27 December 2002

A Little History Lesson

While writing about the Jose Contreras signing, I felt like he was bound to disappoint us, though I did not really know why. Then it occurred to me that it might be because almost every other pitcher to come out of Cuba in the '90s has disappointed us, so why should this one be any different? So, not wanting to let feelings or assumptions rule me, I did some research, using BaseballReference.com, Cuban Ball.com, and some other sites, and found that I was not wrong: Cuban defectors to Major League Baseball teams have left a legacy of disappointment in the 1990's and 2000's.

Despite adamant protestations from his agent, Jose Contreras, like El Duque and other Latin American players, will probably turn out to be at least two or three years older than the reported 31, and will be hard-pressed to do as well against the majority of major league baseball players as he did against the mediocre Baltimore Orioles in 1999. Despite his reputation, Contreras really is an unknown commodity, as the only times Cubans play Americans is in international competition, for which we only allow the use of college players and some more or less washed-up veterans, or in winter leagues, where the teams are hardly of the overall quality that is typical of MLB rosters. Well, not the Devil Rays. But other MLB rosters. So we don't have much on which to base our analyses/projections for a player like Contreras, which means that we have to look at History. Sure, Contreras' signing brought headlines to the Yankees, but will he bring wins?

History suggests that he won't. Of the approximately 93 Cubans who have defected since Rene Arocha in 1991, fewer than 20 have made it to the majors, and of those, 12 were/are pitchers. How have they fared in their careers? Let's take a look:

Rene Arocha 18 17 124 36 331.0 363 151 75 190 4.11 98
Rolando Arrojo 40 42 158 105 700.0 715 354 255 512 4.55 108
Danys Baez 15 14 82 26 215.7 194 95 102 182 3.96 114
Osvaldo Fernandez 19 26 76 67 387.0 439 212 136 208 4.93 88
Adrian Hernandez 0 4 8 4 28.0 25 17 16 19 5.46 82
Livan Hernandez 69 69 181 180 1216.0 1329 597 449 817 4.42 92
Orlando Hernandez 53 38 124 121 791.7 707 355 268 619 4.04 114
Hansel Izquierdo 2 0 20 2 29.7 33 15 21 20 4.55 88
Vladimir Nunez 17 26 194 27 372.0 349 180 157 270 4.35 97
Eddie Oropesa 3 0 62 0 44.3 55 39 32 33 7.92 55
Ariel Prieto 15 24 70 60 352.3 407 190 176 231 4.85 95
Michael Tejera 8 8 50 19 146.0 154 77 65 102 4.75 84
Totals 259 268 -- -- 4613.7 4770 2282 1752 3203 4.45 99

Not exactly tearing up the competition, are they? Only one pitcher with at least four more wins than losses. Only three with better than league average ERAs, one of whom has barely 200 innings under his belt. As a whole, these pitchers have combined for a losing record, a slightly below average ERA, a little more than a hit per inning, a 1.41 WHIP...in other words: Mediocrity.

And these are the stars of the Cuban Leagues! These are some of the best players Cuba has to offer! Or at least the best players to escape. When they came over, we heard alternately that Ariel Prieto, Livan Hernandez, Orlando Hernandez, Rolando Arrojo, and others were all going to be the next Luis Tiant. Instead, most of them have been hard pressed to become the next Luis Aloma. Many of them have lied about their ages to get better contracts, and their teams have been bitten in their respective asses as the pitchers aged sooner than expected. C'mon, did anybody really believe that Rolando "Honest, I'm NOT Billy Drago" Arrojo was only 30 when he signed with the Devil Rays in 1998?

Supposedly, Contreras has the potential to be a real ace. The evidence being cited for such a claim consists largely of his record in Cuba (117-50, 2.82 ERA, according to the Yankees. I couldn't find his career numbers on the internet. If anyone knows where to find them, email me.), his "barrell-chested" type body and his success against the Orioles in one game in 1999 (8 IP, 2 hits, 0 Runs, 4 BB, 10 Ks).

I just don't know. The fact that his torso resembles that of Roger Clemens doesn't necessarily mean that his pitching will follow suit. Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson are both great pitchers who don't particularly fit the description of "barrell-chested". His success against a mediocre MLB team in one game three years ago doesn't mean much, so the best we have to go on is his record in Cuba. But even that doesn't tell us much. There are so few players who play for any length of time in Cuba and then come to the US and make it to the majors (and NONE who go the other direction) that there's no way to come up with a useful "translation" for the Cuban leagues, as people like Baseball Prospectus' Clay Davenport have for the minor leagues, Japanese leagues, and others. But if there is one, it would seem that Cuban players, even stars, cannot usually be counted upon to be stars in the majors. So the Yankees may just have spent $32 million on the second coming of, well, Nardi Contreras.

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