Cuban Defectors Attract Interest In Dominican

Agent Jaime Torres represents high-profile Cuban defectors such as Mariners shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and White Sox righthander Jose Contreras.

In other words, while he’s an agent, not a scout, he does know talent. And he believes he has some future big leaguers among the five Cuban defectors working out in the Dominican Republic.

All five players have been certified by Major League Baseball as free agents, according to Torres. Three of the players–catcher Alexis Fonseca, righthander Serguey Linares and infielder Yunesky Sanchez–can sign at any time, having cleared the bureaucratic process known as unblocking. Two others, righthander Yuslan Herrera and shortstop Yohannis Perez, have not yet been “unblocked” but should complete the process sooner rather than later.

Torres said his goal for the group is to have them signed to 2007 contracts in time to go to instructional league with major league organizations, or at least in time for them to be placed in a Caribbean winter league.

“I think some of these players could step in right now in the major leagues and play,” Torres said. “You talk about Betancourt, and to me, Yohannis Perez is a very similar type of talent, with similar potential. Linares has hit 97-98 (mph) before, and I think he’s the type of pitcher who could go to spring training next year and break camp with a major league club.

“Herrera, I had one organization put an offer on the table to see if he could help their major league team this year. I say he is ready right now, but he is not unblocked yet, so that is not going to happen. But he was ahead of (Mets righthander) Alay Soler in the rotation at Pinar Del Rio three years ago, and he is a professional, very mature, and he is ready to pitch.”

scouts familiar with the players told Baseball America that Herrera was
the most impressive of the quintet at a recent workout at the
Diamondbacks academy in the Dominican, but that Linares and Perez have
attracted the most attention of the group from scouts.

Perez, listed with an Oct. 11, 1982 birthday, has the most significant upside,
as one scout said Perez once resembled Rickie Weeks due to his build,
strong wrists and quick hands. He hit .271 with 10 home runs in more
than 1,200 at-bats in his Serie Nacional career.

Perez hasn’t played in any kind of league in the last two years since
his defection, and has put on weight. Torres said Perez probably was 12-15 pounds heavier than he needed to be, checking in at 192 pounds rather than a desired 180-185. Torres said Perez is working to “have the body he needs to have.”

“He ran a 6.6 (seconds over 60 yards) down there
but I’ve seen him run better than a 6.4,” said one international scout.
“He’s shown outstanding tools and instincts in the past, good hands–he
can play. But what is he now, when he hasn’t played for two years? He
didn’t see any good pitches to hit in the simulated game they played,
so it was hard to say anything about his hitting, plus they used Baum
(wood composite) bats.

“All four of them ate some bad shrimp the
night before, and Perez was throwing up during the game. It was just
hard to tell what he is.”

Linares, 23, was affected by the food
poisoning and didn’t pitch except for a side bullpen session. Listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Linares has had poor
results in his Serie Nacional career, going 7-10, 5.59 with nearly as
many walks (86) as strikeouts (111) in 163 career innings.

25, has had success in Cuba, with a career 18-7, 3.72 record. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound righthander has
shown command of a fringy fastball and what Torres termed an above-average curveball, and one scout liked him a lot. “He’s got an above-average split-finger
(fastball) and was 88-92,” the scout said. “I could see his velocity
jumping up to 90-94 once he gets into a system and he could very easily
be a No. 4 starter in the big leagues.”

Fonseca, 22, is a righthanded-hitting catcher; scouts rate his arm
strength as modest, and they don’t consider him a significant prospect.
Sanchez, 22, is a rangy infielder at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds.

Torres said he’s had overtures from several organizations for different players, from the “usual suspects” such as the Mariners, Mets, Red Sox and Yankees but also from other “surprising” organizations. While money obviously is a major factor in where they will sign, Torres said the right fit also is crucial for players in such unique circumstances as Cuban defectors.

“The most money doesn’t necessarily make it the best situation,” he said. “Herrera could pitch in the major leagues right now, and I think Linares and Perez could make a club out of spring training. It would be good for them to go somewhere where they have that chance. The organization also has to have people who can help them deal with the cultural and other adjustments they have to make.”

An unrelated, newer defector will need time to go through the unblocking process before he can sign. Righthander Kenny Rodriguez
defected in mid-July while playing in Ecuador with Cuba’s university team. It was considered a surprise defection in
that Ecuador has an excellent relationship with Cuba’s government.
Rodriguez, whose age is reported as being either 20 or 22 (depending on
the source), is believed to have fled to Peru.

Rodriguez pitched
for Cuba’s junior national team in 2003 in Curacao and reportedly has
reached the mid-90s with his fastball in the past. More recently, a
source who saw him pitch in Ecuador reports the 6-foot-1, 170-pounder
sat in the upper 80s, while another source said Rodriguez threw his
fastball in the 89-91 mph range. He also throws a slider. Rodriguez has
been a below-average pitcher in Cuba’s highest-level league, Serie Nacional,
and was 6-4, 4.18 this season with 72 strikeouts in 75 innings. While
one source likened him to a good college reliever who could be drafted
in the first five rounds, another was less impressed with Rodriguez.

looked weak to me,” said one source who saw Rodriguez both in 2003 in
Curacao and again in Ecuador last month. “His stuff was a lot livelier
when he was in Curacao. He has a quick arm but he just didn’t look good
at all in Ecuador.”

Contributing: Chris Kline.