Sports

NICK CAFARDO I SUNDAY BASEBALL NOTES

Will MLB, Cuba be able to play ball?

Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo is one of a number of Cuban players who have defected in recent years.

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press/File

Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo is one of a number of Cuban players who have defected in recent years.

How the new diplomatic relationship between the United States and Cuba will affect baseball, no one really knows.

There’s been a lot of speculation. Mostly positive. And that’s the way it should be. But what doesn’t make sense is that Cuba, which loves baseball, will suddenly become like the Dominican Republic, complete with academies and all sorts of ways teams could tap the best players.

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Three major league executives we spoke with are skeptical it will get that far.

Major League Baseball issued a statement after President Obama’s announcement of the new relationship, saying that “MLB will continue to track this significant issue and inform clubs about how the White House announcement may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba.”

In other words, it’s way too early to know.

One of the executives, who didn’t want to throw cold water on the news, indicated that the major leagues already have tapped into the best players, including Yoenis Cespedes, Rusney Castillo, Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, and Yasmany Tomas. There have been younger players who also have defected and come to the US.

One of the best things that could happen is these star players would no longer have to put their lives in jeopardy to leave Cuba to play baseball in the US. End the human smuggling that has transpired for years. End the travesty of having to escape.

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The executives believe any relationship between MLB and Cuba would involve rules put in place by the Cuban government to prevent an all-out raid of their players, whether it’s a posting system like we see for Japanese and Korean players, or some assurance that the best Cuban players will stay home to play professionally and for the national team.

Perhaps there will be something put in writing that if players leave for the US, they will be able to return to play for the national team. That’s very important to Cuba, according the executives who have dealt with Cuban players.

Right now, it’s all wishful thinking. Putting the cart before the horse.

But to legendary Cuban players such as Luis Tiant and Tony Oliva, this is music to their ears, because they never thought it was possible. Both still temper their enthusiasm because they don’t know what it will lead to, if anything.

If it means Cuban players could come and go and take care of their families, that would be terrific.

Everyone assumes because the countries are linked by baseball, though the sport means more to Cubans than it does to Americans, that baseball could be the trigger point to improved relations.

There’s still an economic embargo. Will that be lifted? All kinds of questions remain.

Obviously, diplomatic relations between the countries, which were severed in 1961, are far more important than baseball. But it could be a place to start positive measures that could lead to greater positives.

Cuba’s baseball is advanced. It has its own way of teaching players, so the thinking that academies are necessary to teach young players is amusing.

That’s why Cuban hitters have come to the US and seen instant success. They are ready even though Cuban pitching doesn’t necessarily provide them with major league-caliber opposition, though even Triple A pitching is a tick higher than what they’ve been facing.

Cespedes, Puig, and Abreu have all been All-Stars. And Castillo could be headed that way once he shakes off the rust of not playing for more than a year and half before joining the Red Sox in September.

Omar Minaya, the San Diego Padres’ vice president of baseball operations and a former Expos and Mets general manager, thinks the attention brought to baseball as a result of the news can only be a positive.

“I think the announcement brought attention to two points, the political issue and the baseball issue, but there are still unknowns on both fronts,” Minaya said. “Politics will always trump baseball, and the future of this will raise complex issues both politically and for baseball.”

But Minaya and many others feel there is at least potential for a larger talent pool to enter the major leagues if things break right.

And as far as the top Cuban players already being here, Minaya believes that all talent, whether it’s in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Japan, etc., runs in cycles.

“This was a very positive, exciting announcement,” Minaya said. “That’s how we all look it. We’re all waiting to hear more.”

THROWN FOR A LOSS?

Teams may have field day against Lester

Now that he is in the NL, teams are more likely to test Jon Lester with bunts.

paul beaty/associated press

Now that he is in the NL, teams are more likely to test Jon Lester with bunts.

The one thing Jon Lester is going to have to deal with as he acclimates to the National League is throwing to bases. He’s always had problems with it, and in a more bunting-oriented league, he’ll have to deal with it more.

And don’t think opposing teams aren’t aware.

“Frankly, I was surprised that more teams didn’t test him on it,” said one American League scout. “I had it on all my reports. Lester isn’t the only one with that problem, but it’s obvious it’s a struggle for him. The one time a team did test him [the Royals] he was able to make all the plays. But you can see with the underhand tosses, the few tosses to first base on pickoffs, the way he maneuvers, that the last thing he wants to do is to have to make a play and throw to a base, especially second base.”

Lester isn’t the only pitcher who has this problem, and he’s only made 15 errors in his career. He’ll throw the ball away two or three times a season. Not much really, but it could be more if he was tested.

Baseball people will tell you that throwing to bases is different for pitchers than throwing to home plate. It requires a different type of throw. The mechanics are different.

Former Red Sox lefthander Matt Young had a similar issue but more severe. There were a few times when he even rolled the ball to first base.

It seems Lester got a little better last season, but it is in his head nonetheless.

Another AL scout thought it was odd that more teams didn’t force Lester to field bunts.

“I don’t know the reason for that,” said the scout. “If you know there’s a problem there, why not take advantage? It’s probably the same as a hitter who is shifted on and there’s a wide-open gap on the left side and he doesn’t try to bunt his way on for a base hit. Some things you just can’t explain.”

Some lefthanded pitchers are vulnerable when there’s a runner at third, but how many times does the runner try to steal home? Jacoby Ellsbury did it to Andy Pettitte, but despite the weakness it was rarely exploited.

One wonders if there’s a code of “don’t embarrass the guy” among managers. And even if that exists, in the NL there will be more times when the pitcher has to bunt when his time comes up in the order.

One would think that this would be a huge point of emphasis by the Cubs and pitching coach Chris Bosio with Lester in spring training.

The problem could be rectified, but if it isn’t, this could become an issue in a league where Lester could dominate even more than he did in the AL.

Apropos of nothing

1. The Red Sox are inching closer to a very high payroll. Their obligations to players already signed or to players heading to arbitration are about $170 million. Then there are a few controllables, such as Joe Kelly, Mookie Betts, Brandon Workman, Xander Bogaerts, and Brock Holt, that could add another $3 million-$5 million to the total. Red Sox principal owner John Henry said he was willing to go over the $189 million luxury tax threshold for a year. If the Red Sox add an ace, such as James Shields or Cole Hamels, they’ll definitely go over. The Red Sox will have some disposable salary after this season. Shane Victorino’s $13 million, Mike Napoli’s $16 million, and Edward Mujica’s $4.5 million would come off the books. Also, Rick Porcello will become a free agent.

2. Once again, give Padres president Mike Dee credit for getting ownership to put a representative team on the field and allowing new GM A.J. Preller to find the best players. The worst offense in baseball last season has added Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Wil Myers, which should give the Padres tremendous righthanded pop. Adding Will Middlebrooks (in a deal for catcher Ryan Hanigan) could be huge if Middlebrooks turns things around with the pressure off in a smaller market. The Padres really like their starting staff. They have a good manager (Bud Black) to make them a contender in the NL West.

3. The Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association has chosen David Ortiz as the Red Sox MVP for 2014. Among some of the other winners are the Orioles’ Dan Duquette as executive of the year and Buck Showalter as manager of the year. Tickets for the annual dinner Jan. 22 at Agganis Arena are $200 each. Contact Renee Fraker at 617-624-1231.

4. David Ross was a good backup for the Red Sox and he’ll go on to be Jon Lester’s personal catcher in Chicago, but Hanigan likely taking over as the Sox’ backup would seem to reduce Christian Vazquez’s playing time. Hanigan, 34, who graduated from Andover High, has had injury issues but is considered an excellent receiver adept at framing pitches.

5. Ran into former Boston mayor Ray Flynn, who like the late Tom Menino loves the Red Sox. He gives a thumbs-up to the moves they’ve made in the offseason.

6. Grady Little is back in baseball, evaluating players for the Pirates. He spent a lot of time in Arizona Fall League and will serve GM Neal Huntington well.

7. Two signings by the Scott Boras camp, both with the Royals — Kendrys Morales to a two-year, $17 million deal, and Alex Rios to a one-year, $11 million deal (plus a mutual option). Is Stephen Drew next?

Updates on nine

Doubts exist on whether Allen Craig can bounce back.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Doubts exist on whether Allen Craig can bounce back.

1. Allen Craig, 1B, Red Sox — The Marlins passed and signed Michael Morse instead. The Pirates went with Corey Hart. The Giants say he’s on the back burner. That leaves possibly the Brewers with interest in Craig. There are so many teams who have mixed feelings on whether Craig will bounce back to be the hitter he was before last season. NL executives remember Craig as a tough out, a clutch hitter, and a professional bat. He was hardly that a year ago.

2. Carlos Quentin, OF, Padres — Can you say, “odd man out?” With Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Justin Upton in the fold, the oft-injured Quentin is now prime bait for a DH role. The Orioles, Mariners (who could also use him in right field occasionally), and Rays could be trade candidates for Quentin, who hasn’t played 100 games since 2011. Quentin is owed $8 million in 2015 and there’s a mutual option for $10 million in 2016 that can be bought out for $3 million. Suffice to say, the Padres would have to take on some money to trade him.

3. James Shields, RHP, free agent — The final Shields numbers are expected to be close to the five years and $110 million remaining (if the option is picked up) on the Cole Hamels deal, according to one major league source who was privy to Shields’s demands. The Giants and Red Sox are in the picture, and the Yankees may be another suitor.

4. Seth Smith, OF, Padres — He’s another extra outfielder on the Padres, but one who’s always in demand. It’ll be interesting to see whether Smith is kept to spell the three starters, or even to platoon a bit with Myers. If Smith is out there in the trade market he’ll get considerable interest, which could be yet another piece the Padres can use to obtain another need.

5. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles — There seems no urgency on either side — agent Scott Boras or the Orioles — to visit a possible extension for the backstop, who missed most of last season after Tommy John surgery. Wieters’s return should be huge for the Orioles, but Boras will likely not consider anything until the end of the season.

6. Nathan Eovaldi, RHP, Yankees — Acquired in the Martin Prado deal with Miami, Eovaldi represents the Yankees’ attempt to get younger and add a quality arm. His catcher with the Marlins, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, said of Eovaldi, “At the end of the year he figured out how to throw a new pitch that is really going to help him. He throws hard and all of his pitches are hard, so this new pitch will help that out because he’s got a fastball rotation with split action.” There’s the feeling out there that Eovaldi doesn’t always listen to coaches, who believe that he has big-time stuff that’s gone untapped.

7. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, free agent — There’s a lot of dialogue with teams, according to agent Alan Nero, but nothing has come together yet. Cabrera is willing to move to second base, which would be beneficial to him. There’s been speculation concerning the Yankees with Prado gone. Cabrera could take a one-year deal somewhere and reestablish himself.

8. Max Scherzer, RHP, free agent — The more you ask baseball executives about where Scherzer will end up, the more the answers come back Detroit. The Tigers know and like Scherzer, and the feeling is they need him after trading Rick Porcello to the Red Sox, and obtaining Alfredo Simon from the Reds and Shane Greene from the Yankees. The Tigers’ rotation is missing a significant pitcher (you can’t call Justin Verlander that anymore, and David Price may not re-sign). The executives we talked to think Scherzer’s deal will be north of Lester’s six years at $155 million, but well short of $200 million (unless option years are counted).

9. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies — Nobody from the Mets who we’ve contacted seems to think there’s anything to rumors he’ll be dealt to New York. Though maybe they should consider it. The Marlins, after all, are going for it. The Nationals are really good. The Mets have a nice young staff, but their offense is a question mark even with the addition of Michael Cuddyer.

Extra innings

From the Bill Chuck files — “Over the last five seasons, Jose Bautista leads major league baseball with 187 homers, followed by Miguel Cabrera with 181 and Giancarlo Stanton and Albert Pujols with 154 each.” . . . Also, “Clay Buchholz allowed three earned runs or fewer in 15 starts in 2013, and then again in 2014. The difference? In 2013, he made 16 starts; in 2014, he made 28.” . . . Happy birthday, Freddy Sanchez (37), Dustin Hermanson (42), Jim Wright (64), and Pete Charton (72).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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