One of the best things to happen in major league baseball the last few years has been the emergence of the players from Cuba. Several have become out and out stars and it looks as though there will be many more to come now that “normalization” of relations between Yanquis and Cubanos is finally upon us. There were many Cuban players before the 60s and it seemed like most of them played, rather ironically, for the Washington Senators: Jose Valdivielso, Carlos Paula, Juan Delis, and Camilo Pascual, to name a few. Then Fulgencio Batista got the sack and that pissed off the racketeers who got run out of town so JFK had to try to force out the new, supposedly Communist regime or else they might have to bump him off. Wait a minute.
Anyway, the point here is not to talk about 55 years of political treachery, stupidity, and corruption but rather to celebrate the fact that a lot of good baseball players are getting the chance to shine on the big stage. Two of these who are playing a big part in what remains of the 2015 pennant race are outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig. Cespedes arrived in 2012 with the at that time rather successful Oakland Athletics. In 129 games that season, Cespedes batted .292 with 23 home runs, 82 runs batted in and an OPS of .861. His statistics offensively the following year were not as impressive as he batted .240 but with good power numbers, 26 homers and 80 RBI. More importantly, his team won a lot of games. Batting .300 when Oakland is your home field is never easy and fielding ability is less quantifiable (sabermetricians notwithstanding) but Cespedes also showed good range and hands in the outfield and a very good throwing arm. He has since then joined Juan Uribe as one of the least appreciated major leaguers. At the trading deadline in 2014, Billy Beane proved he was smarter than a cucumber by trading Cespedes to Boston for a much ballyhooed left handed pitcher who has never really done much. In a season of 101 games with Oakland and 51 games for the Red Sox, Cespedes totaled a .260 batting average with 22 homers and 100 RBI. The A’s were 66-41 at the time of the trade and 22-33 thereafter. The left handed pitcher got beaten by Kansas City in the wild card game. Then, in December, the Red Sox showed that they could under appreciate as well, trading the Cubano to Detroit for Rick Porcello in a vain attempt to rebuild a pitching staff that they had disassembled for some reason. There have been no reports that Cespedes has been some kind of problem child who causes problems for management but you never know. So in 2015 Cespedes was batting .293 with 18 homers and 61 RBI on July 31 when the Tigers, fearing success, shipped him to New York to help the Mets. He has batted .312 with 14 home runs and 36 RBI for the Mets in the 36 games he has played for them. New York has won 25 and lost 11 during this time. There are, of course, other factors to consider, such as tight sphincters in the nation’s capitol. However, I think it is safe to say Yoenis Cespedes is a winner. He is 29 years old, and, if the Mets are smart, they will make him an offer he can’t refuse.
Yasiel Puig’s story is equally mysterious. He is just 24, but Los Angeles seems to be aging him quickly. If he had come to a team like Houston or Seattle that had been struggling to find success in a smaller market with lower expectations, things might have been easier for Puig. In 2013, he burst onto the scene for an underachieving team, batting .319 with 19 home runs and 42 RBI with an OPS of .925 in 104 games. His talent, large but raw, was on display in Glittertown as he performed feats both wonderful and awful with youthful exuberance. Last season, the Dodgers won their division crown with Puig playing mostly right field while Matt Kemp, past his prime defensively, attempted to cover center field. Puig’s arm became legendary, but not always for the right reasons. He did not become a superstar as many had expected, batting .296 with 16 homers and 69 RBI and an .863 OPS in 148 games. Surely, 2015 would be the year that the big, strong, fast Cubano would mature into the elite outfielder we all had anticipated. Nope. He has battled injury while rookie Joc Pederson took over center field for the traded Kemp and Puig remained in right field. He’s batting a respectable .256 with 11 homers and 38 RBI in 77 games this season, and he may be finished for the year with hamstring problems. Worse, there are rumors floating that both teammates and management do not mind his absence. What next? Well, he is still young and, if he can be reached and communicated with minus a ton of pressure, perhaps he will eventually blossom.
How could I have been so wrong about both New York baseball teams this spring? I wrote both of them off early and here it is September 10 and they could both win their division titles. As for the Yankees, I have to admit that part of it was prejudice; I have been a Yankees hater since before I was born. Also, however, I never dreamed that Alex Rodriguez would make any significant contribution this and let’s face it, neither did you. Carlos Beltran looked like he was finished a year ago, as did Mark Teixeira. The starting pitching was iffy. But Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Chase Headley made a solid core, Brian McCann made a great comeback, and Didi Gregorious did not get booed out of town as I expected. So there, I was wrong. Yuck. As for the Mets, I knew that strong young pitching makes up for a lot of things but David Wright was seriously hurt, Curtis Granderson was a bust as either a lead off man or a slugger and a candy armed outfielder to boot, plus who was catching? Their current surge can be attributed to good trades around Black Friday, especially the aforementioned Cespedes but also the underrated Uribe, and the retreat from greatness by the Nationals. Plus Terry Collins, like Sparky Anderson, might just be a lot smarter than he sounds.