The Rays are a small market team with few advantages when it comes to luring players to Tropicana Field. The club's winning ways and laid-back clubhouse can help, as can agent relationships or an appeal to players who want to play for their hometown team (like Ryan Webb and Steve Pearce).
A new stadium is on the way, which may help boost free agent player interest, but a trip to Cuba later this month could significantly help boost the team's profile abroad.
Tampa Bay has an established relationship with Cuban immigrants, with historic Ybor City -- the front runner for the new Rays stadium -- playing a significant role. However, less than 2% of the region's population is made up of Cuban immigrants, according to census data from 2009-2013, as compared to 12.5% in Miami.
The Marlins, Dodgers, or a like-minded team could just as easily have been baseball's ambassadors. It took a bit of luck for the Rays to earn the slot in Cuba, after a lottery conducted by MLB sorted out the interested teams.
Rays owner Stu Sternberg spoke to the importance of the event in the history of the game, and the geographic and historical relationship between Tampa Bay and Cuba, yesterday afternoon:
Now the Rays may be able to capitalize on this opportunity, elevating their profile in the Cuban market.
The Rays have only one player from Cuba in major league camp, outfielder Dayron Varona. At 28 he is old for someone just cracking the Durham roster.
I would venture to say he is likely to make the trip, (unless his return to Cuba after his 2015 departuer would create difficulties for him). The Rays hope he would not be the sole representative in future years should the opportunity come around again.
Rays manager Kevin Cash also had interesting comments on Varona, as well as facing the Cuban national team, which further shed light on potential advantages of this trip:
Later today he continued the conversation with the following joke, which gets to the heard of this article:
#Rays Cash on Cuban national team: Very talented, to get to see them maybe all at one time, maybe we’ll bring back a couple of guys with us.— Roger Mooney (@RMooneyTBO) March 2, 2016
The comment was in jest, but the point resonates. Getting a leg up in the international market, however -- once a possible market inefficiency that didn't play out for the Rays all that well -- is exactly what a small market team needs.
Soon, the Cuban market may even be free of international spending limits. With the news of the trip to Cuba last night also came word from the New York Times that a path to signing Cuban players is in development:
Major League Baseball has submitted a proposal to the Treasury Department that outlines a new pathway for baseball players from Cuba to sign directly with big-league teams in the United States...
Under the proposed plan, according to M.L.B.'s top lawyer, Dan Halem, an entity would be created made up of Cuban entrepreneurs and officials from M.L.B. and its players' union. A percentage of salaries paid to Cuban players would go to the new body, which would function like a nonprofit and support youth baseball, education and improving sports facilities in Cuba.
The proposed body could satisfy the terms of the embargo, M.L.B. contends, because the league says no money would go directly to the Cuban government.
The program circumvents the Congressional embargo with Cuba and aligns with White House priorities, but still requires approval from both the US and Cuban governments and the player's union, but it is a realistic possibility.
Cuban athletes have long had to abandon citizenship from Cuba through defection on international journeys with the National team, or worse, through smuggling operations. The latter is not only dangerous but regularly involves bribes and violence and can jeopardize the well being of a player and their family throughout their career.
A clear path allowing Cubans to play in the Major Leagues while retaining Cuban citizenship, would be a victory for MLB and the island nation, something the Times article delves into at length. It's a good read for all those interested in eliminating any human trafficking elements from the game.
We can all be encouraged by these first steps to normalizing relationships between nations around the game we all love, and can have hope that the team's journey at the end of the month will one day pay dividends.