10/19/13 - Victoria Times Colonist - Cuba is the new Japan
But then again, the Chicago White Sox aren't like most teams.
Instead of waiting until December to do their Christmas shopping, the Sox
outbid a slew of teams including the Red Sox, Astros and Rangers for Cuban
first base prodigy Jose Abreu.
The scouting report on Abreu is breathtaking. At 6-foot-2 and almost 260
pounds, he's a mammoth of a human being with power similar to his fellow
countryman Yoenis Cespedes. The only difference is that unlike Cespedes,
he makes contact on a consistent basis. In fact, he finished the 2010-11
season in Cuba with a preposterous .453 batting average in 66 games. At
age 26, he's just now entering his prime.
Abreu's assimilation to the major leagues won't be easy but if there was
ever a team he could fit right in with, it would be the White Sox. With
Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo already on the roster, the Sox may have
the most Cuban- friendly atmosphere in the major leagues. Even before
Ramirez and Vicideo were fixtures in Chicago, Jose Contreras and Orlando
Hernandez had already experienced success during their tenures with the
Abreu's new deal, six years for $68 million, is the richest ever for an
international player. But more than that, it's an indicator of where
baseball might be heading.
A decade ago, the overseas market for ballplayers seemed to be trending
toward Asia. Japanese outfielders Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui enjoyed
instant success with their respective clubs while Taiwan's Chien-Ming Wang
and Japan's Daisuke Matsuzaka paved the way for pitchers crossing the
Pacific Ocean to play in the United States.
Japan's impact on the game is still widely felt. Yu Darvish was an
All-Star this season and Boston's Koji Uehara has emerged as one of
baseball's best closers. But all the while, Cuban players have been
dominating like never before.
Puig-mania consumed Los Angeles this summer and Cespedes stole the show
with his memorable display at the Home Run Derby. Both are regarded as two
of the most exciting players in the major leagues.
The AL Central champion Detroit Tigers feature two Cuban imports including
23- year-old infielder Jose Iglesias. Though lacking consistency at the
plate, Iglesias has quickly made a name for himself as one of the game's
flashiest defenders. His glove work has already saved several runs during
this League Championship Series.
Leonys Martin hasn't received as much attention as Yasiel Puig or Cespedes
but the game-changing speed he demonstrated this year with Texas (36
steals) can't be overlooked. Neither can the contributions of righthander
Jose Fernandez (12-6, 2.19 ERA, .182 AVG against), the likely National
League Rookie of the Year.
When it comes to pitching, few have been better than the gazelle-like
Aroldis Chapman (third in the NL in saves), a 25-year-old flamethrower for
the Reds who routinely reaches triple-digits on his fastball.
Everywhere you look, it seems, there is a talented Cuban player ready to
break out. The Phillies invested in star righthander Miguel Alfredo
Gonzalez over the summer while Baltimore gave outfielder Henry Urrutia his
first taste of the majors late in the regular season. Adeiny Hechavarria
didn't have a great statistical year for the Marlins (.227, 3 HR, 42 RBI,
11 SB in 148 games) but it seems like he's heading in the right direction.
Given how difficult it is to pry them away from Cuba (some have risked
their lives attempting to cross over to American soil), the price for each
player is never cheap. The Dodgers paid $42 million for the rights to
Puig, which is $6 million more than Oakland spent on Cespedes a year
earlier. Though this year's free agent class isn't as deep as we've seen
in years past, Cuban DH Kendrys Morales (.277, 23 HR, 80 RBI for Seattle
in 2013) will be one of the most sought-out players on the market this
Baseball has always been a big part of Cuba's landscape. Since 1992, three
of the five gold medals in baseball at the Olympics have gone to Cuba with
silver medal wins for the Cubans in 2000 and 2008. Cuba also made it to
the championship before losing to Japan at the inaugural World Baseball
Classic in 2006.
But Cuba hadn't been a dominant prescence in the major leagues until just
recently. Aroldis Chapman's selection in 2012 ended a six-year drought for
Cuban players at the All-Star Game.
The increase of Latin American ballplayers in general, whether it be from
Venezuela or the Dominican Republic, has no doubt helped Cuban players
assimilate better than in the past. Spanish is spoken almost as much as
English in big league clubhouses, so the language barrier is no longer an
Still, as we've seen with Puig and probably will with Abreu as well,
growing pains are to be expected. Puig's all-out style of play, a staple
of the Cuban game, hasn't always translated to the big leagues. Many of
his base-running gaffes ended up costing the Dodgers as did his erratic
decision-making in right field.
Abreu will have big shoes to fill in Chicago as he's slated to replace a
fan favorite in five-time All-Star Paul Konerko. The steep price Chicago
paid for him only adds to the pressure.
But if the performances of Cespedes, Fernandez and Puig are of any
indication, Chicago's $68-million splash could end up being the best move
of the offseason.
Not bad, considering the offseason hasn't even started yet.
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