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Chasing Dreams: Cuban Baseball Defectors – Part 1

(This is Part One of a three-part series on the history of Cuban baseball defectors.)

CUBA – The pursuit of fame and fortune in the Major Leagues resulted in a record number of Cuban baseball players defecting in 2009. And, while hard-throwing left-hander Aroldis Chapman has garnered most of the attention, the newest addition to the Cincinnati Reds may not be the the best prospect to escape the baseball-crazed island nation this past year.

According to the Cuban baseball website, CubanBall.com, nearly 200 players have defected since 1980. Although just a small number of would-be big leaguers have struck paydirt, the majority of defectors have enjoyed the opportunity to showcase their baseball skills.

Prior to Jose Contreras four-year, $32 million contract with the New York Yankees after defecting from the Americas Cup in Mexico in 2002, former Villa Clara pitcher Rolando Arrojo was the standard bearer with a $7 million deal from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. However, the price tag for top Cuban prospects have skyrocketed in recent years.

Dayan Vicideo, a “talented but raw” power-hitting third baseman, left Cuba in May of 2008. The teenager ignited a bidding war which the Chicago White Sox won with a whopping $11 million contract.

• Click here for complete list of Cuban Baseball Defectors

The Boston Red Sox dished out $8.2 million to sign shortstop Jose Iglesias, who along with pitcher Noel Arguelles defected last summer from the Cuban Junior National Team at the IBAF World Junior AAA Championship in Edmonton, Canada. The Kansas City Royals recently inked Arguelles to a $7 million, five-year contract with performance bonuses.

Chapman (pictured), who has hit triple digits on the radar gun, hauled in a reported $30 million deal despite his struggles in the Cuban League. Yet, a more polished Cuban hurler who defected at last year  has failed to garner the hype that helped Chapman break the bank.

Yuniesky Maya, 27, debuted in the Cuban League in 2003-2004 with Pinar del Río. He led the league with a 1.61 ERA the following season while going 5-2 with seven saves. Maya was also the winning pitcher in the All-Star Game that year.

The 5-foot-11 right-hander, who utilizes a low-90s fastball with aJorge Padron curveball, changeup and slider, posted a 6-3 record with a 1.40 ERA and 13 saves in 2006-2007. He followed that season with a 6-8 mark with a 3.30 ERA and eight saves.

While Maya finished his last season in Cuba with a 2.75 ERA in 96 innings – and has been used as a closer in the past – his agent Bart Hernandez recently told ESPN that “Due to his arsenal of pitches, Maya projects as a starting pitcher. It would be a shame to put him in the bullpen. He’s in the prime of his career. It’s not like he’s a young kid needing development.”

The White Sox and Mets are the favorites to sign Maya, according to a recent report on Globedia.com.

2009 DEFECTIONS:
1. Leslie Anderson, First Baseman, Camagüey
2. Yaniel Cabezas, Catcher, La Habana
3. Joan Chaviano, Catcher, Isla de la Juventud
4. Adeinis Echavarría, Infielder Santiago de Cuba
5. Ricardo Estévez Pozo, Pitcher, Camagüey
6. Luis Yadiel Fonseca, Outfielder, Isla de la Juventud
7. Adalberto Ibarra, Infielder, Camagüey
8. Reinier León, Outfielder, Pinar del Río
9. Juan Carlos Linares, Outfielder, La Habana
10. Yuniesky Maya, Pitcher, Pinar del Rio
11. Yadil Mujica, Infielder, Matanzas
12. Ronnier Mustelier, Infielder, Santiago de Cuba
13. Yoannis Negrín, Pitcher, Matanzas
14. Jorge Padrón, Outfielder, Pinar del Río
15. Reinier Roibal, Pitcher, Santiago de Cuba
16. Reinier Roll, Pitcher, Industriales
17. Jose Julio Ruiz, Infielder, Santiago de Cuba
18. Israel Soto, Pitcher, Isla de la Juventud
19. Deynis Suarez, Pitcher, Industriales
20. Maikel Torres, Pitcher, Metropolitanos
21. Juan Yasser, Pitcher, Villa Clara

Despite the eye-popping contracts, few Cuban players have arrived in the U.S. prepared for the rigors of a Major League season. Although Contreras and Orlando Hernandez both enjoyed early succss on the mound, few position players have emulated the pitching duo.

One exception was Alexei Ramirez, who defected to the DominicanJose J. Ruiz Republic in the fall of 2007. The former Pinar del Rio infielder signed for $4.5 million and made the team out of spring training. Still, there are more than a few recent defectors who appear talented and seasoned enough to contribute at the big league level in a short time span.

Former Santiago de Cuba infielder Jose J. Ruiz led the Cuban League in hits (126) and stolen bases (32) two years ago. That same season, Camagüey first baseman/outfielder Leslie Anderson ranked among the league leaders with 19 home runs and 186 total bases in just 330 at-bats.

Infielder Adalberto Ibarra hit .363 during the 2007-2008 campaign with 25 doubles, while outfielder Jorge Padron (117) and shortstop Yadil Mujica (115) ranked among the leaders in hits.  Another slugger from the Cuban coastal town of Santiago, third baseman Ronnie Mustelier, drove in 70 runs that same year.

Besides Chapman and Maya, another interesting hurler could be Yoannis Negrin. The Matanzas staff ace won 11 games two seasons ago and tossed five complete games while logging 125 2/3 innings.

Tomorrow: Escaping The Island

Photos courtesy of BaseballdeCuba.com

Marvin Moore is a former European coach and Managing Editor at BaseballdeWorld.

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