The Baseball fan base more than most sports connects and polarizes around debate. Debating eras, teams, players, rules and transactions is a huge part of the baseball zeitgeist. My foray into the Cuban baseball world mirrors this, even if I have to rely on Google translate to understand the debate. One player who I focus on regularly and leads to much debate in the comments is Frank Morejón
I should first qualify that I count Frank as a friend. I have spent time with him and his family during my travels to Cuba. He has been welcoming and has been a doorman to much of the access I have received. Out of the gate, I don’t think Frank is the best catcher of his or any era, unless we are talking about defence. Frank irrefutably is a winner though and a leader behind the dish. Frank is in some ways a throwback to when catchers were graded almost exclusively on their defence. The fact his bat has improved as he has aged increases his stock in my eyes, he gives your professional at bats at the very least.
Some of the writing has been on the wall. Frank’s role with the National team has decreased and his exclusion from the Olympic Pre-selection squad was interesting. Rumours of Industriales reshaping their roster have been active since Granma clinched their 3rd title in early April. Prominent retirements of Stayler Hernández and Yoandry Urgellés now appear to be more at the behest of Lions brass than their own choosing. Perhaps naively many, myself included thought that players in Cuba still had some level of control over their destiny.
The news that Industriales informed Frank Morejón that he was no longer part of their plans was thus more shocking if only in its delivery to the player. The reasons since reported for the move have logic in a vacuum. Frank is a 35 year old catcher, veritably geriatric for a typical catcher. Morejón has also battled injuries and missed time due to his aggressive style of play. He is never afraid to go all out to make a play. The decision is still confounding for a number of reasons.
The Cuban National Series is in decline. This is exacerbated by the massive numbers of defections in the past decade. This can bring us back to how prevalent debate is in baseball. Debate the role Cuban leadership has had in this. Debate what can be done to alleviate this. There is no debate though that Cubans still want to see a healthy National baseball competition. The Cuban federation has acknowledged at least a part of this. They have allowed and even recruited previous defectors to repatriate in the National Series.
The returns of Leslie Anderson, Erisbel Arruebarrena and Yadir Drake indicate the realization that the league needs a boost of talent. Industriales is making their moves predicated on this. Of course getting younger is usually the best way to boost talent. Baseball has always been a young man’s game. However, in Cuba it isn’t that easy. Young Cuban talent now more than ever realizes their skills can get them paid around the world and is more willing to pursue this.
The positive for Cuba is that this doesn’t always involve leaving the island behind. More players are being lent out to International pro-leagues and still fulfilling their commitment to their Cuban squads. These developments don’t erase the fact that Cuban baseball still needs to rely on veteran and loyal talent.
The National Series had designs of expanding both it’s first phase and it’s schedule overall in 2020. Covid-19 of course forced a major pivot. The 75 game schedule for all 16 teams did represent the most games played for many Cuban squads since they went to a 2 phase season in 2013. There is also debate, there it is again, about the elimination of the use of reinforcements for the 2nd phase. The Cuban fan base wants to see more of it’s domestic series and more of their local squads. This is going to require more talent.
Cuba’s most recent champions have found a good mix of veteran talent with contributions from younger players. This formula has worked for professional baseball teams all over the world to be honest. Industriales trying to move away from veterans thus makes sense in many ways. However, I don’t believe that Cuban squads make their decisions exclusively on their own. True Free agency is not a thing in Cuba. Yes more players have been granted opportunities to switch squads recently but there is no free market for talent. Teams also don’t make trades but the federation does steer talent at points. Industriales forcing veteran players into retirement is potentially shortsighted for the overall health of baseball on the island.
I can’t speak to whether the players mentioned would be receptive to changing squads. Frank Morejón has indicated if his time is up with Industriales his time is up playing in the National Series. What I do know is that a player with 17 years of service in the National Series deserves better than being told there is no role for him. Baseball players in Cuba do get paid better than the average Cuban and have access to a better pension. Frank also had the chance to play professionally but I suspect he isn’t sitting on a massive nest egg. The Federation should thus be looking to keep veteran players in the league longer even if it is as a player coach for lesser squads.
Long time loyal contributors to the National Series should not be sent out to pasture. Cuba is undergoing many changes politically and socially. I think baseball is more than just a game in Cuba. I think it is a barometer for the island overall. The Cuban federation has a new opportunity to reward their heroes of the past. An opportunity to continue to leverage their admittedly declining ability on the diamond but more the knowledge these players possess. The Federation needs to find paid roles for veteran players not push them into early retirement.