Here's my thoughts last week from Twitter:
Heard from agent after Puig signed that Puig was for sale for 6 figures to potential agents, as reported in recent story about his defection— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) April 14, 2014
It's common w/Cuban players to have multiple parties in defect/sign process but possible human trafficking charges scare off most top agents— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) April 14, 2014
Not saying the laws should change but the embargo w/Cuba is essentially pushing Cuban players to defect & deal w/shady people to get to MLB.— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) April 14, 2014
As referenced in my tweets, this isn't unusual, but Puig's outsized talent ratcheted up the stakes for his defection, drawing more unsavory characters than usual as people tried to get a piece of his contract, which ended up being worth $42 million. One of the more tabloid-y parts of those stories that got some attention last week is the point when Puig was being held in Mexico by members of a drug cartel who helped him defect because they hadn't been paid yet by the man that commissioned the defection. It was reported that Puig was offered around to potential agents who would pay the price that first man hadn't yet paid (a couple hundred thousand dollars) to get a substantial cut (five times the industry standard 4% commission) of Puig's contract.
This is where my very small experience with this story comes into play. Around this time, an Latin-based agent asked me what I know about Puig because he was one of the agents that had been offered a chance to "buy" that big stake in the player. I knew it was a big potential pay day, but given the long stretch since Puig had played a game, expectations were closer to $10-20 million, which is what most scouts expected he would sign for when the Dodgers blew everyone out of the water with the $42 million offer.
This agent never took the offer to represent Puig and also never took it seriously for a number of reasons. First, it's against MLBPA rules for an agent to pay to acquire a client, though that still happens a good bit, even with American players, and agents rarely get caught. More worrisome is that this transaction would be illegal or at least of-interest to international law enforcement due to the human trafficking angle, while the American embargo of Cuba doesn't help, either.
That first agent and others have asked me in the past about the possible paydays for recent or possible defecting Cuban players but the top agencies rarely get involved close to the defection process, if at all, as they don't want to risk legal exposure. It also doesn't help that the potential contracts for these players are highly volatile as players feared to be defecting often aren't allowed to play in the top professional leagues in Cuba or travel for high-profile international tournaments, so often their skills and conditioning will deteriorate in the interim. Sometimes top-notch American agents will represent these players, but usually at least 6-12 months after defection so it's clear they weren't involved and usually when the first agent was running low on funds to feed, train and house the player.
What these two accounts of Puig's defection accomplish are 1) making a media punching bag (Puig) appear more human and 2) show that the little-reported-on topic of Cuban ballplayers defecting the island is now much dirtier than it needs to be. With the recent successes of Puig, A's OF Yoenis Cespedes, Reds LHP Aroldis Chapman, White Sox 1B Jose Abreu and Marlins RHP Jose Fernandez, seemingly fewer busts than in the past and sky-rocketing revenues for MLB, the prices for top Cuban talent are rising quickly and the stakes for defecting are getting even higher.
As the paydays for facilitating an escape like Puig's can be in the seven figures, cash-and-infrastructure rich organizations with ties in the Carribbean, smuggling experience and a high tolerance for risk are sure to step in as a middle men, so you can see why a drug cartel got involved in Puig's defection. While this isn't always or even often the case, with the publicity the Puig story has received and the increasing monetary incentives, the frequency of these types of defections can only increase.
The problem is that defections have to keep happening this way as long as the U.S. has an embargo of Cuba. To get anything close to market value, Cuban players have to sneak out of the country while reputable representation or transportation can't risk getting involved. As is, MLB is enjoying and getting rich off of these new, dynamic Cuban talents but due to MLB clubs paying more and more for this talent while the U.S. government hasn't solved their problems with Cuba, both are subtly encouraging a practice that is only getting more dangerous.
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