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Minor Details Ep. 7 — The Red Sox’ Cuban Connection

01.30.11 at 9:01 am ET
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The annual prospect rankings are out, and the verdict appears unanimous: Jose Iglesias is the cream of the Red Sox‘€™ minor league crop.

The 21-year-old shortstop is a dazzling defender with a quick, compact swing that results in a hail of line drives. He is viewed as an above-average everyday shortstop in the making, someone who could emerge as a Red Sox lineup regular by 2012, and depending on how his plate discipline and power develop, he could emerge as a standout.

But Iglesias is not alone as a Cuban player who is expected to make an impact for the Red Sox in the near future. Increasingly, the Sox system is being impacted by players who made the bold and irreversible decision to defect from their native country in order to pursue Major League Baseball careers.

Take Juan Carlos Linares. His signing last summer barely made a ripple, as the 26-year-old (then 25) outfielder did not make much of an impression when he made his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League and then Double-A Portland.

But even before he emerged as a standout performer in the Arizona Fall League, a couple of factors suggested an intriguing player. First, the Sox signed him for a bonus of $750,000 after being impressed by his raw power, baserunning speed and ability to play all three outfield positions. Secondly, he is represented by Scott Boras.

Based solely on those two superficial measures, it is clear that the baseball industry assigned a meaningful value to Linares’€™ talents. The basis for that assessment became clear in Arizona, where Linares hit .397 with a 1.084 OPS while playing solid defense (with good instincts that made up for any limits to his range) at all three outfield positions.

‘€œThe fast-twitch bat speed is the best tool that stands out to me, watching him play. This guy’€™s got a knack for turning around a fastball,’€ farm director Mike Hazen said of Linares. ‘€œWatching a guy in a limited amount of time, you don’€™t know how the long-term reaction to the off-speed and the breaking ball is going to be, but he certainly shows that right off the bat.

‘€œThere was certainly no intimidation going out to the Fall League and playing at an advanced level. This guy played at an advanced level in Cuba, but coming into a new environment can sometimes be intimidating. He didn’€™t seem intimidated at all. Pretty impressive kid.’€

Though he is older than the typical prospect, Linares ‘€“ a standout performer in Cuba ‘€“ could emerge as an important player in the Sox’€™ outfield depth in the next year or so. The fact that he took part in the Red Sox’€™ Rookie Development Program was a testament to that notion.

But it also spoke to a couple other elements. First, it reinforced the notion that players from Cuba are becoming more important than ever to the Sox’€™ global search for talent.

Since the summer of 2009, the team has committed more than $10 million (and spent more than $8 million) on four international free agents from Cuba: Iglesias ($8.25 million, four-year major league deal including a $6.25 million signing bonus), Linares ($750,000), catcher Adalberto Ibarra (who received a bonus of more than $700,000 last summer) and outfielder Jorge Padron ($350,000). The team also made a four-year, $15.5 million major-league offer to Aroldis Chapman in Nov. 2009; the left-hander with the lightning arm eventually landed a six-year, $30.25 million deal with the Reds.

‘€œSpecific teams, the Red Sox being one of them, do a really good job of their international scouting. ‘€¦ [A]t least in [Chapman'€™s] case, they knew about him since 2007, before he had his tremendous exposure in the World Baseball Classic,’€ said Edwin Mejia, who represented Chapman in talks with the Sox (before Chapman switched to the Hendricks Bros. as his agents). ‘€œThe Red Sox were definitely one of the teams we were interested in. The sentiment was mutual. So we were in the midst of negotiating.’€

Part of the reason for Chapman’€™s interest in the Sox was because of the apparent efforts the Sox had made to prepare for a Cuban player’€™s transition to the Sox. The increasing presence of Cuban players in the Sox system has created a need to create a framework to assist in the cultural transition of those from the Communist country.

While it would be natural to assume that the experience of Cuban players approximates that of players from other Latin American countries such as the Dominican and Venezuela, the adjustment from Cuba can be far more daunting. The move to a democratic, capitalist society features a host of freedoms and responsibilities that are foreign to such players. Alex Ochoa, who spent much of last year helping Iglesias and the other Cubans with their adjustment, noted that players were unfamiliar with paying taxes and mortgages.

More profoundly, there is the issue of isolation from one’€™s family and friends. While Ibarra’€™s parents are in the U.S., many players from Cuba leave most if not all of their relatives behind, knowing that they may not see them for years, if ever again.

Linares, for instance, has a young son who remains in Cuba.

‘€œThat’€™s something that obviously remains on your mind constantly,’€ Linares said through a translator. ‘€œBut at the same time, my objective is to play at the highest level of baseball, and that’€™s here in the United States, so you make that sacrifice.’€

For that reason, for many of the players coming to Cuba, the human dimension of what they face is even more daunting than their acclimation to a new professional climate.

“‘€œThe developmental adjustments for someone with JC’€™s experience are probably more cultural than baseball related,’€ noted Sox VP of international scouting Craig Shipley.

The burgeoning number of talented players coming to the U.S. from Cuba has yielded a number of complex and fascinating issues for the Red Sox’€™ player development system. There is the issue of why the number of defections is on a steep ascent, what is driving demand (and investments) for such players on the part of MLB clubs, the cultural and professional adjustments that such players face as well as what teams like the Red Sox are doing to help ease that transition.

Those topics are explored on this week’€™s edition of Minor Details. The guests with whom these matters will be discussed are:

Juan Carlos Linares, a Cuban outfielder who signed with the Red Sox last summer

Alex Ochoa, who will spend the coming year as the hitting coach in High-A Salem, but who spent last year as a special assistant to baseball operations. In that capacity, Ochoa ‘€“ a Cuban-American ‘€“ worked with Iglesias to help ease his transition to the U.S.

Edwin Mejia, founder and CEO of Athletes Premier, an agency whose international client base includes players — such as Sox catching prospect Ibarra — who hail from Cuba.

To listen to the episode, click here.

PREVIOUS EPISODES

Ep. 6: Why the Red Sox draft football stars, with Red Sox scouting director Amiel Sawdaye and Red Sox minor league outfielder Brandon Jacobs, who was recruited to play football at Auburn and could have taken part in the 2011 BCS title game

Ep. 5: The human side of the Adrian Gonzalez trade, with Padres (and former Red Sox) prospect Anthony Rizzo, Sox scout Laz Gutierrez and Sox farm director Mike Hazen. The episode also includes a discussion with Baseball America’€™s Jim Callis about the state of the Sox farm system following the trade for Adrian Gonzalez

Ep. 4: Evaluating prospects and making blockbusters, with former Diamondbacks GM/Red Sox Assistant GM Josh Byrnes and former Red Sox manager Butch Hobson (who was Jeff Bagwell‘€˜s manager in the Red Sox system when he was traded to the Astros)

Ep. 3: Red Sox catching prospects, with Sox roving catching instructor Chadd Epperson, as well as a conversation with Arizona Fall League manager Mike Sarbaugh about the Sox’€™ prospects in the AFL

Ep. 2: Red Sox trade chips with Keith Law of ESPN.com

Ep. 1: Baseball America’€™s list of the Top 10 Red Sox prospects, with Mike Hazen and Jim Callis

Read More: adalberto ibarra, alex ochoa, edwin mejia, jorge padron
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