See Also: Baseball America International Podcast
At Baseball America, we're always trying to stay ahead of the curve to give you information you can't find anywhere else. Few areas are as challenging to cover but can give an innovative team an edge quite like the Cuban market.
Cuba has become such an important source of talent—both for immediate impact and younger prospects—that it's surprising that more teams don't have someone who's full-time gig is covering Cuba, similar to a Venezuelan or Dominican supervisor, with some obvious differences given the travel restrictions. Certain teams already do this, employing Cuban specialists to get a better handle on Cuban players before they ever leave the island, but it's surprising that it's not commonplace within the industry.
That's the approach we took to ranking and writing scouting reports on the top players still in Cuba, traveling across the world to follow the Cuban national team, seeing them at four international events over the past 18 months, watching more than 50 Serie Nacional games this past season and talking to scouts and other sources who have seen the country's top talent both in and out of Cuba.
Throughout that process, aside from evaluating players ranging in ability from major league all-stars to guys who wouldn't get out of Rookie ball, certain things jumped out to me about Cuban baseball in general.
1. Pitching Is Weak
In Major League Baseball, strikeouts are rising. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever, all the way down to the amateur level. Yet in Cuba, you can count on one hand the number of pitchers who can throw 95 mph. There are major league teams with more pitchers on their Dominican Summer League rosters who that can throw in the mid-90s than there are in all of Serie Nacional. Most pitchers in Cuba throw in the mid-to-high 80s, to the point where it's rare to see anything that starts with a “9” on the radar gun. Yosvani Torres, the Serie Nacional MVP this past season, is a 34-year-old righthander who sits 85-88 mph.
Yunieski Maya, Dalier Hinojosa and others who have excelled in Cuba have come over and been chewed up by Triple-A hitters. There's nobody in Cuba who could immediately jump to the major leagues and be a No. 3 starter right now. So when you see players with gaudy offensive numbers in Cuba, remember that they're doing it against a lot of slop pitching.
2. Hitters Adapt To Their Environment
The baseball culture of a country has a significant impact of the playing style and mechanics that permeate players in that region. In Japan, hitters tend to be contact-oriented, so Japanese pitchers often feature pauses and hesitations in their windups to try to disrupt their timing. In Cuba, hitters don't have to worry about being able to catch up to a mid-90s fastball on the inner third of the plate because they're never going to face anyone who throws that hard. And since Cuban teams don't groom hitters to eventually face MLB pitching, they don't need to worry if a hitter's swing is a little long. Wrapping the bat, when a hitter sets up with the bat head behind his helmet and pointed toward center field, is discouraged in the U.S. because it can add length and loopiness to a swing, but it's common in Cuba.
3. There Is A Draft
Serie Nacional is a 16-team league, but the caliber of the talent pool is too thin and the spread in individual talent is so wide that the quality of play in the league has become watered down. While nearly every other pro league draws on players from foreign countries, the Serie Nacional rosters are restricted to Cuban citizens only. That restricted talent base to draw from already makes things difficult, but the defection of the majority of the country's star players as well as others who were solid players for Serie Nacional but merely organizational types in the U.S. has drained the pool even further.
So beginning two seasons ago, Cuba split the season into two halves, with the eight best teams advancing to the second half. To beef up the quality of play, the second-half teams hold a five-round draft to select 40 players from teams that were eliminated in the first half. Artemisa had the No. 1 overall pick this year and drafted Sancti Spiritus outfielder Frederich Cepeda. Granma outfielder Alfredo Despaigne went to Santiago de Cuba with the second pick, followed by Camaguey righthander Norge Ruiz to Holguin with the third pick.
4. The Ultimate Reserve Clause Creates Strange Positions
The players on Cuban teams drawn from players from their home province. If you're from Cienfuegos, you're going to play for Cienfuegos in the Cuban junior leagues all the way up to Serie Nacional. There is the second-half draft and occasionally players are moved in very rare instances, but there is no free agency and trades don't exist. What that means is you end up with some funny-looking players at certain positions. First base and center field are the most notable, with one team playing a 5-foot-9 first baseman and teams putting plenty of 40 runners in center field. Sometimes there are players who play first base and center field. Cuba has given MLB Alexei Ramirez, Yunel Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarria and Jose Iglesias, with Erisbel Arruebarrena the latest smooth-fielding Cuban shortstop to come over. While Yordan Manduley and Luis Valdes are a pair of Cuban shortstops who are nifty with the glove, the Alexander Guerrero mold of a player who would struggle to stay in the middle of the infield at the major league level is more common.
5. Pitchers Get Overused
It's a 90-game season in Cuba, so managers don't have to protect their pitchers for a 162-game grind. Professional baseball in the United States doesn't have much authority to claim itself as the pinnacle of arm care, but it's hard not to cringe at the way some pitchers get used in Cuba. There are times when starters will pitch in relief the day before they start. That happened to Villa Clara’s Yasmany Hernandez, who on March 7 threw an inning of relief, faced seven batters and gave up four runs. The next day he started and pitched seven innings. Whether a reliever threw multiple innings yesterday or has pitched on several consecutive days usually doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to whether to use him again today.
6. Pitching Changes Create Excruciating Pace
If the pace of the game is a problem in MLB, it's a nightmare in Cuba. Every manager is different, but Cuban skippers tend to love to tinker with pitching changes, to the point where there's occasionally action in the bullpen in the first inning if the starter is struggling. In one game of the Serie Nacional finals, Matanzas manager Victor Mesa used 12 pitchers in one game. Even a nationally televised Red Sox-Yankees game doesn't drag quite like that.
7. Catchers Can't Throw, But Players Can't Steals Bases
Other than Frank Morejon, the starting catcher on the Cuban national team, the majority of catchers in Cuba are unathletic and slow on their throws to second base, with below-average pop times of 2.1 to 2.2 seconds the norm. A plus runner should have no problem stealing on cathers like that, and even an average runner who's smart on the basepaths should be able to swipe bags at a high clip off them.
Yet the art of basestealing is rare to see in Cuba. We've seen it from players such as Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig, who came from Cuba with plenty of speed but were never big basestealers in Serie Nacional and haven't been efficient in MLB. Alexei Ramirez was never a prolific or an efficient basestealer in Cuba. It took him several years to improve his baserunning in MLB, finally stealing 30 bags last season and operating at an 82 percent clip this year.
There are exceptions. In his final season in Cuba, Leonys Martin ranked second in the league with 30 stolen bases in 43 attempts, although he initially struggled with his baserunning when he was a Rangers minor leaguer. Rusney Castillo led Serie Nacional with 29 stolen bases in 35 tries in 2010-11. But they are the exceptions. Even the fastest players in Cuba have trouble stealing bases efficiently, such as Roel Santos, an 80 runner with 20 feel for stealing bases, a player I've seen thrown out by 10 feet on a straight steal against an ordinary throw to second. I've had conversations with scouts to see if they have an answer for why even some of the fastest players in Cuba struggle to steal bases, but I've yet to hear a great explanation.
8. Repeating Your Delivery Is Relative
Coaches in the United States drill into their pitches the need to repeat their deliveries, both to help them throw strikes and to make sure every pitch is coming out of the same arm slot. That concept doesn't exist in Cuba, where pitchers will intentionally manipulate their arm angles and deliveries to constantly give hitters a different look. Given that most pitchers in Cuba throw in the mid-80s and are relying on smoke and mirrors, trying to keep hitters off balance by giving them different looks isn't a terrible idea.
The key is that pitchers have to be able to throw multiple pitches from different arm angles. If a pitcher throws his fastball from a high three-quarters slot and only drops down to throw his slider, hitters are going to pick up on that quickly. That's also why it's difficult to tell sometimes whether a Cuban pitcher is throwing a distinct slider and a curveball. In a lot of cases, it's often just one breaking pitch that the pitcher is manipulating speeds and shapes on by moving his arm angle around.