The Cuban National Series has crowned Granma as Champions and the Major League Season is roughly a week old. I figured it was a good time to look at the 17 Cubans in MLB 2021. This number is down significantly from the high of roughly 30 players that played in parts of 2019 & 2020, however this number can grow greatly as the season progresses. With that in mind though, the focus will be on the 17 players that broke camp to start the season. In Alphabetical order lets get Inside the Dugout.
José Abreu First Base Chicago White Sox formerly Cienfuegos Elefantes 2003-2013
Pito Abreu has been one of the top slugging first baseman since his arrival in Chicago in 2014. His 2020 American League MVP bookends nicely with his 2010/2011 Cuban National Series MVP. The consumate professional from Cienfuegos has been a leader with his play but also as a mentor for the cohort of fellow Cubans in the White Sox organization. The White Sox enter 2021 with expectations for the first time in a long time and José Abreu figures to be the veteran glue and middle of the order bat needed to lead their young upstart squad.
Yordan Álvarez DH/OF Houston Astros formerly Las Tunas Leñadores 2013-2015
Álvarez 2020 for the Astros failed to launch. He was shut down with a knee injury after just eight At Bats. The 2019 Rookie of the Year was a sensation swatting 27 balls into orbit in just 313 At Bats. The Astros are still dangerous but the loses of Justin Verlander to injury, Gerrit Cole and George Springer to Free Agency mean players will have to step up. Álvarez represents the batter with the highest upside and Houston might only go as far as Yordan progresses. If his 2019 is a sign of things to come the window for the 2017 World Series might not be closed just yet.
Randy Arozarena RF/OF Tampa Bay Rays formerly Pinar del Rio Vegueros 2013-2015
It feels like Randy Arozarena broke every rookie playoff batting record available and some that we didn’t even know of in 2020. Incredibly he still has Rookie eligibility heading into 2021. The Tampa Bay Rays have found great value in trading for under the radar Cuban prospects in recent years as Yandy Diaz might qualify as found gold as well. Arozarena appeared in 23 regular season games hitting 7 home runs which was an appetizer for an epic playoff run. In 20 postseason games Arozarena hit .377/.442/.831 with 10 home runs, 19 runs and 14 RBIs. His 10 playoff round trippers represent an MLB record, as do his total bases and 14 extra base hits.
Will Arozarena live up to the now lofty offensive expectations heading into 2021? Does he have to if he makes defensive plays like this?
Aroldis Chapman RP New York Yankees formerly Holguín Cachorros 2005-2009
The Cuban Missile might be on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Unfortunately he has surrendered the season ending home runs for the Yankees in each of the past few seasons. Chapman has the advantage of debuting relatively young for a Cuban. During the 2010’s he is likely the best Cuban pitcher of the decade. The Yankees have big expectations for 2021. To say Chapman is the key might be hyperbole. He will have to be more reliable in the biggest game of the year for the Bronx Bombers to break their 12 year Championship drought. When Chapman is on he is un hittable and even though his velocity has declined from 106.7mph he still consistently hits triple digits. The problem is the fast pitch if not properly located can still find a new location in the seats.
Aledmys Díaz IF Houston Astros formerly Villa Clara Naranjas 2007-2012
The Houston Astros have been as aggressive as any MLB organization in the Cuban marketplace of late. Aledmys Díaz is one of four Cubans on the Astros roster. Although there are many bigger names and bats on this list, Díaz represents one of the more useful utility options in the game. He can play every infield position and has even spent time in the outfield. He puts together solid at bats and has some power to boot. You can do a lot worse than relying on Díaz for providing rest to regulars subbing in for an injured player or mixing in favourable matchups.
Yandy Díaz 3B Tampa Bay Rays formerly Villa Clara Naranjas 2008-2011
He and Aledmys Díaz are former teammates with the Oranges (AKA Leopardos & Azucareros) of Villa Clara but aren’t related. Yandy and Randy also form a nice Cuban duo for the Rays in Tampa. Díaz seems to be the prototypical Rays acquisition of late. Acquired under the radar he is hardly a star but versatile enough to play multiple infield positions. Díaz is probably not anyone’s definition of a text book lead off hitter. He has often filled that role nicely for the Rays and is another bargain find for the cost conscious Rays.
Yasmani Grandal C Chicago White Sox no Cuban National Series experience
Grandal is the outlier on this list. Both for not having played in the National Series and being the only Cuban catcher in the Majors. Grandal was born in Havana and he and his family left Cuba when he was 10. Grandal has been one of the top slugging catchers for at least the past half decade. Perhaps the language barrier precludes many Cuban catchers from making it in the Majors. It is interesting though that Cuba has produced many top tier defensive catchers in the 2000s with only Grandal making the jump to The Show.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. LF Toronto Blue Jays formerly Sancti Spiritus Gallos/Industriales 2010-2016
You can’t blame the Blue Jays for exploring Gurriel’s potential as a short stop. Most who had watched him in Cuba felt his likely future was in the outfield. Since moving to Left Field the youngest member of Cuba’s Baseball Royal family has looked excellent on D. He has also appeared much more relaxed at the plate. Rumours abounded for most of the offseason that the Jays might look to flip Gurriel for pitching help. This is by no means an indication that they don’t have faith in the player. It is evidence that you have to give value to get value.
Yulieski Gurriel 1B Houston Astros formerly Sancti Spiritus Gallos/Industriales 2001-2016
Gurriel is Pina powered, a reference to his wild hairstyle representing a pineapple. It’s inevitable to discuss what if Gurriel had come to America sooner but that undersells how effective and important he has been to the Astros since his 2016 debut. He has been a solid power source and one of the hardest hitters to strike out in MLB. The natural second baseman and long time third baseman struggled initially at first base. Gurriel has rounded into a gold glove finalist at the position. At 37 his best days might be behind him but another solid campaign could result in another deep playoff run for Houston.
José Iglesias SS Los Angeles Angels formerly La Habana Vaqueros 2006-2008
Iglesias was once considered a glove only wizard at short stop but has turned into a solid bat over the past few seasons. The majors might be going through a short stop renaissance the likes of which we haven’t seen since the mid 90’s or ever and Iglesias can get lost in the shuffle. He could represent fantastic value for The Angels though. Many fear the Angels are in danger of wasting Mike Trout’s prime. They are somewhat hamstrung by big contracts meaning they have to tinker in the margins to get over the hump. Iglesias replaces Andrelton Simmons glove and represents an upgrade at the plate as well.
Raisel Iglesias RP Los Angeles Angels formerly La Isla de Juventud Piratas 2010-2013
José wasn’t the only Cuban Iglesias the Angels acquired in the offseason. Raisel Iglesias slots in as their new closer. Relative to his peers he represents a great contract value for a stopper with 100 saves since 2017. There is concern as Iglesias’ underwhelmed in 2019 losing 12 games and posting a 4.16 ERA. Similar to José the Angels are hoping picking up a Cuban Iglesias with upside can lead to their first sustained playoff run since Mike Trout broke in as the modern Mickey Mantle in 2010.
Yoan Lopez RP Arizona Diamondbacks formerly La Isla de Juventud Piratas 2011-2014
The aisle of youth had two of the best young arms in Cuba but Raisel Iglesias and Yoan Lopez now represent two of the best Cuban arms in the Majors. These former Pirates are hoping to raid the Majors in 2021. Lopez has only one full MLB season on his resume but figures to get a shot as a key setup arm for the Diamondbacks. His strikeout rates might have to increase as he ranks below average compared to the modern bullpen arm in this category.
Yoan Moncada 3B Chicago White Sox formerly Cienfuegos Elefantes 2012-2014
Moncada was once the #1 prospect in the entire world and when healthy has shown flashes of why he received this ranking. The White Sox moved him to third base after he played most of his time in Cuba at second. He has as high a ceiling as anyone on this list and forms a great duo across the diamond with his former Elefantes teammate José Abreu. The key number to watch for Moncada is likely strikeouts. He k’d a whopping 217 times in 2018 before cutting that down to 154 in his breakout 2019 campaign. 2020 was underwhelming but hopefully attributable to injuries and covid-19 creating a disjointed environment.
Adrían Morejón SP San Diego Padres formerly Mayabeque Huracanes 2014-2015
Morejón is one of the youngest player on this list and a rarity as a starting pitcher. Morejón likely figured grander into the Padres plans before the acquisitions of Blake Snell and Yu Darvish. Every Major League squad will be looking for unique ways to fill innings in 2021. Morejón figures to get enough opportunities to start but might also find himself working out of the bullpen and getting some seasoning in AAA. In a small sample in 2020 the youngster’s peripheral numbers impressed as he struck out 25 against 4 walks in 20 innings of work.
Cionel Perez RP/SP Cincinatti Reds formerly Matanzas Cocodrilos 2013-2015
The versatile left handed pitcher might have received a gift when he was acquired by Cincinnati in the off-season. He was stuck in a bit of a logjam with the Astros. Even though the Reds might be one losing streak from all-out rebuild this could represent opportunity for the 25 year old. Perez has both started and relieved in the minors. He has briefly worked out of the pen in parts of three major league seasons. He figures to play more prominently into the reds plans if only as a situational lefty.
Luis Robert CF Chicago White Sox formerly Ciego de Avila Tigres 2013-2017
Robert was the favourite to take home American League Rookie of the Year entering 2020. He started off hot but faded in the short season before rebounding slightly late including in the Sox lone playoff series. His season might be deemed a disappointment if only measured against the lofty expectations for him. He did win the Gold Glove in Center Field an impressive feat for a freshman. Similar to fellow countryman and teammate Yoan Moncada the tools especially the power are for real but strike outs, pitch recognition and adjustments will be necessary to make good on promise.
Jorge Soler RF Kansas City Royals formerly La Habana Vaqueros 2009-2011
It is hard to believe that Soler debuted back in 2014. He received a ring with the Cubs and seems like has lived a couple different careers so far. He came up to much acclaim but underachieved slightly in his time in the Windy City. Kansas City took a chance and ran on Soler Power in 2019 as Jorge set the single season record for Home Runs by a Cuban with 48. Even accounting for the short season in 2020 his rate stats clearly trailed that break out performance. Kansas City made a number of moves in the winter and some think they might be a surprise team in the A.L. They might only go as far as a resurgent Jorge Soler leads them.