DETROIT -- Diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba continue to progress, with Cuba being removed from the U.S. state terrorism sponsors list last week. To that end, Major League Baseball is taking steps that could affect the sport as early as spring training in 2016, and result in international participation between the two countries that reaches beyond transactions.
Cuba has provided a wealth of talent to baseball clubs in the U.S., but the process of Cuban players coming to the states has been risky and tenuous. With relations improving, MLB making noted strides with the country's government and Cuba's willingness to allow players to leave, the harrowing journeys that players made out of necessity are quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Take 19-year-old Yoan Moncada, who did not defect from Cuba. The government simply let him leave, and he soon signed for a $31.5 million bonus with the Red Sox. It's an opportunity that is opening at an increasingly rapid pace, although team-operated academies like those in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela may be a longer way off, if at all. At least for now.
"We're very interested in Cuba," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said during a visit to Comerica Park in Detroit on Tuesday. "We're having ongoing conversations with the federal government about what exactly our opportunities to expand our activity with Cuba is going to be going forward. I think the most likely, by no means determined -- but the most likely scenario is you will see major league players in one form or another, playing in Cuba during the spring next year."
The possibility of at least a portion of spring training being played abroad is an interesting one. But several questions still have to be answered, such as how that would take place, what portion of spring training would be played there, and what percentage of players would travel to Cuba. Allowing open recruitment of players in the likenesses of Jose Abreu, Moncada or Yasiel Puig, regardless of academies, would provide teams with more freedom in every way.
At the same time, bringing American baseball to Cuba would certainly help cultural relations in a time when an old era is clashing with the new. Puig's approach to the game is a perfect example, and one that some in the game have had a difficult time adjusting to. Integrating that level of excitement into the game, both for the players as well as the fans, would be a great way of appealing to a younger generation.
"(Improved U.S.-Cuban relations have) been noticed in the last several months," Manfred said. "(Cuba is) a great source of talent, very interested in a regularization of the process by which players might come to the U.S. and play in minor league or Major League Baseball. But we also see Cuba as a market in which baseball is part of the culture. And in general, we do pretty well there in markets like that over the long haul. We're really interested in Cuba for both of those reasons."
But how long this will take, including seeing regular season games being played abroad -- like when the Dodgers and Diamondbacks opened the 2014 season in Australia -- remains one of the aspects that MLB continues to work on. Recently, it was reported by a Cuban official that the Orioles would play an exhibition game in Cuba during the 2016 regular season, but MLB has yet to make any firm determination in that regard.
If MLB and the Cuban government are indeed able to reach an agreement that would bring spring games abroad, it would give the game a unique and exciting aspect. Given how well the ongoing changes have been received on both sides, the news that spring training games could be in another country is intriguing.