Michael R. Stevens
What Hath Cuba to Do with Chicago?
Editor's Note: This is part 2 of Michael R. Stevens' annual baseball extravaganza. Part 1, posted on Monday, took a fresh look at the integration of baseball via the book Rickey & Robinson by the great Roger Kahn, whose The Boys of Summer is one of the all-time classics of baseball lit.
So, what will happen in 2015 in Major League Baseball, with a new commissioner, Rob Manfred, at the helm? (According to my coach's e-newsletter from Little League Baseball International, Manfred himself played Little League ball in Rome, New York, a town over from where my nephews and nieces range on the diamonds of Utica.) Well, the season is already a month old, and I've been at the center of its most exciting story so far, the heated race for the AL Central—at the moment, the Tigers are at 15-7 and the Royals a half-game behind at 14-7. I listen to every Tiger game on radio (Dan Dickerson, your play-by-play is extraordinary, and we thank you—and Jim Price, color commentator, you've grown on us with time!), and I already feel a pennant race evolving. And if I start close to home, what happened to the predictions that the White Sox and Indians would rise up and slay last year's big boys? Well, here's the first case study in my new metrics for predicting winners this year—the Cuban connection.
Outlandish money has been spent the last few seasons in signing fresh talent from the diplomatically thawing Cuba, often signings leading to violations and fines and confusing communication from the league office. Rob Manfred admits the rules governing recruitment of international players, especially young players, have given way to anarchy (look for an international draft as soon as the new collective bargaining agreement is done in 2016). For now, there is madness afoot, presaged by the scramble to sign Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes (who's already gone from the A's to the Red Sox to the Tigers) and—last year's big story—Jose Abreu (he looms in the middle of the ChiSox lineup). This past winter the Diamondbacks spent $68 million to win the sweepstakes for Yasmany Tomas (who didn't make the opening day roster but was brought up quickly from Triple-A). What about the $31-million signing bonus by the Red Sox for teenaged infielder Yoan Moncada?! That on the heels of the BoSox signing Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo for 7 years at $70 million—and none of the above were sure things to play significant innings this year. On the horizon, Hector Olivera is the next big thing, courted by all the big money teams—with the already Cuban-rich Dodgers as frontrunners—and his signing (as a 29-year-old!) will likely eclipse $70 million as well. Has baseball gone Cuban-mad? Well, teams should, because this year, in honor of the détente effected between long-time Western Hemisphere nemeses (and with hopes that many, many more actual freedoms occur on the beautiful island that has long idolized baseball), Cuban players will be the key, and not just in the present tense (only 19 Cuban players are on big league rosters, compared to 83 Dominicans and 65 Venezuelans), but also Cuban players of past glory (or obscurity) who will still have psychic pull this year.
Back in the AL Central, the presence of Jose Abreu, backed by catcher Adrian Nieto and shortstop Alexei Ramirez, offers the White Sox organization a chance at pennant glory, but one spring elision may cost them such a run—the release of the fullback-built free-swinger Dayan Viciedo, who would have given the Sox enough of the Cuban magic to win 95 games. They will still compete, eventually, and the Minnie Minoso factor is not to be minimized (ah, the dangers of linguistic temptation!), but the Tigers combo of Cespedes in left field and, recently returned from a lost season of leg problems, shortstop Jose Iglesias will thrust them into contention for the long haul. When the x-factor of former Cuban rookie cog of the '84 champs Barbaro Garbey is put in the mix, the Tigers look dangerous. The Twins and Royals will have to lean on past Cuban glory, with Tony Oliva and Zoilo Versalles offering the Twin Cities All-Star echoes, and Cookie Rojas holding together what I am forced to call a fragile venture out in KC (note: the emergence of Kendrys Morales as a new pick-up in KC may make me eat these words—we'll see in October). The Indians, well, things have been rough there early, with brilliant young catcher Yann Gomes getting hurt, and promising hurler Carlos Carrasco getting hit with a line drive in the head. Plus, in my cursory search of the Cleveland-Cuba connection, I've only unearthed a 9-game stint by Camilo Pascual in 1971, at the end of a long and storied career with the Senators and Twins—it's just not going to be enough. Detroit wins a fifth straight division title, and the White Sox get a wildcard chance. What the heck, I'll eat my words right now (Kendrys Morales has 17 runs and 16 RBIs through the first 21 games!), and the Royals will get the other wildcard.