Whatever the reason, major league organizations, especially ones with deep pockets, quickly snatch up name-brand Cuban players as they become available.
On the other hand, until last season, the St. Louis Cardinals hadn't signed a memorable player from Cuba since Rene Arocha back in 1991. The right-hander eventually won 18 games in a four-season Major League career.
Some might bring up another notable ex-Cuban and ex-Cardinal, Eli Marrero. However, while the former catcher/outfielder was born in Cuba, he was actually raised in Coral Gables, Florida. Marrero was then drafted by the organization in 1993, the same season Arocha made his MLB debut.
In the 2006 draft, that long drought changed when the Cards selected Cuban émigré Amaury Cazana Marti in the 18th round. Despite his reported age of 32 at the time and knowledge that Cuban ballplayers are often overhyped yet underdeliver, the news of Marti's signing still set hearts aflutter across The Cardinal Nation.
The reality demonstrated since is that Marti has yet to prove he is a future major leaguer. In the last 12 months, he posted a decent Arizona Fall League campaign, an expectedly solid showing in Mexico this past summer and a good finish at Double-A Springfield.
Now, in 2007, we have a new Cuban contender, Ryde (pronounced REE-day) Rodriguez, just 19 years old, reportedly having been born in February 1988. The 6-foot-2, 230 pound, switch-hitting outfielder has a body that just makes him "look" like a ballplayer. But, is he one?
Unlike some Cubans, Rodriguez' baseball pedigree in his homeland is quite sketchy. Baseball America reported last winter that several international scouting directors who traveled to Nicaragua specifically to see Rodriguez expressed skeptacism as to whether he had played in Cuba at all - even as an amateur.
Cardinals Vice President of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Jeff Luhnow begged to differ when I quizzed him about the mixed reports on Rodriguez. "If by "mixed scouting reports" you are referring to the anonymous Latin American scout who was quoted in Baseball America as saying Ryde hits like he has a wet newspaper in his hand instead of a bat (I think it was something along those lines!)… no, I was not at all concerned about that.'
Some of those anonymous sources also question Rodriguez's tools, with one American League scout calling him "the king of jam shots," adding that Rodriguez swings with his shoulders and cannot elevate the ball.
Luhnow and his team watched Rodriguez play over a period of time and saw a completely different player. "We saw him, we saw him again, and again…. We liked him and we signed him. That's how it should work. As for his tools, he has legitimate power to all fields and is a switch hitter. I personally believe he will hit and hit for power, and he should be a good outfielder," Luhnow explained earnestly.
Who knows? Maybe the Cardinals were just as happy that other organizations seemingly were not as hot after Rodriguez as them. There are only few scant rules to govern signings in the free-for-all market that exists in the Caribbean. As a result, in recent years there have been stories of organizations "hiding" players at their academies, specifically to keep rival scouts in the dark.
It turns out there was a major complication that kept Rodriguez from signing for some months. During that time, roughly six months in duration, Ryde disappeared off the baseball radar map. Is that coincidental?
Understanding how Rodriguez traveled in the last 12 months to a series of different nations - from Cuba to Argentina, then Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic and finally the USA this fall - is most interesting and not without more than a bit of that good-old Cuban intrigue, too.
It all began when Rodriguez and his half-brother, right-handed pitcher Duniesky Flores, a.k.a. Dunieski Rodriguez, legally left Castro's island nation to rejoin their mother, living in Argentina.
Both boys soon signed with agents and after pitching just four games for Indios del Boer of the Nicaraguan Professional Baseball League, Flores came to terms with the Atlanta Braves in December. Though it looked like the Braves had the inside track on Ryde, too, it apparently wasn't to be.
Luhnow and his scouts saw Rodriguez for the first time in that same period and it didn't take them long to decide they wanted him.
"Our interest has been very strong from the beginning. We first saw him at a workout in Nicaragua in December. A group of about 15 coaches, scouts and front office people went on a five-day training session. We had a tryout and Rodriguez showed up and was the most impressive player there by a long margin," Jeff explained.
Next was to get a larger sample of observational data. "I subsequently sent one of our US scouts, Charlie Gonzalez, to watch him for over a week of games in the Nicaragua winter league for Boer in January," said the Cards' amateur scouting leader.
Likely guided by his agent Michelle Aguirre, who is also the one-time girlfriend and agent of fellow Cuban émigré Adrian Hernandez, Rodriguez didn't stay in Nicaragua long. (As an aside, after toiling in Triple-A for the Brewers in 2004, Hernandez, the much ballyhooed former Yankee, has not pitched in the USA since.)
Perhaps the Cardinals had their hand in the matter of Rodriguez' travels, too.
Says Luhnow, "Rodriguez moved to the Dominican Republic and established residency, where we had multiple chances to see him again, even inviting him to our complex to watch him hit, run, catch and throw."
I didn't even bother to ask Luhnow if taking Rodriguez underground was part of the master plan, but it would seem to synch up with the other facts. After all, it just makes common sense that the more time Ryde spent at the Cardinals complex this spring and summer, the less time he was under the eyes of rival scouts.
You see, though Rodriguez told the Nicaraguan press he had agreed to terms with the Cardinals back in February (first reported here in the USA at The Birdhouse), the Cards firmly denied a deal was struck. Hindsight shows they wanted to, but were legally prohibited from signing the Cuban native until the proper authorities approved.
At the time, the Cardinals were understandably mum about their intentions. After all, a deal isn't done until it is done, especially in the "anything goes" environment that exists in the Caribbean baseball world.
Luhnow acknowledges as much now. "We couldn't make him an offer until he was officially "unblocked" by OFAC, and that took a long time. Once he was cleared, we moved quickly to sign him. We did our homework with him and Charlie Gonzalez, who did the vast majority of that work, deserves the credit."
In case at least a few of you are like me, not sure of what OFAC is and how it plays, here is an excerpt from their mission statement: "The Office of Foreign Assets Control ("OFAC") of the US Department of the Treasury administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on US foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, and those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
While he has an impressive physique, I don't think Rodriguez' arms would qualify as WMD's. Seriously, having recently come from Cuba must have led to the need for OFAC approval.
Speaking of WMD's, another report I received from Nicaragua early in the year had Rodriguez telling friends that Albert Pujols had contacted him, encouraging him to sign with the Cardinals. At the time, I brushed that off as a bragging teenager likely building himself up to try to get a better contract.
Turns out my source was absolutely correct. The Cardinals have now confirmed the two have built a friendship that includes weekly phone calls between the All-Star and the young prospect. Pujols represents a pretty strong stamp of approval, doesn't he?
Once signed in August, Rodriguez headed to his fifth nation in the last year, the USA, once the Cardinals could secure a visa for him, that is. He began his first organized professional play in the winter instructional league last month, starting off hot at the plate.
Through his first nine games, Ryde led the Cardinals in hits, RBIs, average and slugging and was tied for tops in triples and home runs. He cooled off the rest of the way, but still ended up posting a .273/.319/.432 line in a team-high 44 at-bats. His 12 hits and six RBI tied for team best.
Departing Cardinals Minor League Field Coordinator Jim Riggleman led "Instructs", which ended earlier this week in Jupiter, Florida. The former major league manager sees the potential in Rodriguez.
"He is a real strong kid… Guys like this profile as power hitters. He can hit, he can run and he can throw," observed Riggleman.
While Rodriguez seems to have all the pieces, he has yet to put it together. The coaches expect that will come via repetition.
"He just needs to play. He is green. The aspects of the game that he is not on top of – baserunning, what base to throw to and positioning himself – are things he will learn with time… He is a real physical specimen who could have a real nice career," Riggleman concluded.
Luhnow wholeheartedly agrees, while gently jabbing the anonymous skeptics in the process. "Ryde hits the ball hard. The last time I came to Jupiter he smacked an absolute bomb out of the Mets yard and followed that up with a triple off the centerfield fence. I don't think that could happen with a wet newspaper!"
As could be expected, the leader of the Cardinals minor league program closed with a simple, ringing endorsement, much as he began. "Ryde Rodriguez is a player I am very excited to have in our organization," Luhnow said.
Time will tell as to how many other anxious Cardinals fans will join Luhnow in that excitement and admiration.
Will Ryde Rodriguez someday earn a universal handle like "R-Rod", or just experience his all-too-brief 15 minutes of fame? Or even worse, might he simply join Adrian Hernandez on the road to baseball obscurity? The Cardinals have already bet almost half-a-million bucks that it won't be the latter.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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