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September 3, 2014

Notes from the Field

Two Cubans Walk Onto A Field...

by Jeff Moore

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There are innumerable adjustments players must make when defecting from Cuba in search of their major-league dream, but on Friday morning, on the back fields in the shadows of Roger Dean Stadium in south Florida, the weather was not one of them. The balmy heat and stifling humidity couldn’t have been much different from what Jozzen Cuesta and Misael Siverio were used to back in their native Cuba. The setting, however, was different, with more than 20 scouts in attendance who were eager to see the newest free agent talent but, after two hours, slightly disappointed by the pedestrian performances they saw.

Having each established citizenship in Mexico and residence in nearby Deerfield Beach, Cuesta and Siverio—both 25-year-old Cuban veterans—prepared for a workout that would dictate the next phase of their lives, as rookies in the American version of the game they know so well.

First up was Cuesta, a hulking behemoth who looks built to play first base in every sense, good and bad. Only 6-foot-2 (the only being by professional athlete standards) and listed at 220 lbs., Cuesta is chiseled and in prime physical condition. He struck an imposing presence on the field, clearly the one everyone was there to see. Even among others in their athletic primes, Cuesta stood out.

His first task was to run the 60-yard dash, a process that took an excessive amount of time considering Cuesta is destined to play first base, his career to ultimately be decided by his bat. After all, assuming he didn’t trip over his own shoelaces and his dash could be determined with anything less than a sundial, his time didn’t much matter. When he ran 6.97 seconds the first time and 7.05 the second time, it was met with a general shrug from most of the gathering, as if to say “okay, that’s nice, is it time to watch him hit yet?” A few mentioned that it gave him the potential to moonlight as a corner outfielder if necessary, and his relative spryness at his size did turn out to be a nice surprise.

After his dashes, Cuesta moved in to the infield, taking his spot over at first base. He fielded a couple dozen groundballs from a coach, making throws to home, second and third base. While his ability to move well for a man his size translated well to the position, his footwork was sloppy and his hands were not soft. Still, he made most of the plays asked of him with relative ease in this practice setting, and even showed off an above-average arm. He won’t be an asset defensively, but for the time being, he’s not a liability either.

After his defensive work and the requisite 10-minute break for a passing south Florida rain shower, Cuesta grabbed a bat, took a few warm-up hacks in a nearby batting cage, then took his spot in the right-handed batter’s box inside the rolling turtle cage set up on the field. A coach began to throw him batting practice.

The BP session was the most impressive part of the day for Cuesta. Set up in an upright stance, he showed off above-average to plus bat speed and plus raw power. He took balls out to left- and right-center, showing off the best power when he got his arms extended, let the ball get deep, and used the opposite field gap. Still, even against batting practice pitching, you could see some holes in his swing, as he got jammed inside a number of times and weakly popped up on pitches down in the strike zone and on the outer half of the plate.

These holes were further exploited about 20 minutes later when Cuesta stepped into the box to face a live pitcher. Matching up against a 19-year-old right-hander who was the equivalent of maybe a High-A or Double-A arm, Cuesta took roughly 15-20 plate appearances worth of pitches. He drove a few balls hard, but was otherwise unimpressive. His swing got long, he got beat inside by fastballs in the 87-91 mph range, and he showed questionable pitch recognition, getting frozen on a few fastballs (a real no-no in a workout setting where no one wants to see you draw walks anyway).

For all the false drama leading up to it, the 15 minutes he spent facing live pitching were all anyone really needed to see. Cuesta is a player worth having in an organization, but not one that a team is going to pony up major dollars for. Some uninformed pundit somewhere will make an unfortunate comparison to Jose Abreu because of the similarities in nationality, handedness, position, size, and age, but it will be a misguided attempt to compare apples and oranges from a talent standpoint. At 25 and already physically developed, there’s not much projection left for Cuesta. Yes, he can adjust to major-league pitching, but any holes in his swing are largely, at this point, just a product of who he is. He will hit for power because he is a strong human being with good bat speed. But the pitch recognition, and the ability to pull the trigger on fastballs he should hit and to lay off the breaking pitches he should not, are going to keep him from having much impact.

Cuesta should not warrant a multi-year, major-league deal. He might get a signing bonus upwards of a million dollars because of the power potential, but he’s not a player who is prepared to jump right to the major leagues. He will need to start in the minors, likely in Double-A, and will probably need a full season to make the adjustment to professional competition. At 25, he’s already maxed out physically and likely won’t age well once he gets to his mid-30s. He has the one tool necessary to succeed as a major-league first baseman. His hit tool, however, might have enough holes in it to keep him from ever making an impact.

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While Cuesta struggled in the batting cage, his left-handed countryman Misael Siverio warmed up in the outfield. Siverio was up next and was preparing for live action of his own.

Unlike Cuesta, Siverio is not physically imposing. At 5-foot-10 and 205 lbs., you wouldn’t have known he was a player working out for scouts had it not been for the Cuban national uniform he was wearing. Once on the mound, however, it was clear that Siverio is a seasoned veteran. His size limited his perceived ceiling before he ever threw a pitch, but he came in with a six-year track record in Serie Nacional, a working left arm, and the ability to spin a baseball, so naturally there was intrigue.

Siverio was no more imposing with his fastball than he is to look at, with the pitch sitting in the high 80s, touching as high as 89. It had some cutting action and he generally commanded it well, but it was a below-average pitch.

What got scouts’ attention, and the reason they were there to see him in the first place, was his curveball. A true plus pitch, the big breaker came in between 74-76 mph with a hard, powerful downward movement and enough break to change the eye level of hitters. He commanded it well, and that pitch alone would give him a chance against major-league left-handers right now.

While the curveball was impressive, the rest of the off-speed repertoire was not. He threw a few straight changeups that did virtually nothing, and a splitter that had a knuckle-esque movement. The split-knuckler, which he threw around 80-81 mph, was a plus pitch about one out of every four times, but the other three were either flat, slow, and hittable, or off the batter’s ankles.

Unlike Cuesta, who will need time in the minors, Siverio is probably a finished product and could jump straight to the majors. Once there, his ceiling would be that of a second lefty in a pen to be used in a situational role, perhaps becoming a middle reliever if everything works out. It’s not an incredibly sexy profile, but it’s one that could allow him to have a big-league career.

While neither player projects to have the impact of their more high-profile Cuban brethren, both will be signed and could have major-league careers.

Related Content:  Prospects,  Scouting,  Cuba

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