By Reynaldo Cruz
It has always been known that Cubans have talent for baseball. In 1959, when Fidel Castro seized power over the island and ultimately banned professional baseball altogether, Cuba was the leading nation when it came to foreigners in the Major Leagues. The trend was to decrease for many years until the advent of the 21st Century and the wave of defections.
It is very likely that if the political landscape had not been such in Cuba, the Dominican Republic would not be able to stand a chance when it comes to available talent in the Majors. Yet, this year International Free Agent signings brought several very young Cubans to the equation, adding a lot of hope for the future of the country’s presence in the Show.
The list is headed by the very much heralded Brando Mayea (or Brandon Mayea, as all media outlets in the US tend to call him, but his Instagram profile reads Brando Mayea and when I saw him play in 2018 they were calling him Brando, not Brandon). The tall outfielder and middle infielder from Havana’s district of Alamar inked with no other than the New York Yankees, for a $4.4 million signing bonus. Although he is listed as an outfielder, he has the skills to be a shortstop.
Ariel Castro, a big lefthanded hitting outfielder with instincts to play center field and power, signed with the Minnesota Twins. At age 16, he was ranked 11 in the Top 50 International prospects. His signing bonus was $2.5 million, and he is prone to gain more weight and bring more power to his set of skills. Despite his age, he has shown great discipline at the plate.
The Chicago White Sox, following their recent trend of signing Cuban players, and honoring the legacy of Hall of Famer Orestes Minnie Miñoso, the Chicago White Sox inked 17-year-old outfielder Rafael Álvarez for a $300,000 signing bonus. The Granma-born escaped from Cuba in 2021, has been compared to slugger Alfredo Despaigne, with the difference that he is considered a five-tool player.
After escaping the Cuban National Team in Mexico in 2021 in what was the biggest mass defection in the history of Cuban baseball (12 out of 34 players defected), the first player to take the step, righthanded pitcher Luis Danys Morales was grabbed by the Oakland Athletics. The 20-year-old Sancti Spíritus-born trained with longtime fireballer Maels Rodríguez’s 100 MPH Club, and that helped him make his fastball reach 95-97 miles per hour.
Another 2021 escapee, also a teammate of Morales in Sancti Spíritus, Geisel Cepeda was perhaps the most seasoned player of the Cubans who got picked up during this international free agent signing. Bearing a very powerful last name from the same home province, to the point of being VERY well known among US Media without playing a single inning in Organized Baseball, Geisel is faster than the more famous Frederich Cepeda. Perhaps lacking the switch-hitting ability and the patience at the plate, he can play good defense and be an asset with his baserunning. The Texas Rangers gave him a $200,000 signing bonus.
At 16, outfielder Cristian Jáuregui, got a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He is considered a good defensive speedy outfielder with a good arm, who will more likely become a corner outfielder. A switch-hitter, Jáuregui showed more promise and impact from the left side of the plate, so for the time being he will be doing just that. At 5’11” and 180 pounds, he can still add muscle, which would be good for his power.
With a fastball that has ranked between 90 and 96 miles per hour who mixes his heater with a curveball and a changeup, southpaw Daviel Hurtado went with the New York Mets as their best pitching prospect in the current class. A big fan of flamethrower Aroldis Chapman, Hurtado is presumed to have pulled $600,000 from the arks of the Queens franchise.
Another player who left Cuba two years ago, righty Rubén Menes, was picked up by the St. Louis Cardinals for approximately a $425,000 bonus. With a fastball ranging between 94 and 96 miles per hour, a slider and a changeup, the Matanzas-born pitcher, who did play for the Cocodrilos in the National Series before leaving the country.
With a solid frame at 6’2” and 195 pounds, first baseman Daniel Pérez has international experience with Spain. A left-handed hitter who can also play the outfield, he has a good swing and power, and at 21, he can add muscle and gain even more power.
Others who signed were Xavier Alvero (RHP, Baltimore Orioles, $80,000) and Hojans Hernández (C, Atlanta Braves, $40,000). With such a great signing period, Cuban talent will be added to the Minor League rosters, and some of them will rise up rapidly in the systems following a fast path towards the Majors.