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HAVANA (Reuters) - A promising young Cuban pitcher failed to show up for training this week and was widely believed to have left the island, which would make him the latest talented prospect to seek a lucrative Major League Baseball contract in the United States.
Raicel Iglesias, 23, is one of the island's top relief pitchers and a member of the Isle of Youth team preparing for the national championship series that starts on November 3.
CaféFuerte, a Cuban exile website in Miami, reported that Iglesias left Cuba by boat on Saturday. If confirmed, it would be the fourth defection this year from Cuba's national squad, following that of big-hitting first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu, who left the island in August.
"Iglesias hasn't been here with us for two days. He didn't show up," Armando Johnson, the Isle of Youth manager, told Reuters.
"He was here all last week. The cause of his absence is unknown," said Lazaro Labrada, director of sports on the Isle of Youth off Cuba's south coast.
Iglesias participated in three Cuban national championships, with a win-loss record of 8-12 and 20 saves, and would be the third pitcher to leave the national squad this year after Odrisamer Despaigne and Misael Siverio, who abandoned the Cuban team in France and the United States, respectively.
Iglesias appeared this year in the World Baseball Classic in Japan, and had one successful save appearance in five games with a respectable 3.86 earned-run average.
"Raicel Iglesias is a good prospect, perhaps the best of all in (Cuban) pitching among those under 23 years old," said Yasel Porto, a leading Cuban baseball commentator.
Communist-ruled Cuba is bleeding baseball talent as the island's sports authorities look for ways to stop the exodus of players seeking a big payday in Major League Baseball.
The departure of players is attributed to state-controlled salaries of about only $20 a month, contrasting sharply with the potential big money abroad.
"There are more Cubans currently playing in the Major Leagues in the United States at any time since the revolution in 1959," said Porto, listing 21 players signed to U.S. clubs this season.
The Cuban government has repeatedly denounced what it calls the theft of its talent as part of the half-century ideological conflict with the United States.
Due to the long-standing U.S. embargo against Cuba, as well as Cuba's own sports regulations, Cuban baseball players living in Cuba cannot play professionally in the United States.
In July, the Cuban government allowed a handful of Cuban baseball players to join overseas professional leagues, including in Mexico and Japan, under special government-approved contracts. But the United States remains off limits.
Players have chosen various routes to leave the island, including homemade rafts and smuggler boats.
The pace of defections picked up after hard-throwing pitcher Aroldis Chapman defected in 2009 and signed a $30 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds.
Oakland Athletics outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, winner of this year's Home Run Derby, the popular competition the day before the annual All-Star Game, defected in 2011 and signed a $36 million, four-year contract.
Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who left Cuba in 2012, signed a seven-year, $42 million contract. Puig made his Major League debut on June 3 and has emerged as one of the top contenders for the Rookie of the Year title.
(This story corrects pitcher's first name in paragraph two to Raicel to reflect spelling in Cuba)
Additional reporting; Editing by David Adams and Peter Cooney