The Major League Baseball campaign in the United States is underway. As has become customary in recent years, several star Cuban players had their position secure, even before spring training began. Others reaffirmed themselves precisely in the preseason, and a smaller group needed to show that they could start the contest at the highest level.
The first installment of Strike Three in the 2023 season, focused on what happened during March, will be precisely about those that generated the most uncertainty. The period was crucial for many players, who had to shine to be included in the roster of 26 of their respective franchises. In the case of the Cubans, several outstanding stories remained. Without further ado, let’s Play Ball!
Oscar Colás earned a position as expected
The story of Oscar Colás, from Santiago de Cuba, has been growing after his first professional season in the United States. After leaving the island, breaking his contract with the Cuban Baseball Federation and the Softbank Hawks (Japan) and going through legal issues, he managed to sign with the White Sox, and he has made good use of his time.
The indomitable player was improving as he climbed levels. Colás surprised many scouts and several managers of the organization. He has great potential. His qualities include hitting for the opposite band (40% of his connections in Class A+ and Double A), although specialists that he can use the entire field.
Since November 2022, the general manager of the White Sox, Rick Hahn, had hinted at the claims he had with Colás. “He will be in the running for the starting job in rightfield,” Hahn told the press, something that was later emphasized by Chicago’s new manager, Pedro Grifol.
“He’s coming here to work. He’s competing for a job. He knows it. This is what he loves to do and he takes pride in it. He asks a lot of good questions. He is extremely detailed for a little kid. He obviously has ability. I’m looking forward to seeing him make progress this spring,” Grifol told NBC Chicago.
After 26 games in this spring training, Colás left an offensive line (average/on-base average/slugging/OPS) of .270/.281/.444/.725 in 64 plate appearances, as well as hitting 3 home runs and driving in 6 races, which earned him to be included in the team’s active list.
One thing I liked about Colás in spring training was that he only struck out 14% of his trips to the box. This is striking, because he was removed via strikes in 24% of the at-bats in Double A, an indicator that tends to go up when you get to MLB.
At 24 (a little too old to make his debut), the Santiago native enjoys his great opportunity in the Major Leagues and does so with a stellar prospect in an organization that loves Cubans.
Yuli Gurriel reached his goal
The news took me by surprise: Yuli Gurriel had not closed a guaranteed contract with the Marlins for 3 million dollars to play in the 2023 season. I wrote then that the decision of each player must be respected and that no one better than them to establish their value; but, in Yuli’s case, I thought that it was not a great choice.
Yuli will turn 39 next June and comes from his worst season since he debuted in MLB. To top it off, he spent much of the offseason waiting for more proposals to come his way; but it didn’t happen. Not even the Astros, the team that saw him debut, bet on having him back and, instead, opted for his compatriot José Abreu.
But life took the necessary turns and the player from Sancti Spiritus ended up wearing the Marlins jersey. After not responding to the $3 million proposal, the South Florida franchise withdrew it, only a month and a half later agreeing to sit down again to sign a minor league deal for an unspecified amount of money.
Miami is a team that comes in handy for Yuli. Clubhouse culture (lots of Latinos, same as in Houston), Cuban community, and an organization that will give him the opportunity to share time with Garrett Cooper, who has only played 183 starting games in 6 seasons, none of them with more than 73 duels in that position.
Shortstop José Iglesias, another experienced Cuban in the Major Leagues, arrived at the Marlins along with Gurriel. In the end, “Candelita” did not make the roster of 26; but, instead of exercising the exclusion of his contract, he was sent to the Minors.
The move is understandable given Miami’s great depth at short field, with Jon Berti and Joey Wendle as key players early in the season. In addition, it has Jordan Groshans, Jacob Amaya and Garrett Hampson in Triple A.
Generally speaking, Yuli and Iglesias only played 7 games in spring training after their late signing. The player from Sancti Spiritus left an offensive line of .227/.261/.273/.534, while the one from Havana finished at .200/.250/.333/.583, numbers that are not impressive, although the sample is very small.
In any case, we did not want to overlook these statistics to explain the following: in spring training there are decisions that are not made based on performance; rather, in cases like these, it is due to factors on the need on the list. Of course, it all depends on the modus operandi of each franchise, but they don’t always respond to what the numbers reflect.
Vargas had a difficult start but managed to recover
It’s been a weird preseason for Miguel Vargas, from playing unable to swing due to a slightly broken little finger to losing what would be his second-round partner: Gavin Lux. Despite the setbacks, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts didn’t give it much thought and decided to play him without hitting.
Vargas spent 7 games traveling to home plate without swinging. In that span, the amazing thing is that he struck out 10 and walked 6. What, 6 walks without swinging? Well, most pitches in MLB aren’t to the center of the zone; rather they are thrown to the sides. Still, it’s remarkable that he’s drawn half a dozen walks that way.
Since March 9, the date he was cleared to swing, Vargas managed to connect 8 hits in 35 times at bat. At the same time, he walked an additional 9 times while being taken out 14 times via strikeouts. However, the important thing is that he participated in 18 games as a second baseman.
Seeing the way Roberts handled Vargas in the spring, it wasn’t strange to see the son of the legendary Lázaro Vargas serve as second baseman on Opening Day, the first of many.
Cionel Pérez had another good preseason
A few days ago, my colleague Yussef Díaz, who keeps me up to date on what is happening with the Cubans, had me investigate when he published that Cionel Pérez has only allowed 3 earned runs in his last 3 spring training sessions. It translates into a 1.11 ERA in 24.2 innings of work.
We know that the value of statistics at this time of year does not attract much attention, but it is not for nothing that there are pitchers who win the position in the spring. In Cionel’s case, his 2021 spring training allowed him to enter the Cincinnati roster, although he was ultimately unable to establish himself.
The year 2022 was a breather for this player from Matanzas to the point that he became one of the best relievers in the American League and a fundamental piece of the Orioles bullpen. The southpaw was among the 6 relievers with at least 50 innings pitched and an ERA below 1.50. The others were Edwin Diaz, Ryan Helsley, Evan Phillips, Emmanuel Clase and Ryne Stanek.
The ingredients of his season were based on continuing to induce an above-average rollings rate (51% to 42.8%), an above-average strikeout rate (23.5% to 22.8%), and a close walk rate (9.0 % to 8.5%). These factors, coupled with his mix of four-seamer and slider, were instrumental in leading him down the path to success.
The trend continued during this preseason, in which his slider once again showed a significant drop and sweep effect, always above average, as happened last season. He needs to improve in localization, but he is a solid tool to face rivals.
It must be added that the opponents hit only .214 against his fastball, with a poor slugging percentage of .314. It was possible, to a large extent, because his fastball increased the turn speed considerably.
In the spring, Cionel played 8 innings, a pace of 11 strikeouts, 3 walks and 1 earned run allowed, a line he hopes to maintain throughout the season as one of the leaders of Brandon Hyde’s bullpen.
Lourdes Jr. on fire
When the Diamondbacks made the trade for Daulton Varsho that forced Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s move from Toronto to the Arizona desert, we knew the Cuban had a great chance to play in outfield, even on a team with a lot of depth in that part of the field.
In the spring, Lourdes looked very good, as did Kyle Lewis, the 2020 Rookie of the Year and also a newcomer to the Dbacks from Seattle via trade. Also, in the preseason, the organization’s number 1 prospect, Corbin Carroll, shone.
The youngest of the Gurriels had 12 hits in 40 turns, with the particularity that almost half of those rockets were extra-base hits (4 doubles and 1 home run). On the other hand, he drove in 5 runs and scored 7 times, received 6 walks, struck out 9 and stole a base (last year he stole 3 in 124 games).
Following this, Yunito became the third Cuban position player to play with the Dbacks. Before, Yasmany Tomás (309 games and 48 home runs) and Juan Miguel Miranda (65-7) wore the franchise jersey. Pitchers like Liván Hernández and his brother Orlando also added several appearances to the plate with Arizona in the days of the old rule that forced pitchers to bat in the National League.