Cuban imports getting younger

Players defecting at earlier ages, set to make an impact

November 14, 2010|By Phil Rogers

Are the White Sox going back to the future in 2011?

Will they try one of the moves that worked out so well in 2005 — that is, the two-Cuban formation?

When the Sox were searching for a third baseman last season, they took a long look at Dayan Viciedo. He worked alongside fellow Cuban Alexei Ramirez in almost all of the 38 games he played in a season in which he spent extensive time in Chicago but did not lose his rookie status.

The results weren't as dramatic as in '05, when Cuban pitchers Jose Contreras and Orlando "El Duque'' Hernandez did a ton of the heavy lifting en route to the World Series parade. And while Brent Morel seems more likely to claim the third base job that Mark Teahen fumbled away, budget considerations — along with the loud ring of balls off Viciedo's bat — could prompt general manager Ken Williams to pencil in the 21-year-old Viciedo in the first base spot that Paul Konerko has filled since 1999.

This would be a huge risk, given Viciedo's absence of plate discipline. But the possibility intrigues Ramirez, who arrived in Chicago in 2008, when he was 26. Viciedo, signed as a teenager, is part of a recent trend in which Cuban players are defecting at an earlier age.

"I'm thrilled,'' Ramirez said recently, using White Sox media man Lou Hernandez to translate. "I'm thrilled to see (so many younger guys) playing, Cuban players. That's our dream in Cuba — to come here and have success in the big leagues.''

Whereas the defection stories of men like Hernandez, Contreras and Ramirez have been well-documented, the trend in recent years has found more top teenagers slipping out the side door while playing with Cuban national junior teams around the world.

Aroldis Chapman, for instance, was 21 when he walked away from a tournament in the Netherlands. The Reds gave him a six-year, $30.25 million contract even though they felt he still had work to do in the minor leagues. He spent five months in the high minors before joining them in late August.

The Royals won a bidding war to sign Noel Arguelles to a five-year contract worth $6.9 million a year ago. He nursed a shoulder injury through most of the season, eventually needing surgery, but is expected to show his potential in 2011. He could emerge fast once he hits stride.

Shortstop Jose Iglesias, whom the Red Sox signed to a four-year, $8.25 million contract at 19, is playing in the Arizona Fall League with the expectation of starting 2011 in Triple A and getting to Fenway Park by September, if not earlier. The organization believes he will hit enough to complement his potential Gold Glove defense.

Leslie Anderson, who was 28 when he signed a four-year, $1.75million deal with the Rays last April, hit the game-winning home run in the AFL's Rising Stars showcase last weekend. He and fellow Cuban Jose Ruiz — a left-handed-hitting first basemen signed in June to a unique deal that gives the Rays a four-year, $4million option on his contract — eventually could wind up as teammates. Ruiz, playing alongside Anderson in the AFL, opened eyes as he had hit .333 in 20 games.

Anderson could get a shot to replace departing free agent Carlos Pena at first base. But listed at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, he doesn't pass the eye test at first. His best shot to stick around is to show he's more valuable than Dan Johnson as a guy who can play the outfield corners and first base, hitting enough to justify some DH at-bats.

The Blue Jays are excited about the prospects of 21-year-old shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, signed to a four-year, $10 million contract. He reached Double A in 2010 but has work to do, especially on his hitting.

Among the Cubans on the way are Leonys Martin, a center fielder from the national team who is just beginning negotiations with teams, and third baseman Adonis Garcia, who recently was reported to have defected.

Ramirez, named the American League's Silver Slugger winner at shortstop, is happy to serve as a role model.

"It gives me joy, a great state of mind, to know my countrymen are coming over and finding an opportunity,'' he said.

Award season: The Baseball Writers of America will present six of their eight awards next week, with staggered announcements of Cy Young Award, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year. The American League Cy Young has created a ton of interest, with vocal backers (including many high-profile members of online think tanks) pushing the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, who led the league in ERA (2.27) and innings (2492/3) but went only 13-12.

It will be fascinating to see how Hernandez finishes when compared with more traditional candidates such as the Rays' David Price and the Yankees' CC Sabathia. The reality is any of the three would make a deserving winner, and separating them is about as impossible as sorting different-colored grains of sand once they have been mixed.

The last word: "Whether it was Derek Jeter, (Elvis) Andrus or myself was fine. Just to be mentioned in that discussion is an honor.'' — the White Sox's Ramirez on not winning the Gold Glove.

progers@tribune.com

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