Where is Ariel Pestano? Where is German Mesa?

Freelancer Jim Albright (www.baseballguru.com) has recently provided an interesting if controversial article which purports to answer the question "Who Have Been the Top Players in Cuba in the Castro Era?" Albright is to be praised on at least a couple of counts here. Foremost, he calls attention to Cuban League baseball, which is so often totally off the radar screen in the North American media. And secondly, he bases his assessments on what certainly appear to be three most reputable sources: my own A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006, the 1999 Cuban League Guide, and "the official website of Cuban baseball" (the link for which unfortunately does not open in his article). Because of the faulty link it is not possible to tell exactly what Albright selects as "the official site of Cuban baseball"–it might be the INDER site, that produced by JIT, the Radio COCO site, or www.baseballdecuba.com. There is a major question, of course, about why the author would rely on the 1999 League Guide and seemingly ignore the seven published for subsequent seasons (they are not that difficult to find, and the 2006 Guide is available on-line from at least two of the sites mentioned above). And his use of my own book is welcomed here not out of pure ego-interest but rather because of the fact that it is indeed, without much question, the most thorough available English-language discussion (especially in Chapter 11) of contemporary Cuban ballplayers.

The problem with Albright’s article is at least two-fold. First, like most SABRmetric-style analyses it is one-dimensional, relying almost exclusively for its rankings on offensive and pitching stats (in this case the overall career records and the numbers of times that individual players have appeared in the listings of National Series league leaders). In short, it ignores the Cuban baseball establishment’s own assessment of its ballplayers in terms of selections for spots on the Cuban national team (the equivalent of the national all-star team); it downplays the highest level of competition in top international tournaments (where Cuban players have undergone their severest tests), and it also ignores first-hand assessments of these ballplayers by those who have witnessed their performances up close (i.e. Cuban journalists, MLB scouts, or the handful of Americans like the present author who have witnessed the Cuban stars perform during island play over the past decade or two).

Albright’s selection of "Cuba’s best since 1962" includes the following position players: Lazaro Junco, Pedro Jose Rodriguez, Osmani Urrutia, Enrique Diaz, Orestes Kindelan, Javier Mendez, Victor Bejerano, Michel Enriquez, Victor Mesa, Fernando Sanchez, Luis Casanova, Omar Linares, Antonio Munoz, Wilfredo Sanchez, Romelio Martinez, Antonio Pacheco, and Luis Ulacia. The list of pitchers is as follows: Omar Ajete, Lazaro de la Torre, Santiago Mederos, Jose Luis Aleman, Wilfredo Ruiz, Jorge Luis Valdes, Pedro Luis Lazo, Braudilio Vinent, Rogelio Garcia, Carlos Yanes, Faustino Corrales, and Jose Ibar. Those wishing to study Albright’s rankings or assess his arguments can pass directly to his article found at www.baseballguru.com; I will not take up space repeating his analysis here in any detail. Some of the choices are beyond debate no matter what measures are used. But there are some odd choices here indeed. Carlos Yanes with 208 career losses? Javier Mendez and Lazaro Junco with lengthy careers as league mainstays but no significant appearances on Team Cuba in the big international events? Omar Ajete who was a talented enough southpaw but spent much of his career injured and was hardly anything approaching a national legend? Where is the truly legendary Jose Antonio Huelga (victim of a tragic auto accident that ended his life at mid-career) with his seven-year lifetime 1.50 ERA and career .695 winning percentage? Where are Orlando Hernandez (Cuba’s all-time winning percentage leader) and Jose Ariel Contreras (the most successful Cuban hurler ever in big-time international matches with a perfect 13-0 mark), both of whom later proved their world class status in the majors? Where are Juan Castro and Ariel Pestano, the subjects of endless debates about who was Cuba’s all-time greatest catcher? And where is German Mesa, acknowledged as a near-clone of Ozzie Smith by just about every MLB scout who ever saw him play? Perhaps such omissions are to be expected in an article penned by an author who scans National Series records but has never been to Cuba to witness a league game or talk with Cuba’s knowledgeable fans. But even an assessment of major league players using this methodology of examining yearly league leaders would likely leave out the likes of Ozzie Smith and Bill Mazeroski from any discussion of "Who Have Been the Top Players in the USA in the Eisenhower-to-Bush Era?"

German_mesa_b_1Albright’s work, like so many SABR-genre approaches, is based heavily on number crunching and thus provides a very stilted picture of Cuban baseball. Any listing of the island’s top players for the past quarter-century or half-century simply HAS TO INCLUDE German Mesa (pictured) and Norge Vera, just to give two of the most obvious examples. Mesa was likely the best defensive middle infielder I have seen in any league on any continent, and almost any North American expert who saw him even in late career (often playing on less than MLB-manicured carpets) has claimed that Mesa was the near-equal to Cooperstown’s Ozzie Smith. If there was a Cuban Leaguer anywhere that could have stepped right in and played successfully in the majors it was Mesa (Cubans to the last man will tell you that Mesa was head and shoulders above Rey Ordonez, who defected from Cuba largely because both Mesa and Eduardo Paret blocked his route onto the national team.) But because he does not boast big offensive numbers (his .286 16-year career BA was solid but not eye-popping) Mesa does not appear on Albright’s list. Less than a decade ago former big leaguer Conrado Marrrero (who is now in his 90s and saw both Martin Dihigo and Willie Miranda play) told this writer that German Mesa was easily the best glove-wizard he had ever seen, including his time in the majors with the Washington Senators during the era of Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto.

Norge_vera_b_1Santiago right-hander Norge (Nor-Gee) Vera (perhaps remembered by USA fans for his stellar May 1999 performance versus the Orioles in Baltimore), has been the best pitcher in Cuba over the past ten years (anchoring one of the best staffs in the circuit) and even a look only at the numbers will certify that. Vera has always been "on another level" above Jose Ibar (an Albright selection) in both league and international contests and a description of some of his accomplishments (such as winning both the semifinal and final games of the 2003 World Cup in Havana) are outlined in Chapter 11 of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006. The only two Cuban hurlers of the past decade to rival Vera in overall talent are Jose Contreras (Cuba’s most dominant ace ever in big international competitions) and Pedro Lazo (national team stopper of the past five years after Contreras’s departure). Note here that Contreras does not make Albright’s listing either, probably because he left Cuba at the height of his career and also because the Albright numbers reflect National Series and not national team performances. But Vera stands by himself, even numerically, with his 127-50 mark (.718 W-L Pct. that trails only El Duque Hernandez) and a 12 year 2.63 ERA entering the past National Series season. It is most puzzling and most telling that while Vera is nowhere to be found in the Albright ranking, recently retired Carlos Yanes makes the cut with his career .500 ledger of 208-208, apparently on the strength of 200 wins. (This kind of sounds to me akin to ranking Wlbur Wood ahead of Sandy Koufax or Pedro Martinez on the basis of some kind of longevity standard.) Yanes has almost no significant national team experience and I doubt any Cuban–from the league commissioner down to any fan in Havana’s Parque Central–would ever hand him the ball ahead of Vera or Contreras to face Team USA or Team Japan in the Olympics or World Cup. I personally haven’t seen any better pitcher in Cuba (one owning clear big league prospects) than Vera. Right behind him in recent years has been Granma’s underrated Ciro Silvino Licea (last year’s ERA leader). Certainly Maels Rodriguez had the best arm I ever saw in Cuba (or maybe anywhere else) before injuries ended his career at age 22-plus. But Carlos Yanes is a journeyman who might have pitched at the AA level in the USA at best. Perhaps Jim Albright knows something about Carlos Yanes that I don’t. I wonder if he has ever seen him pitch?

Ariel_pestano The two players most surprisingly absent from the Albright evaluation of Cuban talent are perhaps in the end Ariel Pestano (pictured) and Eduardo Paret. This might be obvious to anyone watching World Baseball Classic games in March 2006 on television, even if they had never set foot in Cuba. Pestano is Cuba’s best-ever catcher and Paret is viewed by just about any scout who has seen him as a sure-fire big leaguer. Juan Castro (Pinar del Rio star of a couple decades back and the new manager at Sancti Spiritus) has his supporters among old-timers and veteran CL watchers as perhaps Cuba’s best defensive backstop, and those claims may have considerably merit. But Pestano has starred in Olympic tournaments for nearly a decade during an era when the competition level and ballplayer quality is much higher, now that other countries are using professionals, than it was in the 1970s or 1980s. Pestano doesn’t boast exceptional batting numbers for his 15-season National Series career with Villa Clara (.290 BA, 94 HRs) but he has been the mainstay and on-field leader of the national team for a decade, and also has come up huge offensively in the big international tournaments (e.g. as Athens Olympics MVP). He is expert at handling Cuba’s top pitchers in the high-tension international matches; he has an accurate gun of an arm, and he is a recognized "second manager" on the field of play. For me Pestano is hands-down the best catcher Cuba has developed in any decade going back to Christopher Columbus (not just back to the arrival of Comandante Castro). To leave him off the list is symptomatic of compiling any such ranking by lumping together all position players and then relying on yearly OFFENSIVE numbers to make your selections.

There are several smaller but not unimportant issues with Albright’s article that trouble me. He claims that one of his three sources is the 1999 Cuban League Guide. Why write an article in 2007 using the 1999 Cuban League Guide? What happened to the Guides for the past seven winters? (This reliance on out-dated material may explain the absence of players like Pestano, Paret and Vera from the list.) He also refers to the "official Cuban League website" (it is not clear which one, as mentioned above) as his data source, yet the current Guides provide much more detailed numbers (top ten rankings, complete team stats, etc.). At any rate, Albright’s work (in my opinion at least) would have benefited substantially by some infusion of first-hand reports from scouts and writers who had actually seen these Cuban stars perform over the years. Albright writes:  "I am sure that if I had the top tens for each season that my choices would have been better"; but of course these "top tens" are indeed available year-by-year in Guides published regularly since the 1998 National Series.

Perhaps one final comment is in order here. In ranking the best players in Cuba over recent decades one certainly should not ignore the opinions of the top Cuban coaches and league administrators/officials (the technical commission, which usually includes former players) who select their own very best players each summer in the effort to win yet more gold in the top international tournaments. It isn’t a perfect process (often causing much debate on the island) but it is indeed a rigorous selection process of league all-stars and the Cuban baseball brain trust takes it very seriously. The measure of the success of these selections is tied directly to the incredible success of the Cuban team in dominating Olympic-style tournaments (even after the introduction of major and minor leaguers to such competitions following 1999). It is thus a bit odd to find any list (like this one) of all-time Cuban greats of the past nearly fifty years that contains players like Carlos Yanes, Javier Mendez, Lazaro de la Torre, Lazaro Junco, Victor Bejerano, and Romelio Martinez–all of whom were rarely selected for the vaunted national team (or who rarely performed a major role on the few occasions when they got there). That is to say that Javier Mendez or Rogelio Martinez (plus the others mentioned) were almost never judged among the superstars by the Cuban brain trust itself. (Again Albright appears to know something here that veteran Cuban League watchers and insiders don’t!) Vera and Pestano and Paret, on the other hand, have anchored those Olympic and World Cup championship teams for years and played a most significant role in many of Cuba’s greatest victories ever. It is more than a mere aberration that these three, for example, don’t make the cut in this exceptionally narrow-viewed SABRmetric analysis. This fact in itself seems to reveal the most cogent flaw imbedded in Albright’s "outsider’s" analysis of Cuban baseball.

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2 comments

  1. marlins37

    I agree that including Carlos Llanes in any list of best Cuban players is ridiculous, but I think Mr. Bjarkman relies too much on team Cuba selections. Javier Mendez played CF for Industriales during his prime, and was their number 3 hitter for most of his 22 seasons, which were plagued by injury, excuse that was given by the brain trust of the national comission most times he was not selected. He retired with the league record in doubles and the single season RBI record, both now eclipsed, he belongs to the exclusive 2000 hit club, and walked more than super sluggers like Casanova and Kindelan, Mendez was highly respected by fans, including those anti-Industriales as a class act. Chubby Romelio was the Cuban version of Babe Ruth minus the high BA, but his enormous HR total and Babe-like AB to HR ratio should be respected, also he was forcibly retired, like Ajete, De la Torre, and Junco. The latter suffered the same problem as Romelio: too one-dimensional (HRs) for the national team. Ajete was what Pedro Luis Lazo latter became: the apagafuegos, I remember him closing the 1996 Olympic semifinal game. Bejerano like Llanes just played until he broke Javier Mendez doubles record and then retired, he was never considered a great player, even his brothers Pablo and Santiago Valerio were more feared as hitters. Lazaro de La Torre was the gutsiest and most hard-working athlete the National Series ever produced, but he suffered from the aluminum age, overwork, and the 1996 retirement, from which he came back to become a positive presence on both Industriales and Metros, but still his won-loss record his vastly superior to Llanes.
    Ciro S. Licea was mentioned, but he failed spectacularly at the 1997 Intercontinental Cup final, and in some later assignments with team Cuba, so he was rightly left out.
    My question is: If Enriquito Diaz is on the list, so should Juan Padilla and Lazaro Vargas(2000 hits) as well as German Mesa and Paret, all these players were on the national team, performed well when called upon and were league play standouts.

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