Nobody imagined that we would have to wait 266 days to start the new MLB season, but the coronavirus pandemic first interrupted spring training last March, and then has prolonged the period of inactivity until well into the summer.
The wait has been long since Daniel Hudson struck out Michael Brantley and sealed the Washington Nationals’ win over the Houston Astros in the 2019 World Series.
Fortunately, this July 23, the action returns. The voice of play ball will start being heard day after day on an atypical calendar of only 60 games. Neither the 1972 strikes, the first in MLB history, nor the 1981 nor the 1994-95 strikes, had left us with such a short game program.
Despite the emergency, 2020 promises many baseball thrills, particularly for Cuban fans, eagerly awaiting the debut of the talented Luis Robert Moirán, the return of Yoennis Céspedes after almost two seasons injured or the second foray of the 2019 Rookie of the Year, Yordan Álvarez, just to mention three important events that will be in the spotlight.
For Cuba, 2019 was already special. José Abreu took a memorable lead in runs batted in―just the second for a Cuban in MLB history―, Jorge Soler won the first home run title for an islander since that achieved by José Canseco in 1991, and Roennis Elías was crowned in the World Series with the Nationals.
Repeating triumphs of this magnitude would be fabulous for the island’s armada, which will try to match or exceed the record of 30 home runs reached last year. There are more than enough elements. Luis Robert, for example, will be one of the new Cuban strongholds in the Major Leagues, and perhaps a gap will open for the emergence of other prospects such as Johan Oviedo, José Israel García, Alfredo Rodríguez or Omar Estévez.
Also waiting for a space at the highest level will be Yadiel Hernández, Andy Ibáñez, Randy Arozarena, the latter already with MLB experience, as well as the promising pitchers Rogelio Armenteros, Cionel Pérez, Michel Báez, Adrián Morejón and Ronald Bolaños.
To all this must be added the enormous expectation aroused by established stars such as Abreu, Céspedes, Soler, Yoan Moncada, Yuli Gurriel and Aroldis Chapman. In the collective order, the Houston Astros and the Chicago White Sox will be the teams with the highest Cuban representation and, therefore, will have maximum attention from the island’s fans.
And there are more names, a remarkable list of Cuban players full of dreams, who will seek to materialize on a sui generis stage, without an audience in the stands, but with millions with their eyes set on each of their moves.
OnCuba proposes an approach to some of these players who, almost surely, will be in the ring.
Every year is a new opportunity for Yandy Díaz, who has had to fight like few others to earn a place in MLB. Far back in time are his stellar offensive campaigns in the Minors of 2016 and 2017, which were not taken into account by the Indians, who took forever to open the doors of the Major Leagues for him.
Now his path is linked to the Rays, where he started last year in excellent shape, but an injury limited his playing time to 79 games. In 2020, already in good shape, the maximum is expected from the Cuban, who will start as the starting player.
A six-time All-Star, Chapman is among the best closers in MLB. The Yankees’ season ended in 2019 with one of his pitches, eliminated by a walk-off by José Altuve in the American League Championship Series. Soon after, the Astros were charged and convicted of stealing signs, Altuve being one of the most singled out for a dubious gesture after hitting the Cuban’s decisive home run.
That is a thorn for Chapman, who will try to be significant again in decisive instances, as he was in 2016 during the Chicago Cubs’ triumphant career. For the time being, he won’t start the season after testing positive for the coronavirus, but the Yankees hope to have him healthy soon. With 273 games saved for life, the Holguin player was aiming for 300 rescues this year (only 30 pitchers have made it in MLB history), but the cut schedule will prevent him from meeting that goal.
While Kansas shouldn’t go very far in the race for the American League Central Division pennant, the team will have many eyes on evaluating the performance of Soler, who exploded with 48 home runs―in 589 innings―after several inconsistent seasons (38 homers in 1,132 plate appearances in the past five years).
Soler became the first Cuban home run king since José Canseco made it in 1991, and he did so exceptionally. For example, 43 of the 27-year-old player’s 48 home runs came with three or fewer runs on the scoreboard. Eleven of his home runs were with tied games and 20 when his team lost by a margin of less than three touchdowns. Impressive numbers. Hopefully he can keep the dynamics in this bumpy 2020.
Another of the talents on the mound. Bolaños pitched consistently for the past three years in the Minors, especially accumulating a workload he had never received in his career. Last year he broke the ice and was promoted to MLB, although he had a discreet performance.
He was recently traded from the Padres to the Royals. This season he may get another chance again, but in Kansas (without much pre-competition aspirations) it’s unlikely he’ll be rushed and they’ll handle his evolution calmly.
The youngest of the Gurriel brothers has left glimpses of his quality in his first years in MLB, but he continues to fight against his demons: injuries. During the previous two seasons he has lost considerable playing time due to various aches and pains, and that has limited his chances of shining. However, no one can deny that while he’s been on the field his performance has been positive, as evidenced by the fact that in 2019, for example, 47.1% of his hits were extra-bases.
After being tested in the middle and shortstop during his first season, Toronto decided to move the Cuban to outfield in 2019. In the left field, he seems to have a place reserved to settle, especially if he remains healthy. For the time being, he is projected as a starter in the fields with Teoscar Hernández and Randal Grishuck.
Twice All-Star (2015 and 2019), Grandal is one of the most important additions to the White Sox in their aspirations to take the winning leap after a few seasons of ostracism. Together with James McCann, he will form one of the best receivers in MLB, which gives the team many guarantees.
The Cuban is an expert in framing pitches, has a powerful bat and experience in postseasons and World Series. Last year he had his best numbers in extra-bases (56), home runs (28), scored (79), RBI (77), walks (109) and OBP (.380). He has four consecutive seasons with at least 22 home runs.
Abreu, the best Cuban hitter in MLB, is beginning his seventh season as one of the top leaders in the White Sox club house, which signed him back for three more years last November. The Cienfuegos player is fully committed to the project of the South Chicago team, which now has real options to win.
His quality is unquestionable. In 2019, he was the leader in RBIs in the American League and exceeded a hundred trailers in a course for the fifth time. In addition, he achieved his fourth season with more than 30 home runs and already has 179. If the 2020 campaign had not been reduced, he would surely become the sixth Cuban with 200 home runs in MLB.
Several media consider that Moncada could get into the race for the American League MVP after his solid performance in 2019. The southerner left the .315/.367/.548 line, got his best jit totals (161), doubles (34), home runs (25), RBI (79) and scored (83), and his strikeout rate decreased considerably, one of the aspects that hit him the most (he led the majors in strikeouts in 2018 with 217).
Moncada joined the White Sox summer training late after being diagnosed with COVID-19, so it is still uncertain whether he will arrive in full power at the start of the race. Either way, if he’s in shape, he’ll be Chicago’s starting third baseman and one of the building blocks.
“La Pantera” signed three years ago with the White Sox. Aware of the rough diamond they had in their hands, Chicago management has unhurriedly managed the development of the Cuban outfielder, who will finally debut in MLB this 2020 amid enormous expectations.
Robert is third on MLB Pipeline’s list of most relevant prospects and second on Baseball America’s ranking. In 2019 he broke it in the Minors, with numbers from another galaxy: .328/.376/.624, 32 home runs, 31 doubles, 11 triples, 92 trailers, 108 RBIs, 36 stolen bases, 165 jits. With these credentials, the most advisable thing is to sit and wait for the emergence of a new star.
After a year of intense work with the Yankees, Cortés was transferred to Seattle, where he should once again have a notable inning load. Considering the unreliability of the Mariners’ starting pitching, it is very likely that the Cuban will be called repeatedly from the bullpen to lead games close of the closers.
Cortes, although he has little service time in the majors, consistently pitched between 2013 and 2018 at the bottom levels of the Yankees. With 440 labor chapters and 108 starts in that span―more than half in the role of starter―the left-hander has shown the ability to devour innings.
The Villa Clara player has appeared in 389 games since he made his debut in the majors four years ago. Of those collisions, 26 have been in initial, 27 in intermediate, 61 in third, seven in outfield and 274 in shortstop. His versatility is not pure verbiage, since he has not made mistakes in his appearances in first, second and outfield, while in third base he adds three blunders in more than 100 sets.
His ability to move in different positions makes room for him in the Astros of Dusty Baker, who will have an ideal wild card in the Cuban. Aledmys has shown great seriousness, perseverance and professionalism, for which it has been highly valued, beyond his performance. However, the numbers also support him. In four seasons he has 180 trailers, 193 scored runs, 51 home runs and a .275/.330/.459 line.
His detractors always have sharp fangs to lynch him, especially after the Houston Astros’ sign theft was confirmed. However, Yulieski Gurriel has shown his tremendous quality after making the leap to MLB late in his career.
Just three seasons after starting to play first base with no prior experience in the position, Yuli was nominated among the finalists for the Gold Glove in 2019, while achieving his best offensive numbers (31 homers, 104 RBIs) since arriving in the United States. He will enter the final season of his contract with the Astros and will be a free agent at the end of the season, but he has expressed his intention to remain in the organization.
The giant from Las Tunas is, along with Luis Robert Moirán, the biggest Cuban star project in MLB. He made his debut in the majors last season (27 home runs and 78 RBIs in 87 games) and won the American League Rookie of the Year, but his bat had been ringing at the lower levels of the Astros since 2017, his first full season in the United States since he signed in June 2016 with the Dodgers. Precisely in Los Angeles they must still be regretting the exchange in which they yielded the portentous slugger in exchange for Josh Fields, just 46 days after signing him.
Álvarez has natural power and has demonstrated an impressive ability to hit the ball in all directions, although he will have to adapt to the adjustments that opponents make when facing him. It’s unlikely he will begin the season, as he was placed on the disabled list on July 12 for unknown reasons, but as soon as he recovers he should return as a major offensive asset for the Astros.
Armenteros entered MLB through the front door, as in his first outing he managed to save, something that no Houston pitcher had achieved in their debut game since 1969. The kid carved his way to the majors with four hard years of work (acceptable strikeout-to-walk ratio, 3.45 ERA and 35 wins) at the lower levels of the Astros, pitching primarily as a starter.
The pitcher had an operation last March to remove bone fragments from the elbow of his throwing arm, which has forced him to undergo a period of rehabilitation that is already in the final stretch. If he returns fully recovered and manages to get in shape, he may find a place on the Astros’ staff.
Two trips to the majors and consistent work in the minors have gradually consolidated the left-hander from Matanzas in U.S. baseball. Cionel has shown his makings in 58 starts (40 outings) in the different lower levels, in which he has 16 wins, 230 strikeouts (in 222 innings) and 3.65 ERA.
He is currently on the disabled list and will not start the season, but there are options that he will be requested at some point, considering the Astros’ shallow left-handed pitching. The squad will start the campaign only with Framber Valdez as the only man with the so-called wrong hand, so Cionel may later be an alternative.
An imposing physique, José Adolis is seeking a position in the Rangers for the 2020 season, after spending three years between AA and AAA with the Cardinals. In that span, he showed power (69 home runs and 45.4% extra-base), but his strikeout rate has grown progressively and that can be dangerous in his aspirations to stay in the majors.
In Texas, at the moment, they have him as a replacement player, both to play in the outfield and take advantage of his powerful arm, or for the designated position.
Just a few days ago, he showed his photo on social networks with the World Series ring he won last year with the Nationals. Although he had almost no prominence in the race for the title due to an injury, this year should be important. However, the player from Guantánamo will not start the season, since he was placed on the disabled list―without clarifying the reasons―on July 13.
Elías began his career with the Seattle Mariners six years ago, when he fulfilled the role of starter. In his first two seasons he made at least 20 starts, but eventually he was relocated as a reliever and in 2019―while in Seattle―he saved 14 games with four wins in 44 starts. With Washington he has not played a leading role due to injuries, but when he is fit he will be a key player in the champions’ bullpen.
“La Potencia” is back. After losing 205 games in the previous two seasons to various injuries, Céspedes is again emerging as an important bat for the Mets, who have suffered greatly from his absence. For now, it is unknown whether the Cuban will return with the same offensive momentum of his first five seasons, in which he hit 137 home runs and boosted 453 runs.
Since the Mets’ training camp this summer, many have been impressed with Cespedes’ batting hits in practice and his run on bases, details that invite optimism. If he stays fit, the Granma player will be in the fields, but without rushing. Fortunately, there will be a designated batter in the National League, and in that position he can add turns at bat.
He is one of the most recognized veteran shortstops in MLB because of his defensive safety, although he has never won a Gold Glove. He has had some back problems during training with the Orioles, but from the start of the season he will be in the shortstop of a team with notable deficiencies.
Iglesias has six consecutive seasons with more than 100 jits and the last year with the Reds he left his best scored numbers (62), RBI (59) and home runs (11), and recorded his fourth season in a row with at least 30 extra-bases.
Last weekend, Yonder Alonso was included in Atlanta’s 40th roster, thus guaranteeing his stay in the majors at the start of the 2020 season. The Braves have many arguments that support that decision, starting with doubts regarding the good shape of Freddie Freeman, who was away from the fields for a time after falling ill with COVID-19.
Freeman is one of the stars in Atlanta and has said that he will be available from the start, but having Alonso is a safety net for the Braves, who can also use the Cuban as a designated hitter now that that position in the League has been enabled. National. Yonder has ten years of experience in the majors, with 100 home runs and a .259/.332/.404 line.
The veteran from Santiago is still in the race and in 2020 he will return to the Braves. No one doubts his spectacular ability with the glove, especially in the shortstop, where he is a true master. But also in the middle and the third half he has shown a lot of security, with only three errors in more than 500 innings occupying those positions.
In Atlanta, he will be the main defensive backup for an infield that features Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley as starters.
He hasn’t been able to explode with his bat in the majors, but he has been gaining space due to his defensive conditions. He is a fast outfielder with a fast and wide range of coverage, with a powerful arm, a combination that allows him to be appreciated as an efficient ranger.
With the Pittsburgh Pirates, he can start the 2020 season in the starting lineup, considering that Gregory Polanco, the team’s starting right-hander, has been absent from training after testing positive for the coronavirus. Heredia does not aspire to the role of superstar, but remains in his firm fight to retain a position in the majors, something that is not a small thing today.
His 92 games saved in the last three seasons confirm that we are facing an effective closer, a role that Iglesias has occupied since his time in the Cuban national team. Upon arrival in the United States they intended to use him as a starter and the experiment did not go entirely wrong, but in the long run in Cincinnati they realized that they could better take advantage of the explosiveness of the Pinar del Río player in the work of a single entry.
Raisel has lived up to expectations, and particularly in 2019 he had the best strikeout average of his career (12.0 for every nine innings) and decreased his average of base on balls (2.8, the lowest since he was a starter in 2015). However, his home run rate shot up to 1.6 (the worst of his career and too high for a closer), he wasted several saves and lost 12 games, indicating that he must be more consistent. That is his challenge in 2020.
In a normal and traditional setting, Rangel Ravelo probably wouldn’t have a place in St. Louis, but the expansion of the rosters and the novelty of the designated hitter in the National League made a space for him in the majors. The Cuban can defend first base when the Cardinals decide to give Paul Goldschmidt a refreshment as DH or, in effect, occupy the post of designated himself.
Ravelo is an active bulwark because of his offensive power, shaped after years and years of work in the Minors and in the professional circuits of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, where he has made a career with the Cardenales de Lara. In 2019, he debuted in the majors and did not go unnoticed, hitting the second longest home run (487 feet) of the season (vs. Tim Melville of Colorado at Coors Field), only surpassed by Nomar Mazara’s 505 foot shot. Ravelo’s hit was the longest home run for a Cuban in 2019.
The Padres have the Cuban left-hander as one of the candidates for the last positions in his rotation, but most likely he will end up in the bullpen. He has impressed in summer practice, which puts him in a good position to join one of the most promising pitching corps in MLB.
Morejón is one of the jewels of the Padres’ farms (sixth in the organization’s list of best prospects), where they have gradually shaped him. In three years in the Minors, he has 176 strikeouts in 164.1 innings, and has shown the progression necessary to move up in the team system.
This 2.03-meter-tall giant throws smoking close to 100-mile straights and is one of the most powerful arms of Cuban pitching in U.S. baseball. Báez has been in the Padres organization for three years, where he was used as a starter in the first instance, until he was transferred to the bullpen in 2019.
He is currently the number seven prospect in the franchise and could once again play a leading role in the majors, as happened last season.
He is another of the Cuban pitching talents who has found his place as a relief pitcher. His career in the United States began in 2015 as a starter, but after two not very convincing years, he went to the bullpen and there he definitely stood out. His 2017 and 2018 seasons established him as a dominant reliever in the Minors and that opened the doors for him to the Major Leagues.
López is a physical wonder (6´3) who already had a significant workload in 2019 with 70 starts, in which he recorded a WHIP of 1,137 and 21 holds, mainly supported by the effectiveness of his slider. His 5.03 FIP and 1.6 home runs per nine innings were not the best, so he will have to focus on fully exploiting his qualities and improving his pitching combination. Opportunities will not be lacking in Arizona.