Last week’s 85-minute strikeout fiasco in Sancti Spiritus, or this week’s announcement that former Industriales stars Yadel Marti and Yasser Gomez have finally washed up on the welcoming shores of the Dominican Republic as MLB hopefuls, both may come as mild-order surprises, but hardly surprising at all is the continued stream of misinformation regarding Cuban baseball that regularly spills out from the USA-based baseball media. Two most egregious examples of late have been (1) a stream of press furor surrounding the November signing for ex-patriot (and former promising Villa Clara third baseman) Dayan Viciedo by the Chicago White Sox, and (2) the sketchy and often wildly inaccurate stories regarding preparations of the Cuban national team for upcoming March 2009 World Baseball Classic II festivities. Viciedo was recently touted to Chicago fans in a handful of prominent press releases as the best thing to emerge from the Cuban League since Omar Linares (which is about equivalent to claiming that current Chisox fly chaser Brian Anderson is a miraculous cross between Roberto Clemente and the young Henry Aaron). And an earlier November preview article concerning Cuba’s WBC prospects, penned for the MLB’s WBC website by MLB.com reporter Jim Molony (“Cubans Ready for Another Classic Run” on November 7, 2008) has projected a possible Red Machine lineup stocked with numerous athletes who have either already retired as active players since the 2006 season (Roger Machado and Adiel Palma, for example), have faded altogether from the scene as serious national team candidates (Leslie Anderson and Ariel Borrero, to name two), or had already fled the country by the time author Molony published his article (namely, Juan Carlos Moreno and Yadel Marti).
It is indeed true that Cuban League information is hardly the regular fare of U.S. media outlets, but it should also be obvious that we fortunately no longer live in a world in which Cuban baseball is entirely buried behind an impenetrable sugar cane Cold War curtain. Cuban League games can be seen almost nightly via the internet on www.baseballdecuba.com, and this same website provides a more-than-adequate daily stream of pennant race news and views, player statistics, and player profiles to make it sufficiently easy to assess current developments on the Cuban League scene. For those who don’t read Spanish there is also the convenient www.baseballdecuba.com English-language page for easy perusing. A casual check of this and other similar available Cuban League internet sources (such as the baseball website of Havana’s Juventud Rebelde newspaper, or the similar web page of Havana’s Radio Rebelde broadcast outlet) should have made it quite easy to check Dayan Viciedo’s actual four-season Cuban League career (as a balance against agent Jaime Torres’s overblown and distorted claims about phony national team stardom). The same resources would also have provided journalist Molony (had be wished to check them) with a more reasonable assessment of potential candidates for Cuba’s projected March 2009 WBC lineup.
MLB.com columnist Molony apparently didn’t believe it was worth his trouble to take a very close look at the current Cuban baseball scene when offering readers his “insights” into Cuba’s WBC prospects. Molony’s projected 2009 Cuban lineup is remarkably precisely the same one the Cubans presented during the last WBC in 2006; thus his tactic in assessing the team’s 2009 potential is merely to comment on 2006 individual player statistics compiled in San Juan and San Diego. One would be led to believe that the Cuban League has been closed for business during the interim. Molony suggests a Cuban outfield of Freddie Cepeda, Yoandry Garlobo, Carlos Tabares and Osmani Urrutia. This alone is evidence enough that the author didn’t note any of the dramatic Olympic matches staged last August in Beijing (where Cepeda was the only one of the quartet still on the scene). And what about a report on significant relevant developments in the Cuban League itself over the past two seasons? Where is the obvious mention of the emergence of Santiago’s Alexei Bell (pictured), one of the biggest weapons in Cuba’s Beijing arsenal? Bell, after all, is now fresh off one of the most remarkable slugging seasons in Cuban League history, a campaign in which he set new league marks last winter for both round trippers (31) and RBI (111). Bell is without question now an immoveable fixture in right field. And Cuba’s most dangerous all-around batsman is certainly leftfielder Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), also a potent force in Beijing and this current season’s home run pacesetter at the one-third mark of National Series #48. Tabares is still winding down his career with Industriales yet is no longer even a remote national team possibility; Garlobo did walk off with the batting crown in Cuba last year but is now a first baseman with slim if any chance of a repeat national team appearance. In short, only one of the four outfielders mentioned by Molony (that would be Cepeda) boasts even modest prospects of returning to the WBC scene in March, and if Cepeda does make it, it will likely be in the DH slot. Urrutia (still the league’s career batting leader) did not find a slot on the 2008 Olympic squad and it will thus be a major surprise if he suddenly reemerges in Mexico City. Urrutia is batting .325 at the moment, only 41st on the league list. The top Cuban outfield candidates are indisputably Bell, Despaigne, Olympic starting centerfielder Giorvis Duvergel of Guantanamo, and sterling Villa Clara prospect Leonys Martin, who hit .398 last winter and was a last-minute cut from the Olympic squad last summer. None of these top candidates receive the barest mention in the Molony whitewash.
If we wished to waste time here on the remainder of Molony’s projected Cuban WBC lineup we would find the same shoddy homework regarding all other facets of the speculative roster. Juan Carlos Moreno (one of the reported infield prospects) left Cuba in late-May 2008; Rudy Reyes also has little if any chance of making the current infield contingent that will most likely include Alex Malleta at first, emerging super utility man Hector Olivera, who played both first and second in Beijing, and utility specialist Luis Navas (Santiago). Only Yulieski Gourriel and Michel Enriquez are sure bets to return from the 2006 lineup. Behind the plate slugger Yosvany Peraza will almost certainly spell an aging Ariel Pestano; Roger Machado (perhaps the most bizarre Molony choice) has been retired for three years and now manages Ciego de Avila. Of the 13 pitchers projected by Molony, only Pedtro Lazo, Yunieski Maya and Jonder Martinez are strong bets, with Yulieski Gonzalez and Yadier Pedroso of Habana Province being the long shot choices. In brief, Molony’s Team Cuba analysis on the “official” WBC web page bears little if any semblance of reality; it makes about as much sense as an essay detailing the NY Mets 2009 pennant prospects that is based solely on looking at aspects of the New York team’s 2006 starting lineup. Had Molony written this way about the 2009 Cubs, Mets or Tigers he would have been laughed out of a job. If readers of this column want to assess Team Cuba’s chances for renewed successes during WBCII, stay tuned to www.baseballdecuba.com, where a detailed assessment of the likely Cuban roster and starting lineup will be offered during the next couple of weeks. Go to MLB.com for data on the Dominicans, Venezuelans, Canadians or Americans (teams with familiar MLB faces at every post); but don’t look there for any insights about the underdog Cubans.
Molony isn’t the only stateside reporter who apparently believes you can get away with saying just about anything about Cuban baseball and no one will seemingly be the wiser. Several accounts of the Viciedo signing in Chicago leaned heavily on agent Jaime Torres’s claims that the 19-year-old Cuban “defector” was “the next Linares” as well as a national team superstar and last-minute cut from the 2006 WBC squad. The truth of the matter, of course, is that Viciedo (starting third baseman for Villa Clara for four seasons, after breaking into the league at the remarkable age of 15) was indeed a promising phenom several seasons back, though one who never developed much after his rookie campaign, never came close to being selected for the senior national team, and never even made the roster of the eastern division squad for the annual Cuban League all-star game. For those who might want more graphic details I suggest a quick listen to my own November 21, 2008 nationally syndicated live interview on Chicago’s THE SCORE (670 Chicago Sports Radio) radio sports talk show (http://multimedia.670thescore.com/m/audio/21491282/peter-bjarkman-11-21-2008.htm), where my own assessments of the plusses and minuses of the Viciedo signing are articulated more fully. The kid has talent to burn, but he is neither Alexei Ramirez nor Kendry Morales.
The reason that Viciedo never made the Cuban national team (to anticipate an obvious question) is pretty straightforward–he was simply never quite good enough. Starting national team third baseman since 2005 (except for the one-year period while he served a perhaps-shorter-than-merited suspension for assaulting a league umpire) has been Michel Enriquez, owner of the third-best lifetime BA in Cuban League history (trailing Osmani Urrutia and, of course, Linares). During the too-brief suspension of Enriquez (he returned in time for the 2007 Taipei World Cup matches), Yulieski Gourriel was repositioned at third while Hector Olivera (probably the best young prospect on the island) went to second base. Other top third sackers who have appeared on the national team of late as backups have been Donald Duarte (Pinar del Rio), Rudy Reyes (Industriales) and Ronnie Mustelier (Santiago). Viciedo failed on four occasions to achieve nomination to the Oriente squad for the Cuban All-Star game; there was consequently never much serious consideration of any promotion to national team status at the top level. The talented youngster did play on the 15-18 junior national team, as a 15-year old prospect, but that was so far his career highlight moment.
Viciedo (pictured) was indeed a hot prospect in the league as a 16-year-old rookie and he did hit .300-plus during his maiden campaign. After that he fully stagnated and has continually batted in the .270-.280 range, with around 8-10 homers each season. Entering his fourth and final CL season his career batting average stood at .286, his slugging percentage at .446, and his home run total at 26 (868 ABs). The bottom line suggested a certifiable “prospect” but certainly nothing approaching a legitimate league star. This past season (National Series #47 in 2007-2008) he was not to be found among the league’s top 65 batters; there were 55 Cuban Leaguers last season who knocked the ball at a .300-plus clip and Viciedo was not among that exclusive club. The youngster has demonstrable power to all fields and is an adequate glove man, though not one to make his living on the basis of leather alone. He is definitely a prospect worth signing, although the dollar amount thrown at him was inflated even by today’s loose MLB standards. As I have already contended in print and on the airwaves, don’t expect either a new Alexei Ramirez or an instant clone of Kendry Morales to show up in the White Sox Arizona camp come early March. Both Ramirez and Morales, recall, were certified national team stars. Viciedo instead abandoned Cuba once it looked increasingly likely that he would never quite reach that elevated stature.
Writers like Jim Molony commit serious-enough errors of omission with their sloppy reporting on Cuban baseball; they do their readers injustices by providing false information, they appear too lazy to check the facts, and they seemingly represent the “nobody knows any better anyways” school of journalism. Player agents like Jaime Torres commitment even more distasteful errors of commission; they line their own pockets and those of their clients with sacks of overflowing MLB gold; and they do so by exploiting a ubiquitous “every Cuban kid who can stand upright and tie his shoes is a certified Cooperstown candidate” mythology that has clouded Cuban baseball for decades. If an Alexei Bell, Yulieski Gourriel, Alfredo Despaigne or Hector Olivera–or a few seasons back, an Osmani Urrutia, Freddie Cepeda or Norge Luis Vera–were suddenly to show up on the loose in Costa Rica or the Dominican Republic, that would indeed be five-point headline news for big league talent hunters. Such was indeed the case with Jaime Torres’s more genuine find, Jose Ariel Contreras. The sudden appearance of a Dayan Viciedo or Yadel Marti or Yasser Gomez is more along the order of a significant footnote or noteworthy main-story sidebar. Of course Viciedo (or Marti and Gomez, for that matter) may soon enough prove to be a rather intriguing footnote indeed. But still a footnote–and not a showstopper–nonetheless.