February 15, 2007
The spotlight on foreign players these days shines directly on the Land of the Rising Sun.
If you don't believe it, just think back to a few months ago when the chat rooms, talk shows, and highlight shows were filled with news of the posting for Daisuke Matsuzaka by Seibu Lions, the spirited bidding war that ensued, the Boston Red Sox winning that bidding at a whopping $51,111,111.11 and the subsequent negotiations than ended with Dice-K signing a six-year contract worth $52 million.
Throw in the $26,000,194 the New York Yankees paid through the posting system to the Hanshin Tigers in order to sign left-hander Kei Igawa to a five-year, $20-million contract, and Japan has clearly replaced Cuba as the nation major league clubs look to for quick fixes.
Much of that has to do with the fact Japanese players are already playing in major leaguers in their own country, while the Cubans have only played amateur baseball, and many of them sit out at least one season after defecting from the communist island nation while getting immigration matters in order.
Another part of the reason teams are no longer falling all over themselves to sign Cuban players is because many haven't worked out since Rene Arocha led the way by defecting then signing with St. Louis Cardinals and making his major league debut in 1993. Arocha was the first of 23 Cuban defectors who have played in the major leagues over the past 14 seasons. Just 13 of those 23 have logged as many as 500 at-bats or 150 innings pitched in their careers.
Yet after being long dormant in the international market, the Pittsburgh Pirates decided the time was right this past offseason to take a stab at a pair of right handers from Cuba. They signed Yoslan Herrera to a major-league contract worth $1.92 million over three years. Serguey Linares agreed to a minor league contract that guarantees him $125,000 with an invitation to major league spring training.
Neither Herrera nor Morales has much of a chance to make the Opening Day roster, as neither has pitched competitively since defecting after the 2004 season. Herrera is considered the more polished pitcher with a solid fastball-curveball-changeup arsenal, while Linares is a hard thrower with control problems.
Signing Cuban players has its inherent risks, and Pirates General Manager Dave Littlefield is aware of that. It is difficult to get accurate scouting reports because the two Cubans have not played recently, and scouts had to settle for watching them work out. The statistic component of evaluations is hazy because numbers are not always readily available from the Cuban league, called Serie Nacional.
Baseball Prospectus' Clay Davenport, though, was able to get his hands on the new Pirates' most recent statistics in Cuba and translated them into what they would look like in the major leagues in 2007. Davenport was able to accurately predict how the much-ballyhooed Jose Contreras would fare four years ago when he defected, and signed with the New York Yankees.
Davenport's translations on the new Pirates match the general consensus, expecting Herrera to be more major league-ready than Linares.
Yuslan Herrera Year Team Lge G GS IP H HR BB K DERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 NERA PERA STUF 2002 PinarDelRi CBA 6 1 16.2 31 2 9 8 8.64 16.7 1.1 4.9 4.3 8.64 6.37 -23 2003 PinarDelRi CBA 29 1 78.2 97 3 24 48 4.12 11.1 0.3 2.7 5.5 4.12 4.51 10 2004 PinarDelRi CBA 23 13 87.2 107 12 32 46 6.06 11.0 1.2 3.3 4.7 6.06 6.29 -16 minors 58 15 183.0 235 17 65 102 5.46 11.6 0.8 3.2 5.0 5.46 5.53 -5 Serguey Linares Year Team Lge G GS IP H HR BB K DERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 NERA PERA STUF 2003 PinarDelRi CBA 18 17 88.2 109 21 50 71 7.41 11.1 2.1 5.1 7.2 7.41 7.67 -17 2004 PinarDelRi CBA 9 4 38.1 42 2 22 27 5.63 9.9 0.5 5.2 6.3 5.63 5.77 11 minors 27 21 127.0 151 23 72 98 6.87 10.7 1.6 5.1 6.9 6.87 7.10 -8
By contrast, here's what Contreras looked like:
Jose Contreras Year Team Lge G GS IP H HR BB K DERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 NERA PERA STUF 2001 PinarDelRi CBA 24 23 153.0 183 17 49 160 3.82 10.8 1.0 2.9 9.4 3.82 4.50 31 2002 PinarDelRi CBA 20 20 138.0 121 6 46 141 3.85 7.9 0.4 3.0 9.2 3.85 3.75 47 minors 44 43 291.0 304 23 95 301 3.84 9.4 0.7 2.9 9.3 3.84 4.15 39
Which was a good match to his his first year in the States:
Jose Contreras, Stateside Year Team Lge G GS IP H HR BB K DERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 NERA PERA STUF 2003 NYYankees AL 18 9 73.0 50 4 29 71 3.82 6.2 0.5 3.6 8.8 3.95 3.42 34
Littlefield feels the Pirates are uniquely positioned to have some pretty solid insights to the Cuban players: "We do have a number of people in our organization who have contacts and understand what's going on in Cuban baseball." Specificially, he has a trio with that expertise. Rene Gayo, the Pirates' director of Latin American scouting, was instrumental in signing Danys Baez when he worked for the Cleveland Indians. One of Littlefield's special assistants, Louie Eliajua, played a large role in the Florida Marlins' singing of Livan Hernandez. Pirates Latin American field coordinator Euclides Rojas was once a star relief pitcher on the Cuban national team.
Littlefield also saw both of his new imports pitch last August during a workout in the Dominican Republic, where Herrera and Linares took up residence after defecting to the United States in order to avoid being subjected to the first-year player draft, thus making themselves eligible to sign as foreign free agents.
"We feel like we were able to gain a lot of knowledge and information about both pitchers," Littlefield said. "We felt comfortable in signing both of them and we're very happy to have them in the organization. We feel both are capable of pitching in the major leagues and contributing to our club in the future."
That future may not be far away. Herrera will likely begin this season at Triple-A Indianapolis, while Linares is expected to be assigned to Double-A Altoona.
Time will tell if Herrera and Linares get to the major leagues just enough to play sparingly like Jorge Toca, Eddie Oropesa, Adrian Hernandez, Bill Ortega, Hansel Izquierdo, Juan Diaz, and Michel Hernandez. Those are the nine Cubans who failed to reach the 500-at-bat/150-inning threshold.
Kendry Morales, Brayan Pena, and Alay Soler also are in that group, but figure to have futures in the majors. Morales made his major-league debut last season with the Los Angeles Angels. Though the first baseman hit just .234/.293/.371 in 57 games and 197 at-bats, he had a big winter ball season in the Dominican Republic, and the Angels believe he will be a big part of their future after likely spending the majority of 2007 with Triple-A Salt Lake. Pena figures to be the Atlanta Braves' backup catcher behind Brian McCann this season. Pena has had a combined 80 at-bats in 41 games with the Braves the past two seasons, hitting .225/.253/.313 with one homer and nine RBI. Soler made eight starts for the New York Mets last season, going 2-3 while posting a 6.00 ERA. It is instructive, though, that his name is never mentioned among a host of possibilities expected to compete for spots in the back end of the Mets' rotation this spring.
There is a mixed bag among the 13 Cubans who have had played a significant amount of time in the majors. Livan Hernandez and his half-brother Orlando Hernandez have been postseason heroes, while others like Vladimir Nunez and Alex Sanchez have been journeymen, always a step away from being sent back to the minor leagues.
Interestingly, only three of the 13 have been position players: shortstops Rey Ordonez and Yuniesky Betancourt, and Sanchez, a center fielder whose claim to fame came in 2005 when he became the first player suspended for violating Major League Baseball's performance-enhancing drug policy.
Ordonez is trying to make a comeback with the Seattle Mariners after being out of the major leagues since 2004 as he will be in their camp as a non-roster player this spring. (Ironically, Betancourt has been the Mariners' starting shortstop the last two seasons.) Ordonez won three consecutive National League Gold Gloves at shortstop from 1997-99 for the Mets, but his career offensive numbers are .246/.289/.310 with 12 home runs and 287 RBI in 973 games, which added up to a WARP1 of 14.3. Ahead of him on the depth chart, Betancourt has hit .280/.306/.394 with nine homers and 62 RBI in 217 games during his two seasons with the Mariners, posting a 2.7 WARP1.
Sanchez could wind up winning the starting center fielder's job with the Florida Marlins this spring as a non-roster invitee after spending all of last season in the minor leagues with the Reds. His career statistics in five seasons don't create much awe: .296/.330.372 with six homers, 111 RBI, 122 stolen bases, and a 7.3 WARP1 in 427 games. However, Sanchez will be battling Reggie Abercrombie (.212/.271/.333) and utilityman Alfredo Amezaga (.260/.332/.332), so his shot at the job isn't just talk.
Cuban pitchers have made a bigger impact, and here is a look at the 10 who have pitched at least 150 innings, ranked on order of career PRAR, listed in parentheses:
Livan Hernandez (549 PRAR): The big right hander has been the best of the bunch, as he won Most Valuable Player honors as a Marlins rookie in the 1997 National League Championship Series and World Series, and has long been one of the most durable starters in the major leagues. Now with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Hernandez has gone 123-117 with a 4.19 ERA in 318 starts across 11 seasons, and been selected to two All-Star Games.
Orlando Hernandez (367): El Duque has made his mark in the postseason, mostly with the New York Yankees, by compiling a fantastic 12-3 record with a 2.55 ERA in 19 games (14 starts), but he has also been fine in the regular season with an 81-60 record and 4.19 ERA in eight seasons. Though Hernandez is considered at least three years older than his listed age of 37, the Mets did not hesitate in re-signing him to a two-year, $12 million contract as a free agent at the end of last season.
Danys Baez (239): He didn't cut it as a starter with the Indians after making his major league debut in 2001, but he has had some decent seasons in relief, notching 111 saves in his six-year career, and getting picked for one All-Star Game. In all, he is 31-37 with a 3.79 ERA in 341 games (26 starts). The Baltimore Orioles are convinced Baez can serve as the primary set-up man to young closer Chris Ray after signing him to a three-year, $19 million deal as a free agent in November.
Rolando Arrojo (213): He was the first-ever member of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to be picked to an All-Star Game during their expansion season of 1998, but his career went steadily downhill from there, until it ended in 2002. In five seasons, Arrojo was 40-42 with six saves and a 4.55 ERA in 158 games, 105 starts.
Jose Contreras (184): No Cuban has sparked a more intense bidding war as the Yankees gave him a four-year, $32 million contact prior to the 2003 season to keep Boston from signing him. Now with the Chicago White Sox, Contreras has put together a good record without ever dominating as much as he did in Cuba. So far, he's 48-27 with a 4.28 ERA in 111 games, 102 starts. He was also selected to the All-Star Game last summer after playing a major role in the White Sox winning the World Series in 2005.
Vladimir Nunez (80): He pitched primarily in relief during his nondescript seven-year career from 1998-2004, making 203 of his 230 appearances out of the bullpen and going 20-32 with 21 saves and a 4.83 ERA.
Rene Arocha (75): His most noteworthy accomplishment was being the first defector to reach the big leagues, as he went 18-17 with 11 saves and a 4.11 ERA in 124 games (including 36 starts) during a career that lasted just four seasons and included multiple detours to the minor leagues before ending in 1997.
Ariel Prieto (75): The only man on this list subjected to the draft because he stayed in the United States after defecting, the Oakland Athletics used the fifth overall pick on him in 1995. He never lived up to the hype, going 15-24 with a 4.85 ERA in 70 games and 60 starts.
Michael Tejera (38): Has spent all or parts of five seasons in the major leagues since making his debut in 1999, going 11-13 with three saves and a 5.14 ERA in 111 games, 27 starts. After spending all last season with the San Francisco Giants' Triple-A affiliate in Fresno, Tejera will join Herrera and Linares in the Pirates' camp this spring as a non-roster player.
Cubans have the biggest adjustment of any players coming to the United States. Unlike those from other Latin American countries, the Cubans leave their families behind with no chance of returning home until the ailing Fidel Castro's communist regime comes to an end. Some players' families are eventually allowed to come to the United States, but much depends on how effective lawyers are at cutting through bureaucratic red tape or if the spouse and children are daring enough to defect.
"It is a very difficult to decide to leave," Herrera said. "You know you might never see your family again. I've adjusted and I'm able to talk to them on the phone once a week, but I still get sad sometimes when I think about not being able to see them."
The socio-economic structure in the United States is also vastly different than in Cuba. Prieto, for instance, was making $10 a week before defecting and getting a $1.2 million signing bonus from the Athletics. Agent Gus Dominguez was always fond of telling the story about giving Prieto his bonus check. Prieto threw it away, thinking it was a worthless piece of paper and unable to comprehend its value before finally fishing it out of the garbage.
The cultural change is why the Pirates signed two Cubans over the winter. As Littlefield notes, "On one hand, the players who come from Cuba are usually a little older and better educated than the typical 17-year-old kid you sign out of the Dominican Republic. But there is no question that the Cuban players have even more cultural differences. We've tried to ease the transition the best we can for Herrera and Linares. They've been through shared experiences and that will give them both someone they can relate to. Hopefully, that helps both of them because we feel they are both talented pitchers and we want to put them in position to succeed."
John Perrotto is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and covers Major League Baseball for the Beaver County Times. You can reach John by clicking here.