In the last few years, Major League Baseball has seen a large infusion of Cuban-born talent in the MLB. Of course, this isn’t a recent phenomenon, since players have been defecting from Cuba to reach the MLB since the beginning of Fidel Castro’s presidency. It should be noted that since establishing residency in the United States means entering the draft, Cuban players generally defect to another nation first in order to become free agents, where they can choose the best financial option available. Since these players have had such a huge impact, it’s clear to see why every new Cuban declaration instantly becomes an exciting prospect. However, with the United States recently attempting to open up trade relations with Cuba for the first time in decades, we could see even more Cuban players making their MLB debuts in the near future, potentially giving these established Cuban stars a run for their money.
10. Adeiny Hechavarria (SS, Miami Marlins)
Adeiny Hechavarria is a defensive wizard and has established himself as a Major League-caliber shortstop. He is certainly a glove-first player, as the majority of his value is derived from his defensive play, which he excels at. He once possessed some offensive upside, however, at the age of 27, Hechavarria has likely peaked in terms of performance with the bat. That’s not a slight on Hechavarria, who still provides average middle infield production with the bat, along with Gold Glove-caliber defense at shortstop. In fact, with Andrelton Simmons now residing in the American League, Hechavarria is in an excellent position to win his first Gold Glove award, as he is essentially in a two-way race with San Francisco’s Brandon Crawford. Hechavarria is a special talent that routinely makes jaw dropping defensive plays, and a pitcher’s best friend.
9. Yunel Escobar (3B, Los Angeles Angels)
Yunel Escobar defected from Cuba back in 2004 and has been in the Major Leagues since 2007. Escobar arrived as a shortstop and played some second base, but since 2015, he’s settled in as an everyday third baseman for the Angels. He provides average defense at third base, which is good enough to keep his above-average bat in the lineup, which has seen Escobar batting leadoff in recent seasons. As an additional fun fact that encapsulates just how close-knit his home country is, especially among its fraternity of baseball players, while growing up in Cuba, Escobar’s best friend was Brayan Pena, currently the backup catcher for the St Louis Cardinals.
8. Raisel Iglesias (SP, Cincinnati Reds)
The young Raisel Iglesias is already a perfectly solid starting pitcher in the Majors, but has the potential for a real breakthrough that would place him among the upper echelon of pitchers. . Many expected Iglesias to settle in as a reliever and potential closer after defecting from Cuba, but the Reds had other plans and made him a starting pitcher. In hindsight, this was a stroke of genius as the 26 year-old possesses excellent command of three devastating pitches, and has the stamina to pitch deep into games. Iglesias has “ace” upside and should be one of the few bright spots this season on what appears to be a fairly lackluster Reds team. That being said, Iglesias remains merely a potential star at this point, since he has barely any track record in North America
7. Yasmani Grandal (C, Los Angeles Dodgers)
It’s easy to forget that Yasmani Grandal was born in Cuba as his journey to the Majors has been quite different from his countrymen. Unlike most Cuban-born players, he played collegiate baseball in North America. Also unlike the majority of Cuban migrations, Grandal arrived in the United States relatively stress-free, as his family won a national lottery that allowed them to enter the US as residents. Grandal attended an American high school, making him much more familiar with the culture of his surroundings when compared to many other Cuban players. He also went to the University of Miami, an enormous school with a well-respected athletic program. Grandal received a ton of exposure playing at Miami and was drafted in the first round, 12th overall. Grandal is already one of the best catchers in the league and is extremely well-rounded with evident offensive and defensive skills. The Dodgers’ current starting catch, A.J. Ellis, becomes a free agent following the season, meaning Grandal could get another chance to start in the near future.
6. Kendrys Morales (DH, Kansas City Royals)
Kendrys Morales provides a significant amount of thump to the middle of the defending champion Kansas City Royals’ lineup. Morales isn’t the slickest fielder at first base and is best kept to designated hitter duties, which is exactly what Kansas City has done with him, but he carries a potent bat and is one of the best run producers in the Majors. Morales took a bit of time to develop compared to many of his Cuban counterparts that enjoy instant success in the Majors, but in 2009, during his fourth season in the MLB, Morales broke out and hit 34 home runs. He was on the verge of stardom at that point, before a devastating leg injury suffered in 2010 during a celebration at home plate derailed his career entirely. Morales required a complicated surgery and suffered though a lengthy rehab, initially appearing to be a shell of his former self when he returned. Eventually, Kansas City signed him to a bargain contract and hit big when Morales rebounded to his pre-injury form. As a result, Morales will play out 2016 on a 9 million dollar contract, making him arguably one of the most underpaid players in the league.
5. Yoenis Cespedes (OF, New York Mets)
Yoenis Cespedes, with his rocket arm in the outfield and his prodigious power to all parts of the field, is one of the most exciting players to watch in the MLB. As Cespedes has demonstrated on countless occasions at the annual Home Run Derby, he possesses insane power that many believe should lead to a higher home run totals than his statistics have shown. Cespedes finally made good on his power potential in 2015, slugging a whopping 17 home runs in a span of only 31 games following a deadline trade to the New York Mets. Cespedes appears to shine in the spotlight and is always prepared for a show, which makes him a perfect fit for the bright lights of New York. Entrenched as the centerpiece of one of the best overall lineups in the National League, Cespedes is a towering presence and a major threat at the plate. While he’s likely at his current ceiling in terms of ability, Cespedes is a tremendous hitter and a dynamic threat.
4. Yasiel Puig (OF, Los Angeles Dodgers)
While Yasiel Puig soared through the Dodger organization and made it clear that he was too advanced for minor league pitching, few expected him to experience immediate success he attained. Even fewer expected that impactful rookie season in 2013 would represent his best season in the Majors so far, but the 25 year-old superstar has experienced the growing pains associated with many young players in the Majors. While Puig instantly earned chants of “MVPuig” upon his arrival, he’s had to work hard and shed his label of laziness in order to reach the potential he showed in his rookie year. Puig has a solid mix of power and speed with a great eye that leads to an elite on-base percentage. He is also a rare five-tool threat capable of batting anywhere in the lineup. This season, the Dodgers have been batting him second, and he has responded by becoming one of the best players on the team. The authority with which Puig appears to be swinging the bat early on in 2016 is a very welcome sight, as he seems prepared to fully showcase his immense talent.
3. Aroldis Chapman (RP, New York Yankees)
Possibly the most dominant player at his position, Aroldis Chapman has a very solid case to top the list of Cuban-born MLB players. However, his role as a relief pitcher must be taken into account when dissecting his value. Relievers are a valuable component of a team, since baseball is as team-oriented of a sport as possible. However, starting pitchers and positional players do provide a bigger impact for teams due to the increased playing time they receive. It’s actually a shame that Chapman is a reliever rather than a starting pitcher because upon defecting from Cuba, Chapman was initially viewed as a starting pitcher. The Reds wanted to get his arm, which was Major League-ready, up to Cincinnati as quickly as possible and found a role in the bullpen for him during their pennant chase. Chapman experienced immediate success and it became clear that he could become the most dominant closer in the league. Knowing his value and the security of his position, Chapman told the Reds he preferred to remain in the bullpen rather than start games. This isn’t unprecedented, as Toronto’s Roberto Osuna recently had the same result and Jonathan Papelbon experienced this same transition many years ago.
2. Jose Fernandez (SP, Miami Marlins)
Jose Fernandez has gotten off to a sluggish start to the 2016 campaign, but his body of work easily dismisses those as small sample noise. Fernandez has struggled a bit with health issues recently, infamously requiring Tommy John surgery very early in 2014 and then suffering through a biceps strain and shoulder soreness during his recovery in 2015. While health concerns keep Fernandez from claiming the top spot as the best Cuban in the Majors, he certainly appeared to be headed in that direction two years ago. It’s easy to forget that Fernandez is only 23 years old, as the phenom was mowing through Major League lineups at the unprecedented age of 20. Despite already clocking a strikeout an inning with elite career ratios, Fernandez remains an unfinished product. Fernandez is about to develop through his peak seasons and possesses as much upside as any pitcher in the game, Cuban or otherwise, as long as he can maintain his health and continue his incredible development.
1. Jose Abreu (1B, Chicago White Sox)
2016’s slow start can easily be tossed out the window when it comes to Jose Abreu. The feared slugger has two full seasons on his resume that back up his elite power, plate discipline and pitch recognition. While 2015 showed a decline in some key statistics from his rookie campaign, those numbers were almost impossible to live up to and don’t necessarily represent deterioration in his skills. Abreu still hit 30 home runs and drove in 100 runs in what was viewed as a down year, which is pretty remarkable, with 2016 set to shed light on whether Abreu is a very good middle of the order hitter or a bona fide superstar. Of course, as we mentioned, early 2016 returns have been weak, but it’s still far too early to make a determination. Abreu is a formidable hitter, and at 29 years old, in right in the middle of his prime, and one of the few unquestioned great power bats in the Majors.