The Cubans are coming, the Cubans are coming!
Anyway, they’d better be. The Dodgers are what you might call heavily invested in Cuba. They’ve sent more money to Cubans than the entire country of Venezuela.
The market on Cuban free-agent players remains comparatively unregulated and the Dodgers have taken advantage like a teenager out with a parent’s credit card. Spend, and if that didn’t work, spend some more.
In the 3½ years since the Dodgers signed outfielder Yasiel Puig, they have spent more than $230 million to sign players from Cuba. It’s a staggering sum that has yielded precious little return. And that’s not counting about $40 million in tax on this period’s signings.
Most of those recently signed are very young and are not expected to pay dividends for some time, but others are older and have had mixed to very disappointing results.
Puig looked headed for superstardom his first year and a half in the majors, but is struggling to find his place. Alex Guerrero is a man without a position, and after an explosive start with the bat last season, faded badly the last four months. Erisbel Arruebarrena became such a malcontent and problem last year that the Dodgers suspended him for the entire season.
Puig signed for $42 million, Guerrero for $28 million and Arruebarrena for $25 million. And the list goes on. Other Cubans signed to significant contracts include Hector Olivera $62.5 million, Yaisel Sierra $30 million, Yadier Alvarez $16 million, Yusniel Diaz $15.5 million, Pablo Fernandez $8 million and Omar Estevez $6 million. The Dodgers paid Olivera’s $28-million signing bonus and then shipped him to Atlanta last summer in a three-team trade that included 13 players.
Puig is 25, Guerrero 28, Arruebarrena will be 26 in March and Olivera will turn 31 in April; it isn’t like they were all kids. The team's most recent big signing, Sierra, got $30 million, so it’s not like the Dodgers feel burned by their Cuban experiment.
Not all teams have been in agreement with how the Dodgers evaluated their signings. Sierra is a 24-year-old right-hander with mid-90s fastball who had a 6.10 earned-run average in the Cuban league last year. Fernandez is 26 and spent last season at Class A.
The Dodgers signed Alvarez, 19, although he had little track record. He has not played at the top league in Cuba or on any of its national teams. But he did hit 98 mph on the speed gun and has a lanky frame (6 feet 3 and 175 pounds) that could fill out and add arm strength.
Diaz is a 19-year-old outfielder and Estevez is a 16-year-old infielder signed in November. They’re the long-term investments.
If you add the tax penalty, the Dodgers have agreed to pay $273 million to nine Cubans. Subtract the $34.5 million in salary the Braves absorbed when they traded for Olivera and it's still a $239-million commitment.
The results have hardly equaled the financial investment. The Dodgers have not given up on any of the prospects, unless you count Olivera.
More is still to come, they hope. At least they’re betting on it.
[Note: An earlier version of this story included 16-year-old outfielder Starling Heredia and the $2.6 million he received from the Dodgers as part of their new Cuban contingent. He is from the Dominican Republic. Current figures reflect the correction.]
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