Before I began capturing video and writing about Cuban baseball, my photos connected me with the Cuban baseball community. Some of my early photos were the first to circulate as the internet was in it’s naissance. I have had the good fortune to return many times and capture the Cuban National Team in Canada as well. Join me in a new series where I share some of my favourite photos and tell the Stories of some of Cuba’s best players. Today let’s look at Norel Gonzalez Houston Astros Through My Lens.
When news broke in January 2021 that Norel Gonzalez was the latest Cuban player to sign with the Houston Astros is was a bit surprising. Gonzalez is a left-handed first baseman and corner outfielder originally with Matanzas but he predominantly played for Villa Clara. I was surprised because of his relative mature age at 27 and the fact that he was never a big star in the National Series. I captured him in action with team Cuba in 2017 and with Villa Clara in 2018.
Gonzalez put up nice numbers in Cuba hitting .315 with a solid .395 OBP in five seasons. He showed a bit of pop with a high of 10 home runs in 283 at bats at age 22. He was remarkable consistent during his time in the National Series. Sometimes consistency can cloud the view of players in Cuba’s top league. Many of the mature players that make their way to America followed a similar trajectory. Debut as a teenager, struggle early, build to a big peak or multiple peak seasons and then make their way off the island. Norel Gonzalez debuted at age 20 but by 22 was putting up the statistical same season through the rest of his tenure.
Francys Romero first broke the story and also detailed Gonzalez’ motivation for leaving Cuba. Almost every player wants to test themselves on the highest level. Who wouldn’t want to obtain the big contracts that top MLB’ers earn? Gonzalez though is part of an increasing number of players that left because they didn’t feel they were being utilized properly in Cuba. He did appear with the Cuban National team that toured the CanAm in 2017 but played sparingly. He was clearly not a part of the grander National team plans.
The players that want to get out will but it is intriguing how many more players at least say they would’ve been content staying in Cuba. Content if they felt they were more important in the eyes of Cuban brass. Would Gonzalez have stayed if he were a bigger part of the Cuban National team and given the opportunity to play professionally in Japan or Mexico? This is a tough balance the Cuban federation has to strike moving forward or risk increasing defections.
Norel obviously showed enough or signed for a favourable enough deal that the Astros are willing to take a shot. The Houston Astros have built and impressive cache of Cuban talent in recent seasons. Their scouting department is as well versed on ranking Cuban ball players as any organization. They must feel that they can mould the smooth left handed contact swing of Gonzalez and hope he can join Yuli Gurriel, Yordan Alvarez and Aledmys Diaz in the bigs.
If I were to draw an MLB comp Gonzalez reminds me of former Twin first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. A solid first base glove man with above average contact skills. The fact that neither wore batting gloves helps to draw the aesthetic comparison. Norel has obviously hit for higher averages in Cuba and shown a bit more pop but it will be interesting to see if those numbers translate in the pro game. Gonzalez is currently in Double A with the Corpus Christi Hooks.
I was a guest on the Locked on Astros podcast to discuss the Havana to Houston pipeline. Check it out via YouTube.