind of like that.”

Under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams that spend more than $2.9 million on foreign prospects are subject to fairly severe penalties, including a 100 percent tax if they exceed it by 15 percent or more. Players who are at least 23 and have played five years in a recognized professional league are exempt from such limits. Arruebarruena, Puig and Guerrero all fit those criteria. Garcia did not. The Dodgers drafted him in 2012.

The rules, in a way, have played right into the Dodgers’ hands, because the players they have signed have proven capable of stepping in quickly and contributing at the major league level. The team expects Guerrero to be its everyday second baseman at some point this season. Arruebarruena figures to start at Triple-A, but could push for playing time quickly.

Puig and Arruebarruena were teammates for Cienfuegos in the Cuban Serie Nacional. Guerrero and Arruebarruena were together in camp for the Cuban national team twice.

Guerrero’s scouting report on Arruebarruena: “He has excellent hands, he’s fast and has a good arm. What he lacks a little bit is the swing, but I think he’ll come here and put on some weight and get stronger. He’s an excellent shortstop.”

Before he came to the United States, Guerrero said he had never heard of the Dodgers. That might seem hard to believe considering Cuba is less than 100 miles from the tip of Florida, but it’s a reflection of how tightly controlled information remains there, particularly for baseball players suspected of trying to defect. He had seen only glimpses of major league games from pirated DVDs people smuggled into the country.

“In Cuba, there’s no information. In Cuba, there’s no Internet. In Cuba, you can’t see big league games, they don’t permit it,” Guerrero said. “I didn’t know anything of the big leagues.”