By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Two Cuban baseball players defected in Puerto Rico, where a squad from their country is playing in the Caribbean Series against four other Latin American teams, Cuban sports officials said on Wednesday.
Pitcher Vladimir Gutierrez, 19, rookie of the year in the Cuban league last year, and shortstop Dainer Moreira, 30, left the team after Tuesday night's game in San Juan, said two Cuban sports officials, who requested anonymity because they are unauthorized to speak publicly.
The Cuban government does not comment on defections.
The recent rapprochement between Cuba and the United States has yet to open the path for top Cuban players to Major League Baseball.
But under new U.S. regulations published as part of the opening to Cuba, American teams can more easily sign Cuban players once they establish residence outside of Cuba.
Such players are generally free to sign with a team and no longer need special clearance from the U.S. Treasury Department to play.
Gutierrez, a right-hander for the Pinar del Rio club, would be the more coveted of the two as a Major League prospect because of his youth.
The light-hitting Moreira, from Matanzas, is one of Cuba's better fielding shortstops but may have less potential as a big-leaguer.
Cuba has lost significant baseball talent in recent years. Jose Dariel Abreu, for example, now has a $68 million contract with the Chicago White Sox.
Abreu won rookie of the year in the American League last year and was one of five Cuban defectors named to the All-Star Game in 2014.
The next Cuban free agent expected to sign a multimillion-dollar contract is infielder Yoan Moncada, who is seen as an exceptional talent and has held private workouts with several big league clubs. Moncada established residency in Guatemala and, unlike many star players, left Cuba legally, his representatives say.
Cuban defectors typically try to seek residence in a third country to maximize their earning potential as free agents. If they establish residence in the United States or Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, they are subject to a draft that controls their salaries in favor of the club.
Cuba has attempted to stop the exodus by improving the salaries of its players and allowing stars to sign with professional leagues such as those in Japan or Mexico under the condition that they also play in Cuba's league and for the Cuban national team.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Kieran Murray and Lisa Von Ahn)