Soon enough, it’s going to be too much.
Think back to the ‘dot-com’ boom. Or the Starbucks on every corner. Or Snuggies. Eventually, every bubble bursts.
Is the Cuban baseball player the next one to pop?
While Cuban athletes thriving in Major League Baseball are nothing new – think back to the Yankees’ dynasty of the late ’90’s and pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez – the trend has clearly risen in the past few years. Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman were two of the premier Cuban talents making their marks as mainstays in the game, but the bar reached an all-time high when Yasiel Puig exploded onto the scene in mid-2013, then was eclipsed the following year by American League Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu.
There used to exist an undeniable stigma about ballplayers whose reputation was enhanced by playing baseball in other countries. The most common argument used was that the level of play could not possibly compare with that of Major League Baseball’s, and thus the accolades earned by these athletes were a function of watered-down competition. This belief is still commonplace when considering players who thrive in Japan – although that is likely to change thanks to Cuban successes translating so well – but the restricted access to Cuba played a large role in the outdated fears. Until recently, scouting reports were as unreliable as a game of ‘Telephone’ at a family dinner.
Thanks to Cespedes, Chapman, Puig, and Abreu, what once were tall tales are now becoming verified first-hand accounts. These guys can play.
The problem, however, is that this is likely to cause an overreaction in the opposite direction. Hesitation quickly converts to frenzy. Thus, bubbles grow and ultimately pop.
With that, Cuban Yoan Moncada has officially been granted free agent status. Let the bidding war begin.
Consider the projections for Jose Abreu entering last season’s rookie campaign. Almost all of the reports compared him to another Cuban athlete. “A bit more power than Cespedes” was a common phrase, as was, “More refined than Puig.” Regardless of the fact that the end results were relatively true, why were his comparables restricted to other Cuban-born athletes?
Indeed, Abreu did display more power than Cespedes, but they are vastly different hitters. Cespedes tends to ‘yank’ the ball, while Abreu is comfortable driving it to the opposite field – 45 percent of Cespedes’ hits were classified as ‘pulled’ versus 34 percent of Abreus’, while 27 percent of Abreu’s hits went to the opposite field compared to only 17 percent of Cespedes’. In that sense, Abreu’s swing is more like that of Albert Pujols’.
The use of similar-heritage athletes for comparisons is not only lazy, but risky. With seemingly every Cuban baseball player looking like a star, anyone with whom Moncada is matched will have been drawn from a limited, but excellent pool of talent. With that, you won’t hear anything along the lines of, “The next Phil Rizzuto” or “Prince Fielder with range.” Instead, it will be, “Cespedes’ bat at a premier infield position” or, “Puig at the hot corner, assuming he doesn’t stick at shortstop.” Or the more direct comparison by position to someone like Erisbel Arruebarrena or Alex Guerrero, both of whom now appear to behind Moncada in the prospect pecking order.
Someone is going to make this deadly mistake, whether a general manager of a Major League Baseball team or fantasy league franchise, but the irony is that Moncada is actually more likely to keep the trend alive than break it. Make no mistake, it’s not because of the Puigs and Abreus of the world; it’s simply about one player against himself. Moncada appears to be worth the high price tag if for nothing else than his potential bat at an infield position other than first base. But these determination has to be made outside of the confines of parallels to Cespedes.
Therein lies the flaw in judgment – the projections of Cuban-born players have fallen more on their predecessors than their individual reports. Whenever anything grows too large too quickly, the factors associated with its growth tend to get ignored. Regardless of how Moncada performs, eventually someone from Cuba will be unable to hold up his end of the bargain, and a team will be left holding the bag.