MLB's Cuban Pipeline: Who's Next?

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MLB's Cuban Pipeline: Who's Next?
AP Images

There will always be baseball players coming from Cuba.

It's a small country, a touch bigger than the Dominican Republic in terms of population, but nowhere near the size of Venezuela, let alone South Korea or Japan. But it remains a baseball-crazy country still focused on developing ballplayers.

"They have one of the best foundations of any Latin American country," said San Francisco Giants international cross-checker Joe Salermo, who was born in Cuba and emigrated with his family to the United States when he was 10. "They have a plan."

Cuba has players, even after stars like Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Abreu have left the island. The great exodus of Cuban stars may have already happened, but good players still remain—maybe even a great player or two.

Here are a few names to know:

Yasmani Tomas, outfielder, 23 years old: A power hitter who played in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Tomas left Cuba in June with the intention of signing a big-money contract with a major league team. He may get it, too. One scout described him as a "premium guy who has certainly got everyone's attention."

AP Photo
Rusney Castillo is tagged out at second in a game against Canada in the Pan Am Games.

Rusney Castillo, outfielder, 27: A short but fast center fielder who can be seen on YouTube making spectacular catches, Castillo hired Jay Z's Roc Nation Sports to represent him and has set up a July 26 showcase in Miami.

Yoan Moncada, infielder, 19: He caught the eye of scouts while playing for the Cuban junior team and left the island in June with the idea of signing a contract. He debuted in Cuba's Serie Nacional when he was just 17 and played on the same team as Jose Abreu.

Alfredo Despaigne, outfielder, 28: He looks a little like Kirby Puckett, but his stats read more like Barry Bonds in the steroid age.

He played briefly in the Mexican League under a program arranged by Cuban authorities, and there's talk he could go to Japan and play under a similar program. But he's also described as very loyal to the Cuban system and unlikely to leave for MLB riches unless the entire system changes.

Jose Fernandez, second base, 26: He played in the 2013 World Baseball Classic and is described by some as better than Alex Guerrero and Erisbel Arruebarrena, two infielders the Los Angeles Dodgers signed last winter for a combined $53 million.

He has great command of the strike zone (41 walks, two strikeouts in 135 at-bats in Cuba), but he wasn't overly impressive in the Caribbean Series last winter.

AP Photo
Frederich Cepeda celebrates a hit in 2013 World Baseball Classic.

Frederich Cepeda, outfielder, 34: He's past the age when major league teams would have gone wild trying to sign him, but he was still the cleanup hitter on the Cuban team that played in the 2013 WBC.

Cuban baseball expert Peter Bjarkman says Cepeda was the best player of his generation. He's now playing in Japan for the Yomiuri Giants under a program arranged by Cuban authorities.

Yulieski Gourriel, third base, 30: He's another player who might have been a big league star had he left in his prime. Scouts loved him at 21 and considered him the best player on the island at that time, but many think he has gone downhill since then. He's playing for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in Japan, under a program arranged by Cuban authorities, and is said to be "the last guy you'd expect to leave" Cuba for big money. Through 23 games in Japan this season, he is hitting .341 with six home runs and 10 doubles.

Norge Ruiz, right-handed pitcher, 20: He is a short but hard-throwing pitcher who was named the Rookie of the Year in Cuba's Serie Nacional. Scouts are intrigued, but they say Ruiz didn't really impress when he pitched for Cuba's team in the Caribbean Series this past winter.

19 Cuban-born players have played in the majors this season:
Team Players
White Sox Jose Abreu, Adrian Nieto, Alexei Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo
Dodgers Erisbel Arruebarrena, Alex Guerrero, Yasiel Puig
Padres Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Odrisamer Despaigne
Marlins Jose Fernandez, Adeiny Hechavarria
Reds Aroldis Chapman, Brayan Pena
Athletics Yoenis Cespedes
Mariners Roenis Elias
Rangers Leonys Martin
Rays Yunel Escobar
Twins Kendrys Morales

Baseball-Reference.com

NOTE: Twenty-two Cuban-born players have debuted in the major leagues over the last five seasons (2010-2014). That's more than the number who debuted in the 10 years before that (2000-09) and nearly three times as many as debuted in the 1980s.

According to a list compiled by Cuban baseball researcher Peter Bjarkman, 183 Cuban-born players have played in the major leagues, dating all the way back to Enrique Esteban with the 1871 Troy Haymakers. Of those 183, 45 played in Cuba after the 1959 revolution and can be considered defectors.

Before this year, only one player who grew up playing baseball in Cuba post-revolution had appeared in an All-Star Game (Rolando Arrojo in 1998). This year, five players from Cuba were named to the All-Star teams, and Yasiel Puig was voted to start the game in the outfield for the National League.

 

Danny Knobler has been covering baseball for more than 30 years, including 18 seasons on the Detroit Tigers beat for Booth Newspapers and six seasons as a senior MLB writer for CBSSports.com. He has also written for Baseball America, ESPNNewYork.com and MLB.com.

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