The departure of 2007 Cuban League home run champion Alexei Ramirez from his home island, rumored for more than a week, has now been confirmed with the announcement of a Thursday (September 20) press conference scheduled for Santo Domingo. Ramirez’s marriage to a Dominican citizen, who has been a medical student in Havana (the couple has two children) for the past couple of years, has cleared the way for the 26-year old Cuban star to enter the Dominican Republic legally and obtain a permanent residence visa there. What remains something of a mystery are the circumstances of the ballplayer’s departure from his home in Pinar del Rio: did he receive an exit visa from the Cuban government? (seemingly not a very likely scenario); or, like other some other ballplayers who have left Cuba to seek financial opportunities in North American professional baseball, was his "escape" illegally orchestrated by an opportunistic sports agent operating outside the island? (more likely, but certainly as yet unconfirmed). Several recent press accounts of Ramirez’s arrival in Santo Domingo last week have been quick to use the popular term "defector" which the North American press seems so enamored with and uses so liberally to strike convenient blows against the Cuban socialist system and against Cuba’s "not for profit" national sport. (To his credit, Willie Weinbaum reporting on Ramirez for mlb.com, refrained from the use of loaded terms like "defector" and stuck strictly to the baseball implications of Ramirez’s arrival in the Dominican Republic.) Whatever the circumstances or rationales for the ballplayer’s departure from the Cuban League, however, they are not nearly as interesting or important as two more cogent questions. First, what are Ramirez’s prospects as a potential major leaguer? And second, what will be the impact of his leaving on the fortunes of Cuba’s vaunted national team, which is about to defend the World Cup title (Taipei in November) which it has owned since 1984 (nine straight gold medal victories and counting)?
Regarding the first issue, I was quick to point out on the heels of the 2006 World Baseball Classic that Alexei Ramirez was one of my half dozen choices (along with Ariel Pestano, Frederich Cepeda, Pedro Lazo, Eduardo Paret and Osmani Urrutia) as likely immediate impact major leaguers. An outfielder for Pinar del Rio during most of his first seven Cuban League seasons, Ramirez (pictured here celebrating a homer versus Panama in the 2006 Olympic Qualifier tournament) was only recently relocated to second base in the national team starting lineup for this past summer’s Pan American Games in Rio de Janiero. The switch came in part as a result of the suspension last March of national team third baseman Michel Enriquez (Isla de la Juventud) and the consequent shifting of Yulieski Gourriel from second to third. But it also came as a result of the log jam of talented young outfielders now flooding the Cuban League, most especially Granma’s Alfredo Despaigne (20) and Yoennis Cespedes (22) and Santiago’s Alexei Bell (22), the trio that awaits to inherit national team starting roles when Cepeda, Urrutia, Yoandry Urgelles and Giorvis Duvergel display the slightest signs of decline.
Ramirez enjoyed a breakout season this year for Pinar del Rio, not only batting .335 and smacking a surprising league-leading 20 homers, plus topping the circuit in total bases with 195, but also finishing in the top ten in runs (ninth), hits (fifth), RBI (second), game-winning hits (eighth), and slugging percentage (second at .574). Ramirez runs like a long-legged deer, has a solid outfield arm, displays good if not exceptional range at second and shortstop, and boasts surprising power in his frail-appearing 6-3, 172-pound frame. Built along the physical lines of a young Ernie Banks or Hank Aaron, Ramirez has great wrists and an exceptionally quick bat, as well as excellent plate discipline; nonetheless he is a line drive hitter and not primarily a home run slugger and his 20 round trippers this past winter were perhaps something of an aberration. With the likes of Alex Mayeta and Jose Julio now in the league, Ramirez was not a likely prospect to defend his home run crown in the coming National Series. He may therefore have left Cuba at the precise moment when his resume was at its fullest. Agent Jaime Torres (Jose Contreras’s agent) has already been signed on by Ramirez who has announced his intentions to shoot for the big league contract which will undoubtedly be forthcoming. Torres claims that his new client "will make a big league roster right out of spring training" and this may well be the case, given the Pinar del Rio star’s speed and versatility, as well as his rather potent bat.
For those numerous nay-sayers gleeful about any Cuban losses or failures, it will be most disappointing to learn that the departure of Alexei Ramirez will have negligible impact on Cuban League baseball as a whole and on the vaunted Cuban national team in particular. Santiago second base prospect Hector Olivera played brilliantly on the Cuba B team during the recent Rotterdam World Port Tournament and impressed this writer and the MLB scouts on hand with his exceptional defensive range and offensive bat speed. Olivera could move right in at second for the November Taipei tournament without a beat being missed. A second scenario might have Michel Enriquez returning the national team lineup in the not-too-distant future (now that his suspension has been lifted) and Yulieski Gourriel thus moving back to second. If Alexei Ramirez is notably missed it will be by his home team in Pinar del Rio during the upcoming National Series campaign, but not likely by the constantly renewing national team juggernaut. It is not an unreasonable speculation that one reason for Ramirez departing the Cuban national squad at this point in time may well have been the pressures of Hector Olivera breathing down his neck; Alexei may well have sensed that his days were numbered in the Cuba A starting lineup and his big league prospects would never again be higher. The Cuba B team sent to Rotterdam in August possessed enough talent to rival Cuba A (Pan Am Games gold medalists) as almost assuredly the second best squad on the international scene. As this author and others have noted in recent years, the seemingly endless supply of Cuban talent has been cycling through an exceptional peak in recent seasons, and the departures of disaffected players like Contreras, Kendry Morales, Maels Rodriguez and now Alexei Ramirez seem only to provide the necessary openings for young studs like Alfredo Despaigne, Yadel Marti, Yoennis Cespedes and Hector Olivera who wait rather impatiently in the wings.