Most exciting, compelling players in baseball right now are from Cuba
Bill Madden, New York Daily News
Two years ago, the small market Oakland A’s shocked everyone with their $36 million winning bid for Yoenis Cespedes. He excelled immediately with 23 HRs, 82 RBI and 16 stolen bases as a rookie, and this year, he’s on his way to a 100-RBI season.
From the hitting, fielding and baserunning exploits of Yasiel Puig, to the brute power of Jose Abreu, to the eye-popping throws of Yoenis Cespedes, to the 100 mph closing dominance of Aroldis Chapman and (before he got hurt) the Cy Young-like starting dominance of Jose Fernandez, the cry being heard ’round the baseball world this season is “Viva Cuba!” Any way you look at it, the most exciting and compelling players in baseball right now happen to be the Cuban expatriots who, after escaping the oppression in their native land, have taken the game by storm.
For the longest time, after the 1960 U.S. embargo of Cuba in the wake of the country’s Fidel Castro-led revolution that effectively shut off the once-fertile pipeline of talent coming out of Cuba, the island nation became this dark baseball continent. Nobody really knew about the caliber of play there or if there were any players with big-time major league ability. It didn’t matter. They were all off limits. Then in the ’90s came the first wave of defections from Cuba, but with the exception of the Hernandez half-brothers, Livan and El Duque, none distinguished themselves, and it was further assumed that the quality of talent was no better than Triple-A at best. Again, if there were any potential superstar talents in Cuba, nobody knew about them. In truth, nobody really knew anything about Puig, whom Dodgers scouting director Logan White nevertheless signed for $42 million after seeing him in one very limited workout.
Two years ago, the small-market Oakland A’s shocked everyone with their $36 million winning bid for Cespedes. Again, no one really knew how Cespedes’ power and speed in Cuba would translate in the majors, other than the fact that he was going to be a project. Instead, he excelled immediately with 23 homers, 82 RBI and 16 stolen bases as a rookie in 2012, and this year, if he can avoid the injuries that cost him nearly 60 games in his first two years, he’s on his way to a 100-RBI season. In recent days, however, his arm has drawn raves. On successive nights last week, Cespedes, who led the majors with nine outfield assists entering the weekend, uncorked 300-foot missiles from the left-field corner to throw out the Angels’ Howie Kendrick at home plate and then Albert Pujols, trying to stretch a double, at third. Both plays occurred after Cespedes had trouble fielding the balls. “I think Cespy’s trying to do that on purpose,” A’s pitcher Tommy Milone told the Bay Area News Group after the Pujols play Wednesday night. “Bait them, then throw them out.”
Like Puig and Cespedes, Abreu, the hulking rookie first baseman who went into the weekend second in the American League with 19 homers, has had a transformational effect on his team. The centerpiece of GM Rick Hahn’s sweeping winter overhaul of the White Sox, Abreu, too, has gone from Cuban mystery slugger to instant major league star. While no one questioned Abreu’s brute power at 6-3, 255 pounds, there were concerns about his bat being a little slow as well as his defensive mobility. In fact, neither has been a factor and on top of his work ethic and overall makeup, Abreu is making his six-year, $68 million contract -the largest ever doled out by the Chisox- look like one of the all-time bargains, especially in this age when power hitters of his ilk have become so scarce.
Although in the end Hahn insists it was not a factor, the White Sox -who had already claimed two Cuban regulars in shortstop Alexei Ramirez and outfielder Dayan Viciedo- have been at the forefront of mining and cultivating talent from Cuba, going all the way back to the pre-Castro ’50s with the legendary Minnie Minoso and pitchers Sandy Consuegra and Mike Fornieles.
“Even though (Abreu) had played briefly with Ramirez in Cuba, it still came down to who produced the most cash,” said Hahn, laughing, by phone Friday. “What were factors in our decision to go as high as we did was our limited success in the recent past with Cubans -El Duque and Jose Contreras- and the presence of Alexei and Dayan who could make this transition (for Abreu) as easy as possible so he could fulfill his potential.”
As Hahn noted, even for $68 million, “You just can’t acquire an impact power bat like that on the open domestic free-agent market.”
In some respect, Hahn was fortunate that a lot of the high-rolling big-market teams like the Yankees and Dodgers, or other clubs who could’ve really used Abreu -like the Marlins and Mets- and could’ve afforded him, shied away from Abreu. Yankees GM Brian Cashman, I’m told, wanted to get in on Abreu but was talked out of it by VP of scouting and player development Mark Newman, who had bad reports on him. That should come as no surprise.
The Mets? They apparently didn’t even scout him, presuming, no doubt, what the price was going to be for a still relatively unknown commodity.
Now that we know what Abreu is, however, Hahn knows that, even with his largest collection of Cuban players -backup catcher Adrian Nieto is their fourth- the White Sox probably will be hard-pressed to compete for the next potential star Cuban defector.
“I’m just looking at how it’s escalated,” he said. “In ’08, we got Alexei for $4.25 million. For years later, we got Viciedo for $10 million. Four years after that, the Dodgers signed Puig for $42 million and now we paid $68 million for Abreu.
“I think you can fairly say, there’s been a ripple effect in the Cuban market.”
Meanwhile, in further emphasizing their long history with Cuban players, the White Sox on Tuesday are conducting a private panel discussion on Cuban baseball at U.S. Cellular Field in which Minoso, El Duque, Abreu, Nieto, Ramirez and Viciedo will all share their views and perspectives on the impact of Cuban players in the majors with representatives from the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
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