"I don't think at any time you have seen so many Cuban players come here and have the kind of impact that they are having." -- longtime scout Rudy Santin
It was Esteban Bellan, who was born in Havana and attended college in New York, who was the first Latin American to play Major League Baseball in 1871.
But the circumstances surrounding the Cuban market have changed dramatically in the last decade, much less the last 142 years.
There's an age-old adage that says the best Cuban ballplayers are not in the Major Leagues, but back on the island playing for the country's national team. In recent years, the adage has lost some of its mythical status in part because the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig has burst onto the scene in Los Angeles, while Oakland's Cespedes blasted his way to the Chevrolet Home Run Derby title at this year's All-Star Game in New York, and Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman is in his second year of lighting up radar guns as the Reds' closer.
The 22-year-old Puig, who played for the 2013 Chattanooga Lookouts before being called up, has made an immediate impact in Los Angeles while simultaneously drawing the fury and admiration of the baseball world for his take-no-prisoners playing style. Puig, who signed a seven-year deal for $42 million last summer, is a five-tool player -- six, if you count his attitude
Then there's Cespedes, 27, who signed a four-year, $36 million deal with Oakland not long after defecting from Cuba in 2012. He's made a reputation as the hard-working, humble family man of this new generation of Cubans.
Chapman, who signed a six-year, $30.25 million deal in January 2010, is the rebel of the group, but he's coming into his own in Cincinnati. Marlins rookie Jose Fernandez, 21, is another Cuban player on the rise. Fernandez and Chapman were National League All-Stars this year and among the 17 Cuban players who have played in the Major Leagues this year.
There are other Cubans making their mark in the big leagues: Texas outfielder Leonys Martin, White Sox teammates Dayan Viciedo and Alexei Ramirez, Seattle's Kendrys Morales, Miami's Adeiny Hechavarria, Tampa Bay's Yunel Escobar and shortstop Jose Iglesias, who was recently traded from Boston to Detroit.
And there is another wave of Cuban players on the way. Cuban slugger Jose Abreu, who hit .360 with three home runs and nine RBIs in six games in this year's World Baseball Classic, reportedly defected from Cuba earlier this week. He's a former MVP in Cuba, where he had one of the best seasons in league history in 2010-11, hitting .453 with 33 home runs and 93 RBIs in just 66 games. Various reports have placed Abreu, 26, in the Dominican Republic or Haiti.
Also available is right-hander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, who had been close to a deal with the Phillies but remains unsigned. Former Cuban national squad teammate Dariel Hinojosa, a right-hander, is expected to sign a multimillion-dollar deal soon. Odrisamer Despaigne, 26, a right-hander, and 24-year-old left-hander Misael Silverio are among the recent Cuban defectors expected to hit the free-agent market sometime this year. There's also right-handed pitcher Leandro Linares, 19, who recently signed with the Indians for $950,000.
"The Cuban player is at its peak," said former scout Rudy Santin, who represents Guerrero. "I don't think at any time you have seen so many Cuban players come here and have the kind of impact that they are having. They are all starters, and some are making a big difference. Some are contributing as everyday players. There's never been so many contribute like that, and I was a scout for 30 years."
It's been more than two decades since right-hander Rene Arocha became the first player to defect from Cuba's national team in 1991. He later signed with the Cardinals and debuted in 1993 when he was 27 years old. Brothers Livan and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez followed their big league dreams in 1995. "El Duque" was 32 when he made his big league debut, and Livan was 21. Right-hander Jose Contreras defected in 2002 and was 31 when he made his debut with the Yankees the next year.
Decades earlier, Minnie Minoso helped integrate the Major Leagues in the 1950s. Players like Tony Perez, Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva and Camilo Pascual left Fidel Castro's communist island and thrived in the big leagues in the years that followed.
---- Source: MLB.com
Puig speaks with reporters in April at Media Day.
- Photo2 by Tim Evearitt