El Sitio Web del Deporte Nacional de Cuba
Further Comments on the Level of Cuban League Baseball









by Peter C. Bjarkman

April 14, 2009

Two losses suffered by Team Cuba to Japan in the second round of this year’s World Baseball Classic, as well as my many comments on this website and elsewhere analyzing and explaining those defeats, has generated a good deal of healthy debate, both here on www.baseballdecuba.com as well as back on the island itself. On the whole this debate has been lively, entertaining, well-reasoned, and productive. Occasionally, however, some fans are so enthralled by their own ingrained passions for the island’s national pastime that they cling tenaciously to old misconceptions and thus fail to listen carefully to what others might be saying or writing from a differing perspective. One recent example is a letter received from passionate Cuban fan Mario Escoto, who condemns my labeling of the Cuba League as equivalent to Class AA by North American professional baseball standards.

Cuban League baseball may be Class AA level in its overall player talent, but it remains first class as a genuine entertainment spectacle.


Mr Escoto challenges me to explain just how Cuban baseball could possibly be deemed at the high “minor league” level when players like Alexei Ramírez, José Contreras, Danys Baez, Kendry Morales, Brayan Peña, and Orlando Hernánez (among others mentioned in his letter) have transitioned so easily to big league ball clubs. He counters that if Yunel Escobar with the Braves, Ramírez, with the White Sox, Yuniesky Betancourt with Seattle, or the former Met Rey Ordónez (only one of whom—Ramírez—ever performed on the Cuban national team) could all stick out in the majors, then what might we imagine players like Victor Mesa, Pedro Jova, Antonio Pacheco and a slew of others might also have accomplished in the North American big time?

The problem here, of course, is simply that Mr. Escoto has not paid much attention to what I have actually written, either in recent essays or in my numerous books and articles. No one has claimed more consistently than I have that the top performers on Cuban national teams throughout the 2000s have all unquestionably been of major league caliber. It was this author, in fact, who on the eve of the first Classic went on récord before anyone else in claiming that the Cuban team would shock North American fans, and that Cuba would indeed reach the finals of the first WBC event. Of course that didn’t happen back in 2006 without some luck along the way, and my point here is certainly not to boast about any earlier predictions. I wish merely to underscore once again my claims over the years that the 45-man extended roster of the Cuban national team is made up of legitimate major league players, many of whom could not only crack starting lineups but would more than likely headline on any American League or National League ball clubs.

The big league status of top Cuban stars has now been demonstrated to the rest of the baseball world by two editions of the WBC, as well as by Cuba’s other numerous post-2000 successes in international tournaments filled with former or future MLB standouts. Mr. Escoto asks if I am saying Cepeda, Urgellés, Gourriel, Garlobo and others are merely AA ballplayers. Of course not; I have never written that and I challenge him to point out any article or column where I have. Time and again I have voiced just the opposite opinion. No one off the island has sung the praises or underscored the high quality of players like Cepeda, Pestano, Paret or Pedro Lazo more fervently that this particular writer.

What I have written (not what Escoto assumes I have written) is that the overall quality of the Cuban League (not the Cuban national team) is—top to bottom—somewhere on a par with AA-level leagues in the United States. I have also been careful to emphasize, while saying this, that AA baseball is now often well above what AAA ball may have been during earlier epochs. Top young prospects (the cases are too numerous to cite) now often pass directly from AA clubs to the big time, given the economic realities and contract structures shaping today’s major league play. The Cuban League, remember, draws its talent from an island of only 11-plus million, while the talent pool for the US majors comes not only from a population base of 300 million North Americans but also is drawn from other top baseball nations throughout Latin America and Asia (and elsewhere in Europe, Africa and Australia as well). We could hardly expect overall talent in the Cuban League to reach big league levels given this population imbalance. The top 40-50 Cuban Leaguers are demonstrably on a par with any big league roster. On the other hand, the roster for, say, Las Tunas, Industriales, or Cienfuegos—from top to bottom, including bench and bullpen—is certainly not a big-league-level lineup. Two or three big leaguers—perhaps Urrutia with Las Tunas, Mayeta or Urgellés, in the capital city, or José Dariel Abreu and Norberto Gonzáles with last-place Cienfuegos—and the remainder all ranging from solid prospects (maybe two or three on each team) and dozens more who would likely never—even with considerable seasoning—crack any top professional clubs. This is simply the current nature of the beast.

We would be well advised to leave aside here the issue of pre-1999 Cuban Leaguers, since the switch from aluminum bats to wooden bats makes it most difficult to judge the true qualities of those earlier stars like Jova, Kindelán, Omar Linares or Victor Mesa. It has often been too easily argued in the past that Cuban teams in those earlier decades won their numerous gold medals while competing against American and Asian clubs laced with nothing more than unseasoned amateurs—opponents who were often years younger than the top Cuban stars. While I believe this argument is always a bit superficial, it is nonetheless also difficult to contradict. I have little doubt that many top Cuban stars of the 1970s, 80s, or 90s—Linares, Kindelán and pitcher Lazaro Valle foremost among them—would have made the necessary adjustments to the wooden bat game and thus found success and even stardom in the US majors. But it is not something all that easy to prove. Linares or Kindelán—like Pedro Jova, Victor or Germán Mesa, or Luis Casanova—did not complete on a level playing field with genuine big leaguers and their skills (like those of the 1930s-era Negro leaguers) will thus always remain difficult to assess.

This argument of inferior competition—or aluminum bat advantages—of course no longer holds up for the present decade. We have now seen what today’s Cuban players can accomplish on a level playing field with vaunted North American, Dominican or Japanese big leaguers. There is no longer room for debate. It is precisely for this reason that I have gone on récord in claiming that the current Cuban national teams—the teams of the past four or five years—represent the best Cuban talent of any epoch. For my money, at least, Cepeda, Pedro Lazo, Gourriel, Urrutia, Pestano and others in the current crew have demonstrated sufficiently that they are truly big league—something Linares or Casanova or Victor Mesa never had the chance to do. You can speculate that Omar Linares, for example, was a potential top major leaguer, but there is no way you can cite hard evidence to confirm it. Yet I can now recite plenty of evidence to show that Freddie Cepeda or Alfredo Despaigne or Alexei Bell (before recent injuries) are proven major leaguers.

But let’s not compare apples with mangos here. The fact that today’s Cuban national teams can hold up against the top pros, or the fact that players like Yuniesky Betancourt or Kendry Morales or Alexei Ramírez can transition into the major leagues, should not be distorted to suggest that Cuban League baseball is big league baseball all across the board. The examples of Morales and Betancourt, for example, are excellent cases in point. Morales was an emerging star when he left Cuba, but it took him nearly five years of AA and AAA seasoning in the US before he was finally ready this March (at age 26) to assume a regular slot in the Los Angeles Angels everyday MLB lineup. Betancourt was never a star in Cuba simply because he left as a budding prospect with only four year’s of league experience—stuck behind Eduardo Paret on the Villa Clara roster. Dayan Viciedo fled his starting position in the Villa Clara infield for a lucrative contract with the Chicago White Sox. But where is Viciedo now playing? He has begun the season at AA Birmingham. Denis Suarez (Industriales) and Juan Yasser Serrano (Villa Clara) are two fairly successful Cuban League hurlers who only recently abandoned the island, their heads filled with visions of six-figure contracts identical to the one agent Jaime Torres wrangled for the somewhat overrated Viciedo. So far big league scouts who have auditioned Suarez (one of the mainstays of the Industriales mound corps the past couple of years) and Serrano (a promising Villa Clara starter but never an all-star) have shown little interest in offering either one a huge signing bonus—or even offering any contracts at all.

We don’t need to belabor the point here. Give me the starting lineup (as well as the more-than-solid bench) of the Cuban team playing in this year’s WBC, and I will bet even money that they would fare quite well in the American League or National League over a full 162-game season. I am not claiming that they would win the pennant (the pitching might be a little too weak), but I do contend they would be competitive and likely not finish in the league basement. But would I put this year’s Industriales team in the American League? An Industriales club that can’t play above .500 this season in the Occidental League back on the island would likely lose 120 games in the majors; they might also easily lose 100-plus in the AAA Pacific Coast League or AAA International League. Would I put the Cuban national teams of , say, 1975 or 1985 in the National League and still hope for break-even success? Probably not, although this is a much harder question to answer with any degree of confidence.

Cepeda, Gourriel and company wearing Cuban national colors in Mexico City and San Diego represented a big league club beyond any shadow of a doubt. But Industriales or Cienfuegos or Granma (even Habana Province or Pinar del Río or the Wasps of Santiago) in this year’s Cuban League are all perhaps AA ball clubs at best. Each has a few big leaguers in tow, a handful of minor league prospects on board, and a dozen warm bodies filling up the bench. This is a reasoned opinion based on my own dozen years of watching baseball first-hand all across Cuba, and also based on watching the Cuban national team play more than 100 games in top world class venues since 1995. It is also an opinion I have verified in numerous discussions with dozens of big league scouts at those same tournaments. I am not certain how many games on the island Mr. Escoto has actually seen firsthand during the past decade. And I am not certain how many international tournaments he has actually attended to watch Cuban national teams up close and in person. He certainly is entitled to his own opinions on these matters. But he also owns some responsibility here to pay attention to what I have actually placed in print. And instead of focusing only on success stories like those of El Duque, Yunel Escobar and Kendry Morales when assessing the level of Cuban league play, he should also take into account the failures of dozens of everyday Cuban Leaguers who have also fled the island over the past decade only to find no lucrative professional prospects whatsoever awaiting them north of the Cuban Straits. Their stories also speak volumes about what professional scouts find in bulk of Cuban League talent.

Escoto’s recent letter also seems to demand at least one further rebuttal. He concludes that Cuba baseball is currently quite solid (one point on which I wholeheartedly agree) but that the Cuban national team stars are now simply playing without any incentive, since athletes in the big leagues make millions of dollars and they don’t. This seems to be his main explanation for Team Cuba’s losses in San Diego—Cuban players had insufficient motivation since they were not playing for top dollar rewards like the big leaguers. I am not sure what inside information Escoto has about the motives of individual players on Team Cuba. But I can tell you that I was with the team in Mexico City and San Diego and spent considerable time with numerous members of the squad at the team hotel both before and after two difficult games versus Japan. There was no visible lack of incentive on the part of any of the players with whom I had extended contact. Cuban players to a man performed with genuine enthusiasm and with great team spirit and were as highly motivated by patriotism and personal pride as island ballplayers always are.

There were indeed individual players in this year’s WBC who seemed to lack motivation and often played like they had little investment in winning—but they were certainly not Cubans. They were instead some of the high-profile MLB stars found on Dominican and USA rosters—professionals who (unlike the bulk of Japanese leaguers, Korean leaguers or Cuban leaguers) do not place quite the same intense importance on international competitions, and who thus more often than not appear to play more for the names on the backs of their uniforms than for the names inscribed across the fronts of those same uniforms. With the hopes and aspirations of an entire nation resting on their shoulders (something American players certainly could not boast) it was certainly not the Cubans who were uninspired or (to quote Escoto) “without sufficient incentive.” The Cubans did not lose in San Diego because they were not big league talents, or because they were not paid highly enough to care sufficiently about winning for flag and country. They lost for the simple reason that on two specific outings they were victimized by great opposition pitching performances—nothing more and nothing less. There are no political or sociological or economic explanations here but only pure baseball ones.

I have written time and again that I believe Cuban baseball to be a markedly “better game” than the MLB product. Cuban baseball is still “genuine sport” and not strictly entertainment spectacle; it is closer to the pastoral roots of the nineteenth-century game we all once loved. The Cuban League ballpark is a throwback to an earlier era, a place where the crack of the bat is not yet drowned out by electronic rock music and exploding scoreboards, and a place where you can sit right on top to the action without taking out any second mortgages on the family farm just to own the price of admission. Given the opportunity to spend a single week in Cuban League parks or a full summer on the major league circuit and I would elect the former option in a heartbeat over the latter. This has nothing to do with comparative level of talent in the two leagues, but rather just the opposite. Today’s MLB product provides a startling example of how talent level in itself does not guarantee a quality sporting spectacle. Cuban League baseball demonstrates time and again that the proper mix of a mere handful of “big leaguers” with the game’s original intimate pastoral settings can still transport us back to everything we once loved about this simple summer game—long before it was played in shopping malls, viewed from luxury box suites, or sandwiched between an endless series of blaring rock concerts. The issue of how many proven “big leaguers” might be on the field of play seems a moot point by comparison.

Peter C. Bjarkman’s analyses of Cuban baseball can also be followed on his website at www.bjarkman.com, on his personal blog at www.bjarkmanlatinobaseball.mlblogs.com, and on the Cuban League site found at www.radiococo.cu (English-language page). His new book entitled Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1962-2007 will be published by McFarland at the end of the coming year.