MIAMI (Reuters) - Baseball player José Abreu, who left his native Cuba in August, agreed to a six-year, $68 million contract with the Chicago White Sox on Friday, according to several media reports, which would be the largest rookie free-agent contract ever awarded to an international player in Major League Baseball.
Abreu, 26, an all-star first baseman for one of the communist-ruled island’s best teams, was granted residency in Haiti, earning himself lucrative free agency status under the signing rules of Major League Baseball.
Abreu is a former teammate of Los Angeles Dodgers’ rookie sensation Yasiel Puig, who left Cuba in 2012 and signed a seven-year, $42 million contract. Puig made his major league debut on June 3 and had a major impact on the team’s surge into the post-season.
Calls to Abreu’s agents were not immediately returned and the White Sox have yet to make an official announcement. MLB.com, Fox Sports and the Chicago Tribune were among the media reporting the deal.
Cuban athletes, especially baseball players, have defected in record numbers in recent years, with Abreu becoming the 22nd currently contracted by the U.S. major leagues, several earning multimillion-dollar salaries.
Players have chosen various routes to leave the island, including homemade rafts and smuggler boats.
The exodus of players is attributed to $20-a-month state-controlled salaries, contrasting sharply with the potential big money abroad.
The Cuban government blames the defections in large part on U.S. economic sanctions that do not allow contracts with Cuban athletes who pay taxes to the government. Cuba also requires that overseas player contracts be approved by the government, and has lately approved a handful of contracts for players with foreign teams in Mexico and Japan, though not the United States.
In September Cuba announced significant pay increases, raising salaries to between $40 and $200 a month for top athletes, plus bonuses for success in national and international competition.
The measure is the latest reform of the Soviet-style system under President Raul Castro, who replaced ailing brother Fidel in 2008 with a call to update the country’s economic and social system to the 21st century.
Although the salary increases are modest by international standards, they are considered significant in Cuba.
Abreu, a powerful 6-foot-3 (1.9-meter), 250-pound (113-kg) hitter, hit 128 home runs, drove in 430 runs and had a .334 batting average during eight seasons in Cuba.
In 2011, Abreu won Cuba’s Most Valuable Player award with a .453 average and 33 home runs in 293 plate appearances. During the World Baseball Classic in March he batted .360 with three home runs and nine RBIs in 25 at-bats.
Several teams were interested in Abreu, including the Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, Miami Marlins and San Francisco Giants.
He is expected to take over as the White Sox first baseman from Paul Konerko, according to The Sports Xchange, adding power to a light-hitting line-up that finished last in the American League in runs scored this season.
Abreu follows other Cuban defectors to seek their fortunes in the major leagues, such as New York Yankees pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernández and his half-brother Liván Hernandez, who left in the 1990s.
The pace 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 years 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.
Editing by Eric Walsh