Michael R. Stevens
What Hath Cuba to Do with Chicago?
The AL East looks like it has a power-shift happening, with perennial contenders like the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox sloughing off a bit, and the Orioles and maybe Blue Jays rising up. But the Cuban considerations show a different story. The Yankees, surprisingly leading the division, may be drawing on the mojo of El Duque from their storied '90s playoff runs, but how long will that last? The Blue Jays, alas, have made the same mistake as the White Sox, releasing Dayan Viciedo this spring (who knew that he would hold the key to the AL pennant?!). The Rays look bad on any number of levels, including the inability to sign players from the island only a few hundred miles south of their home field. So, are the Orioles ready to compete again? Well, another way of asking that question might be: is Miguel Gonzalez enough? His mere 6 games of service last year means that their Cuban connection is paper-thin, and I think they falter in the humidity of a Maryland August. That leaves the Red Sox, the team I most deplored growing up in New York as a Yankee fan, the team that has claim to the lion's share of the Luis Tiant legacy (yes, he started his career in Cleveland just after the Castro takeover of his home country, and yes he finished up with the Yankees, most memorably for me doing the Ball Park Franks commercials in a Yankees cap, but his glory days were with the mid-'70s Red Sox, including starting the mythic Game 6 in 1975 that Pudge Fisk ended in the eleventh). When you add the Rusney Castillo factor, and the Yoan Moncando signing, you discover a team committed (to the tune of $130 million!) to the Cuban factor in the long term. I say short term it pays off, and the Red Sox win the division by 5 games.
The AL West is tough to call every year, especially now with Houston becoming competitive and, dare I say it, dangerous. But where are the Cuban players? The A's are in worse shape—they have the fewest foreign-born players of any roster in the league, only two, and one of them, Brett Lawrie, is a Canadian! The Rangers have Leonys Martin and the Mariners have Roenis Elias as their Cuban representatives, sort of cancelling each other out—and then there's the Angels franchise, suffering internal strife and even dissolution right now, a sad public tragedy in the wake of Josh Hamilton's personal struggles. One hopes for better days there, and perhaps high-priced Cuban shortstop Roberto Baldoquin will be the answer down the road. For now, the deciding factor for this division rides unexpectedly (even to me) on the pitching career of Cuban hurler Connie Marrero, for the early 1950s Senators (all 5'5", 158 lbs. of him, according to Total Baseball)—I know that that team became the Twins, and only the later Senators became the Rangers, but hey, it's a fine line in this division—I say the Rangers win it on the last day of the season.
Since we started in the AL Central, let's go to the Central Division of the National League—where the long awaited re-arrival of Spring Training phenom Kris Bryant has helped the Cubs to their first winning record in April since 2008. More subtle but more crucial, of course, is the presence of Jorge Soler as the young Cuban connection roaming the Wrigley outfield. And the Cubs will need this edge, not only because of their bitter overachieving rivals in St. Louis and the steady contenders in Pittsburgh but also, and especially, the Cincinnati Reds, who have the rare punch of two Cuban pitchers: the already legendary fireballing closer Aroldis Chapman and the intriguing addition Raisel Iglesias (who apparently has grown from 5'11", 170 to 6'2", 185 since the Reds signed him). (The Brewers? With a 5-17 start, things are looking grim—and I'm still adjusting to the loss of the Brewers from the AL East—Moose Haas, where are you now?!). My guess: the Reds and Cubs are deadlocked through September, and both see the postseason. The Reds sport in their annals the single (as far as I have discovered) Cuban Hall of Famer, the great Tony Perez, but I give the Cubs the edge to win the division, with Cincinnati claiming a wild-card spot.
The NL East is all askew right now, with the Mets off to an amazing start and the Nats struggling out of the gate. But the Nationals have a new Cuban shortstop in Yunel Escobar, and that will push them forward more than the powerhouse starting rotation. They'll hang around as the New York and Atlanta franchises fade, but by August, the dark horse will arrive in the shape of the Miami Marlins, led by all-everything slugger Giancarlo Stanton, but buoyed further by the more-or-less neighborly connection between Cuba and Miami, with the double-force of Adeiny Hechevarria and Jose Fernandez! The Marlins take the division in an autumnal power-surge, and the Nationals disappoint down the stretch. The Phillies will be in last place for the foreseeable future.