By Jesús Pérez Vichot (Chuchi)
If there is a position in which Cubans have excelled defensively in the big leagues is shortstop. Several shortstops from the island have played in the MLB since the first decades of the 1900s. From those times, we find names like Manuel Cueto (the first to do so, although he was not a natural shortstop) and Gilberto Torres.
During the second half of the century there would be appearances by Ossie Álvarez and Miguel de la Hoz. But the first natural shortstop who played the position full time was Willy Miranda.
From his time, there has been a parade of talented Cuban-born shortstops who have excelled defensively. I hereby propose a lost of the ones that–in my opinion–are the best fielding Cuban shortstops in the top baseball league. There is enough talent, but I will choose based on different stats and accomplishments (not my passion).
1- Rey Ordóñez: What I saw the three-time Gold Glover do was unbelievable. The acrobatic plays made by Rey O’ are still memorable. But it was not only about spectacular plays, the Havana-born managed 101 consecutive games between 1999 and 2000 without making an error. He led the league in fielding average in 1997 and in 1999. He ended his nine-season campaign with .9757 (47th in the all-time list) in 8017.1 innings and 963 games as a shortstop.
Taking into account that his career in The Show was short, his 10.1 Defensive WAR is not bad at all. Many of his plays have been displayed during clinics for young prospects.
2- Willy Miranda: If many fans of previous generations might be questioning why Willy is not number one, I can’t imagine what they will think about me if he is not number two. However, he deserves to be in this position due to his own merit. All those who saw him play can’t be wrong. Most of them agree that he is the best they saw defensively at short. In 1955 he led the American League with 34 errors, but Willy liked to get into difficult plays. He had a good arm and an incredible range, something that made him prone to make errors. However, during that season he also led the league in outs and assists. His fielding percentage in nine seasons was .9622, and his Range Factor as a shortstop was 5.51.
3- José Iglesias: Many would wonder why “Candelita” is above others who did win Gold Gloves. I have my reasons. Iglesias is one of those players that draw fans to the ballparks just to witness his highlight-reel plays. Yet, he is not only a defensive wizard, but also a very sure-handed fielder. In 897 games and 7468.1 innings as a shortstop, his fielding percentage is .9816 (seventh all time). He has already been ten seasons in the majors with five different teams, and I am sure he still has a lot to prove, although he has already made his mark in the position.
4- Yunel Escobar: Although he finished his career as a third baseman, he did most of his work as a shortstop. He had a good arm (sometimes showing off by waiting for the batter to be closer to the base to throw him out), and was very consistent in his game. In 2013, he managed to lead all American League shortstops with .989 fielding percentage, and in 11 seasons in the Show he had a formidable .977, to rank among the top 40 in history. His Range Factor was 4.16, among the top 10 during the years he played. It was difficult not to see a sensational play by Escobar in the MLB Network reels, and many times he was among the Premier Plays of the day.
5- Leo Cárdenas: My fifth choice is the Matanzas-born and former player of the Elefantes de Cienfuegos in the Cuban Professional League. I had a difficult time choosing among Leo, Zoilo Versalles (two Gold Gloves) and Adeiny Hechavarría, but my vote goes to the former Reds shortstop. Leo won a Gold Glove in the National League in 1965. Playing for the Twins in 1969, he led the American League in assists with 570. On four occasions he led the league in outs and two times he paced all shortstops in double plays. Cárdenas had a 5.50 Range Factor in 1969, top in the AL. In 16 MLB seasons, he played in 1843 games and 16006.1 innings as a shortstop, with a .971 fielding percentage, which is phenomenal taking into account the era he played in. To put things in perspective, Zoilo Versalles, who won two Gold Gloves, and played several years during the same era, had a .956 fielding percentage.
Honorable mentions: Zoilo Versalles, Adeiny Hechavarría, Bert Campaneris, Alexei Ramírez, Humberto «Chico» Fernández, Silvio García y Martín Dihigo (Negro Leagues already included). Dihigo excelled in every position he played, and as a shortstop he managed to shine both with the glove and his strong throwing arm.