“Everything was better back in my day”. As we age we often pine for a by gone era. Music was better back then, what are these kids wearing? Baseball was purer, they played a better game. We all tend to have biases towards the things we came of age with. I have been following the Cuban National Series of baseball for close to a decade now. It has arguably been the most dynamic decade in the 60 year history of Cuba’s top baseball league. Join me as I serve up a César Word Salad and explore the prospect status of César Prieto.
The National Series was once the training ground for Cuba’s top baseball players. It ws the proving ground for those hoping to represent Team Cuba in international competition. Mythical athletes only seen a few times a year in the Olympics/International tournaments often spurned the lure of playing in America and the potential millions of dollars this could lead to. This was because of the dangerous route out of the country, fear of alienation from family and loyalty to country. In the past decade this has changed as increasing Cuban’s have risked it all to make it to MLB. The talent drain has been immense and no doubt losing the now household names of Abreu, Puig, Chapman, Cespedes et al has hurt the overall talent level in the Cuban National Series.
Some estimates put 300 ball players defecting from Cuba in 2016 alone. Many of these names you’ll never hear of. Many are now in the American Major or Minor leagues. Increasing young talent forgoes ever playing in the national series or only playing there for a short stint.
The majority of impactful Cubans have been batters. The flow of arms off the island may be having the biggest impact on the National Series though. Major League Baseball is undergoing an analytics revolution. This is manifesting itself in pitchers throwing harder than ever before. Striking out many more batters than ever before while throwing fewer innings than ever before.
The Cuban National Series by comparison is a throwback in pitching philosophy. As mentioned prior most of the top young arms are leaving the island before appearing in the Series. Average velocity in MLB sits around 93MPH with increasing arms consistently hurling above 95MPH. Throwing 100MPH plus is no longer an odyssey but a regular occurrence. Cuban pitchers often rely much more on breaking balls and speculation being average league velocity sitting closer to 85MPH.
I don’t want to slag the Cuban National Series, I still thoroughly enjoy it, it is still an entertaining and talented league. It is important to gauge how the calibre has changed over the past decade. Even if you consider the 2000’s to 2010’s the golden age for the league and are impressed by the subsequent explosion in Cuban’s impacting MLB. Scouting the league was always more art than science. Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes &amp; Kendrys Morales smashed records in Cuba. They put up gawdy offensive numbers and by and large backed it up at the major league level. There is as also long a list of players that signed for big money and never made it at the top level.
Luis Robert is the next big Cuban thing and just completed his rookie year with the Chicago White Sox. Robert had some impressive moments and took home the Gold Glove. He fell short of winning the Rookie of the Year as projected but irrefutably has a high ceiling. Luis might also represent the last player to follow the development path that was once the norm. This including playing substantial time in the Cuban National Series. I hope I am wrong, but I don’t project a current National Series player as a future MLB SuperStar. This brings us to perhaps the best young star in the Cuban National Series in Cienfuegos’ César Prieto.
Prieto has garnered quite a bit of attention of late and deservedly so. César recently broke the Cuban record for hits in consecutive games with 45. He has been a standout since his debut in 2018. He broke the Cuban rookie record for hits, a game I had the great fortune of being in attendance for. Prieto improved in his 2nd season in every offensive category. César won a championship with the Matanzas Cocodrilos as a key reinforcement. Internet access has exploded on the island and coverage of their baseball has grown as well. It is much easier to track the action and this has opened the conversation as to whether Prieto is destined for MLB.
I think it is important to temper the expectation. This is not to discredit César Prieto, who I have seen in action a few times over the past few seasons. He appears to have elite bat to ball skills, something increasingly diminishing in the Majors. It is important to properly view the state of pitching on the island though.
The league ERA hovers close to 5.00 and Industriales of Havana paces the circuit with 6.01 strikeouts per 9. Five of the sixteen squads average fewer than 4 strikeouts per 9 innings. In comparison the Cincinnati Reds paced MLB with 11 K’s per 9 innings in 2020. Colorado came in last at 6.72, still ahead of Cuba’s top squad.
Cuban pitchers, pitch much more to contact and rely on their defence. Prieto only striking out 5 times in 204 At Bats in 2020 illustrates impressive and increasing plate discipline. Ultimately I think this will have to translate in order for him to have an impact in a higher league.
At just 21 years of age he has many contemporaries from Cuba that have since left. Many have signed pro deals and are working their way through the minors. If he had followed suit he could be in the same pipeline and very well might still pursue this path. Political change in the United States might revive the 2018 Cuba/MLB agreement. This agreement would have seen the adoption of a Japanese Pro baseball style posting system.
Players who reach 25 years of age and have played six seasons are eligible to be posted. This posting fee is collected by the foreign club. The Cienfuegos Elefantes would be the beneficiary of a large infusion of cash. More professional paths for Cuban players are opening up as well.
Prieto was scheduled to play in Mexico with Olmecas de Tabasco but this is on hold due to Covid-19’s grip on international travel. The average Mexican Pro baseball player makes between $4,000 and $10,000 a month. This is an obvious pittance when compared to MLB salaries, but in the interim a nice reward for a Cuban youngster living off of roughly $35 a month.
Another path might be Japan. Nipon Pro Baseball just wrapped up their 2020 season with the Softbank Hawks taking home their 4th consecutive title. This dynasty has been aided by Cubans Yurisbel Gracial, Livan Moinelo and Alfredo Despaigne.
Some projections have Despaigne earning over $3,000,000 per season. He is allowed to return to Cuba in the offseason and pays a reported 10% to the Cuban government. Does Prieto have ambitions of a Major League career sooner? If so the paths of many off the island have become a bit easier.
Many left during international tours in the United States. This is still a risky path and requires establishing residency in a third country before being declared a free agent. It will be very interesting to follow this coming January’s international free agent signing period.
The top prospect is former national squad teammate Yoelqui Cespedes formerly of the Granma Alazanes. Cespedes and Prieto project somewhat similarly skill wise, despite the obvious positional difference. The expectation is that Cespedes will develop more power. Largely due to genetics as he is the half brother of one of Cuba’s purest power hitters in Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes signed with the White Sox for $2million in January 2021.
If I were a Major League scout I would often take a shot on a kid from a baseball development farm like Cuba. Especially one who has shown unique bat to ball skills. Victor Victor Mesa signed for $5.25 million during the 2018 international signing period. This appears to be the peak with subsequent top Cuban prospects signing for much less than this. Pedro León received the largest bonus in 2021 at $4 million.
The potential paths for César Prieto could be many and ultimately I suspect he will be effective anywhere he plays. I think people need to realize that the days of Jose Abreu or Yuli Gurriel arriving as mature finished baseball products are largely things of the past. If Prieto does pursue a professional career I believe he will have to continue to develop as an elite contact hitter while adding size to his slight 5’9 frame all the while adding base stealing to his tool box, no easy feat.