MESA, Ariz.—First, it was Aroldis Chapman with the Reds as a rookie in 2011. Yoenis Cespedes arrived in Oakland in 2012. Yasiel Puig took Los Angeles by storm the year after that. Then White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu topped them all by capturing Baseball America’s Rookie of the Year award in 2014.
It has become an annual tradition for a rookie player from Cuba to burst on to the major league scene—one that’s going to continue in 2015.
While infielder Hector Olivera didn’t sign a $62.5 million contract with the Dodgers until Tuesday and Rusney Castillo was slowed by an oblique injury with the Red Sox in Florida, three notable Cuban natives are participating in spring training in Arizona, preparing for their rookie seasons: Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler, Reds righthander Raisel Iglesias and Diamondbacks third baseman/outfielder Yasmany Tomas.
For each, the challenges can be daunting as they adjust to both baseball and life in a foreign land, looking to reach the high bar set by their predecessors and meet the expectations that come with the size of their contracts.
Soler Ready For The Show
The Cubs are taking it slow with Soler, 23, playing him infrequently at the start of spring training to help him avoid the leg injuries that plagued him in recent seasons.
Unlike other Cuban stars jumping right onto a major league roster, Soler was just 20 when the Cubs signed him to a nine-year, $30 million contract in 2012. He’s had time to refine his immense raw talents in the farm system despite suffering injuries his last two seasons.
Soler left Cuba before getting the opportunity to play much in his native country’s Serie Nacional or with its top national team. Thus, he believes that his three minor league seasons, in addition to international experience during his teen years on the junior national team in Cuba, have been important.
Unlike Iglesias and Tomas, Soler has already gotten a taste of big league action, bursting onto the scene on Aug. 27 last year with a home run in his first at-bat. He followed with a two-homer game a couple of days later, finishing the season with a .292/.330/.573 average in 89 at-bats.
“I learned a lot from the pitchers I faced in the month I spent in the big leagues last year,” Soler said through interpreter/staff assistant Franklin Font. “It’s helped me to make better adjustments here in spring training so far.”
Soler grew up idolizing Omar Linares, one of Cuba’s best righthanded hitters in the history of baseball on the island. He’s now getting the opportunity to work daily with one of the top righthanded hitters of the last two decades in Cubs special assistant Manny Ramirez.
“It’s something incredible,” Soler said. “He’s my coach, my father—he’s tremendous. Early before the games when I get to the cage we do some routines every day . . . he’s like my father right now in the camp.”
Soler knows that the Cubs have been building a strong organization, and he’s excited about being a major contributor.
“I feel so proud to be part of this,” Soler said, noting the acquisitions of Jon Lester and Miguel Montero. “That will make for good competition every day on the field. I feel so proud to be part of this, and I’m happy to be here in this moment.”
Iglesias Getting Comfortable
It’s obvious that Iglesias is thoroughly enjoying being in big league camp. The 25-year-old is looking to make the Opening Day roster less than a year after signing a seven-year, $27 million contract. Other than a few games last fall in instructional league and the Arizona Fall League, Iglesias is taking the mound this spring for the first time since pitching during the 2012-13 Serie Nacional season in Cuba.
Most of the recent Cubans to find success in the big leagues have been hitters, but early returns indicate that Iglesias looks to be the first impact pitcher to come from Cuba since Reds teammate Chapman debuted in 2011.
“Since I got to the Reds complex last year I’ve received advice from a lot of people, not just Cubans,” Iglesias said through interpreter/assistant athletic trainer Tomas Vera. “They come to me and they’ve been really helpful coming to tell me what I have to do not just during the game but outside (the game).”
It’s not just fellow Latin American players. Despite their language differences, Iglesias has bonded with fellow righthander Michael Lorenzen, the team’s 2013 supplemental first-round pick out of Cal State Fullerton.
“We actually are really good friends,” Iglesias said about Lorenzen. “He and I can start to learn from each other. He speaks English to me and I speak Spanish to him . . . We hang around together a lot.”
In Cuba, the American game wasn’t a complete mystery to Iglesias, who monitored the status of Cuban pitchers in the big leagues, but also followed closely the career of one other big league star.
“Watching baseball made me feel like I wanted to be like Mariano Rivera,” Iglesias said. “He was the guy I liked to watch a lot.”
Iglesias also had the advantage of playing in international tournaments, most notably the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
“It’s a really good opportunity for a Cuban player to come over and participate in international events,” Iglesias said. “Playing in international events is going to help you learn how professional baseball is played . . . even how the umpires work, the difference between how the umpires work in Cuba and how they work here.”
Even though Iglesias finished his time in Cuba working out of the bullpen, the Reds are grooming him as a starter this spring because of his four-pitch mix. Improved command will be the key factor in determining whether he stays in the rotation or begins his big league career as a reliever.
Heavy Expectations For Tomas
Tomas, 24, faces the biggest challenges of the three Cuban rookies training in Arizona. He received the largest contract of the trio, a six-year, $68.5 million deal signed in December, and he’ll likely move right into the major league lineup without the benefit of minor league seasoning.
The pressure of living up to the expectations set by the sluggers preceding him motivate Tomas rather than weigh on him.
“That’s a really big inspiration for me to do the same that they did,” Tomas said through interpreter/coach Ariel Prieto, “and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to follow them.”
Tomas has been spending the early part of spring training at third base. While he had some experience at the hot corner in Cuba, Tomas spent the majority of his time as an outfielder. Observers are skeptical that he’ll be an adequate defender at third, especially considering his bulky 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame.
“I’m just as good at third base (compared to his outfield defense) right now,” Tomas said. “I played the position before when I was in Cuba. From the beginning of spring training here—even before then—they asked me if I can play third base . . . I said, ‘I have no problem with that so I can play there to help the team.’ ”
Regardless of his position, Tomas will be counted on to provide righthanded sock to a lineup that last year was sorely lacking in power. From what Tomas has seen so far, he said the biggest difference in pitching between Cuba and the major leagues is that Cuban hurlers tend to use more breaking balls than their American counterparts, who rely more on fastballs and changeups.
“Pitchers over here are completely different because they have a goal,” Tomas said. “When they go to pitch, they know what they have to do . . . Here they use more pitches. They look similar but at that same time may confuse (the hitter) with what kind of pitch it is.”
Another big difference that Tomas noticed with American baseball is that activities are more structured and disciplined. That’s why he’s glad he reported to Arizona in January to begin working out with the coaches and teammates a month prior to the start of spring training. That early start has helped him bond with teammates despite still not knowing much English.
“It’s a really, really good organization,” Tomas said, “and I like it.”