Urrutia confirms defection of Cuban slugger Abreu
Orioles outfielder says longtime friend has no comparison in Majors
PHOENIX -- If anyone can understand what Cuban slugger Jose Abreu is going through these days, it's Orioles outfielder Henry Urrutia, who defected from the island two years ago.
That's part of the reason Abreu called Urrutia from an undisclosed location outside of Cuba on Sunday. It also helps that the ballplayers have been good friends since they were teammates on the island's top team for 11- and 12-year-olds.
"He's like a brother to me; we are the same age and we talk all of the time," Urrutia, 26, said in Spanish. "It was great to hear that he was out of Cuba. He's really happy but he's obviously a little nervous right now since he just left and we talked about that. Teams in the United States are going to love him. He's incredible."
Reports of Abreu's defection surfaced Sunday and it is unclear if he has selected representation. This much is certain: Any Cuban defector who wants to do business with an American company must first establish residency outside Cuba and the United States, a process than can take several months, depending on the country. Cuban players must also be declared a free agent by Major League Baseball and unblocked by the U.S Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control before they can enter into a contract with a Major League club. Abreu is exempt from new international signing limits because he is at least 23 and played in Cuba for more than three seasons.
Various reports have placed Abreu, 26, in the Dominican Republic or Haiti.
"Until he gets his paperwork and takes care of everything he has to do, it's not wise to say where he is," Urrutia said. "He has to take care of himself. He tells me a lot of agents are interested in him. They know there's a lot of money to be made with him, but he's deciding what to do and what is best for him."
A known commodity on the international scene, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound slugger hit .360 (9-for-25) with three home runs and nine RBIs in six games in this year's World Baseball Classic. He's a former MVP in Cuba, where he had one of the best seasons in league history in 2010-11, hitting .453 with 33 home runs and 93 RBIs in just 66 games. Abreu is expected to play first base in the United States.
"He's one of the greatest players to ever come out of Cuba and I know he suffered there, making $300 a year. What are you going to do with that?" Urrutia said. "He has so much talent and he's playing with torn batting gloves and old balls there. The bats aren't very good. The equipment is old. Imagine what he's going to be like when he gets to work with quality equipment. I don't think there is anyone I can compare him to right now. I heard Ryan Howard. And as a person, there is no comparison."
Urrutia, who defected from Cuba in 2011, signed with the Orioles last July but didn't arrive until late February because of problems getting a work visa out of Haiti, where he had established residency. He can't wait to see his childhood friend again.
"As kids, he was skinny like me and all of sudden he just grew. He's huge now," Urrutia said. "He's a humble man and he comes from a rural area of hard-working people. He's going to get a good contract, I know that. I won't be surprised if he gets the biggest contract ever given to a Cuban. He's amazing."