There was a time in the 1950s and early 1960s when Major League Baseball had a good thing going with Cuban talent. This was around when Minnie Minoso and Camilo Pascual were already established, and when Tony Perez, Bert Campaneris, Tony Oliva and Luis Tiant were promising prospects.
But then things got rocky between the U.S. and Cuba in the early 60s, and the flow of talent turned into a trickle. The next time MLB saw an abundance of Cuban talent like that was...
Well, right now.
Whereas Cuban stars were few and far between in MLB for a while there, now you can look up and see the awesome fivesome of Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu. Their defections have happened within the last six years, with their debuts all coming in the last five seasons.
Here's to guessing MLB is thrilled about their presence, as well it should be.
Which I suppose is stating the obvious to a certain extent. Baseball needs star players as much as any other sport, and it'll take 'em from wherever it can get 'em. And the more interesting they are, the better.
On this note, man, oh man, has MLB scored with the aforementioned awesome fivesome.
Consider Chapman. That the Cincinnati Reds' $30.25 million lefty has saved 77 games and racked up a 14.89 K/9—second only to Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel between 2010 and 2013, according to FanGraphs—is worth talking about. Worth talking about is good.
But worth geeking out over is better, and Chapman indeed has something worth geeking out over: his fastball. This is a guy who will long be known for triple-digit heat and for throwing the fastest pitch ever recorded: 105 miles per hour.
Then there's Cespedes. The Oakland A's $36 million man made good on the hype of an amazing showcase video and a then-record contract by slashing .292/.356/.505 with 23 home runs and 16 stolen bases as a rookie in 2012.
Though Cespedes slowed down in 2013, that's OK. His real encore to 2012 was putting on a ridiculous show at the Home Run Derby in New York. Like Mark McGwire's in 1999 and Josh Hamilton's in 2008, it was a Derby display that we could be talking about for a while.
After Cespedes came Fernandez. Though the Miami Marlins right-hander had never pitched above High-A before his MLB debut in early 2013, that didn't stop him from having one of the five best seasons ever by a rookie. In year two, he's making a run at the National League Cy Young Award with a 1.74 ERA and a 12.5 K/9.
And Fernandez looks good doing it. He has electric mid-90s heat and an oughta-be-illegal breaking ball to go with it, and there's not another pitcher out there with so much swagger. He's must-see TV every time he takes the mound (and even sometimes when he doesn't).
After Fernandez came Puig. All the Los Angeles Dodgers' $42 million man did was break through with a debut month for the ages, slashing .436/.467/.713 with seven home runs in 26 games last June. That was the start of a rookie season that ended with a .925 OPS, 19 home runs and 11 stolen bases.
For an encore, Puig is working on an .896 OPS and in some ways has looked even better than he did in 2013.
Then there's Puig's general demeanor. Vin Scully's "Wild Horse" nickname for him is all too perfect, as Puig plays the game (and sometimes lives his life) like a runaway train. Love it or hate it, I'll be damned if it doesn't keep him on one's radar.
After Puig came Abreu, who somehow found a way to put together a debut month to rival Puig's. The Chicago White Sox's $68 million slugger compiled a .953 OPS, crushed 10 homers and racked up 32 RBI in April.
Abreu's not a live wire like Fernandez or Puig, nor is he an athletic specimen like Cespedes or a freak of nature like Chapman. But you can look at him and see a born hitter, and then you can ponder how Grantland's Jonah Keri wasn't kidding when he teased Abreu as one of the greatest hitters on the planet.
All the way back in 2012...
With so many reasons to watch, it's no wonder these guys have been good for business.
Puig helped the Dodgers break merchandise sales records last June, as Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times reported. By the end of the year, MLB.com reported his jersey to be No. 3 on the list of best-sellers.
Cespedes' jersey checked in at No. 9 on that list, by the way. And while we're far from the end of 2014, the word from Crain's Chicago Business is that Abreu's jersey is already a top-10 seller.
As for Chapman and Fernandez, there's frankly less to see about them on the merchandise front. Fernandez, however, seems to be making a difference at the gate for the Marlins.
In the second half of 2013, Fernandez's starts at Marlins Park drew an average of 23,771, an improvement over Miami's average of 19,584. So far in 2014, his five home starts have drawn an average of 28,924 to the park, a huge improvement over Miami's average of 21,597.
Surprised? Don't be. Like we said, these are not only good players we're talking about, but darned interesting ones, too. When they're on the field, you want to watch.
And while we're on the subject of not being surprised, don't be surprised if the Cuban stars keep coming.
It's not an accident that so much Cuban talent has come along so suddenly. With the exception of Fernandez—who defected at a young enough age to go to high school in the states and be drafted—the other guys benefited from a few changes in the winds.
One was money. Jorge Arangure Jr. of Sports on Earth characterized the $30.25 million contract Chapman signed with the Reds in 2010 as "the turning point for the Cuban exile market." Unlike ever before, it showed that teams were willing to spend big bucks on unproven Cuban talent; an open invitation if there ever was one.
Then MLB did top Cuban talent an additional favor by restricting spending on draft picks and international amateurs, thus putting more dollars in teams' pockets to spend elsewhere. If these weren't a factor in the A's signing Cespedes, they sure were in the Dodgers signing Puig and the White Sox signing Abreu.
This is not to say that this money is being spent blindly. As Arangure noted, MLB teams have a better picture of Cuban talent than ever before:
Cuban players are also becoming less of a risk. Teams can not only scout players during international tournaments, they can also access statistics and video of Cuban league performance on the Internet. There are several websites dedicated to livestreaming Cuban league games.
Short version: MLB teams can look at Cuba and see that there's talent there, and they've become willing to pay for it. As long as this is the case, the talent is going to find ways to keep coming. They get money. MLB gets stars. Everyone wins.
The only thing that could make things better is if the passage from Cuba to MLB somehow becomes less treacherous.
Which might soon be the case.
As you've probably heard, the process of defecting from Cuba to come play pro ball in the U.S. can be rough. In fact, as the Los Angeles magazine and ESPN the Magazine stories on Puig's defection show, it can be downright hellish. And Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports is right: MLB is deserving of some blame for enabling a system that invites smugglers and other criminals to deliver Cuban talent to its doorstep.
The times, however, are a'changing.
As Keri noted in his Grantland article on Abreu, Fidel Castro has retired from politics and the U.S. took the step to loosen travel restrictions to Cuba in 2011. Late in 2012, the Cuban government followed suit by loosening travel restrictions for its own citizens.
Then, in the fall of 2013, the Cuban government took the leap of permitting its athletes to sign contracts with foreign professional leagues, a move that the Associated Press noted was likely executed to keep athletes from defecting to seek foreign riches, a la four members of our awesome fivesome.
For now, MLB is essentially barred from the discussion, as the new policy comes with catches that Cuban athletes be available to fulfill commitments at home and that earnings on foreign contracts are taxed. Even still, it's possible we'll look back at this new policy years from now as a huge step towards a long-awaited direct pipeline from Cuba to MLB being established.
That step probably doesn't happen without high-profile defections by players like Chapman, Cespedes, Puig and Abreu. Those defections don't happen unless the money's there. The money's not there unless MLB clubs figure they would be worth it. And thus far, they've been worth it.
So keep your eyes on today's top Cuban stars. In addition to them being great for the game's present, they have a chance to be great for the game's future, too.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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