Despite its success in international competition, Cuban baseball under Castro is an enigma to the vast majority of fans in the States. I don't have data to accurately assess the strength of Cuban ball relative to the majors, and will therefore not attempt anything of that sort here. That said, I don't think there's serious reason to doubt Cuba has players with major league talent. I think Cuban ball has had major league caliber players since at least the time Cuba was able to restock its talent after the talent drain which occurred once Castro came to power.
Hopefully, some day someone will be able to come up with a persuasive measure of the average quality of Cuban ball during the Castro years. To date, though I have seen some attempts at this, it seems to me the attempts have been based on data which is not enough to base sound conclusions on. My goal in this article is more limited: I am aiming to identify many of the best players in Castro-era Cuban ball and to provide some information on those players.
My sources are Peter Bjarkman's A History of Cuban Baseball, the 1999 and 2006 Official Cuban Baseball guides, and the official website of Cuban baseball.
As good as those sources are, I'm still having to make do with limited data. Really, the only things I have in complete enough form to make my choices are career and single season leader lists. I would not be surprised to learn that I have missed some middle infielders and/or catchers who are renowned for their defense. I am sure that if I had the top tens for each season that my choices would be stronger, but I only have that detailed data for a few seasons. Of course, if I had data which enabled me to properly evaluate defense, park effects and seasonal norms, my selections would be superior to those I will make below. However, I have always taken the position that if one can do a reasonable job with the data at hand, it is better to do so if doing so increases the amount of information available to fans who care. I feel I have done so, and will cite in support of my feeling the fact I have largely matched the list of Castro-era Cuban greats given by Bjarkman by totally independent means.
I have virtually complete sets of leaders for the Cuban National Series, so that's a key component of my rating system. This component follows Bill James' black ink system. There have been several other series, such as the Revolutionary Cup, the Super Series, the Select Series, the Ten Million Series, and several multi-game all-star series. I used all of these except one two game all-star series (all other series were significantly longer than two games). Fortunately, these other series do not overlap. However, they have tended to be shorter than the National Series. Also, there have been years where the National Series is the only one which took place. Still, I did a black ink rating in which I clumped all these "other series" together into one essentially miscellaneous category.
Here are the top players in the two sets of seasonal black ink ratings (minimum 25 points):
The career leaders were rated on a slightly different basis. Only categories used in the black ink ratings were used for the career rating. The top ten players in each category were ranked, and their rank was subtracted from eleven, so that first got 10 points, second nine, fifth six, ninth two, and so forth. To this, I added five times the (Black ink category score minus one). Thus, for a first place finish in a four point category like RBI, the point value assigned is (11-1) + 5 * (4-1) or 25 points. Similarly, a fifth place finish in a two point category like walks drawn is (11-5 ) + 5 * (2-1) or 11 points. I wanted to give some added emphasis to career categories and also to reward higher finishes, and this approach did both. Here are the top players in this measure (minimum 40 points)
The next question was how to combine these three measures into one. My solution was to start with
the rating being about one half career, and about one half single seasons (i.e. the seasonal black
inks) for the guys near the cutoff. However, in the single seasons, I wanted the National Series to
count at least twice as much, given that it was almost always at least nearly twice as long as any of
the "other series". I also didn't want to penalize anyone by using the "other series" rating, given
that in some years, there were none. My solution for this was to calculate my rating as follows:
Before I produce the list ranking the players with this method, I want to make clear that I am quite aware that my approach has its limitations, including the aforementioned issue of defensive play. Also, I am only considering play in Cuba, so guys like Contreras and El Duque are unfortunately in a bit of a no-man's land for these purposes. It's hard enough to evaluate the Cuban play in its own right without trying to merge in major league or international play, and my choice is simply not to try to do so. The bottom line in that regard is that this is my article, and that's my choice, regardless of who agrees or disagrees with it.
The list of players receiving at least 150 points in this rating system are as follows:
The number one guy on the list is third baseman Omar Linares at 618 points. Linares is first in career runs scored and slugging percentage, second in career walks and average, third in career hits and homers, ninth in career doubles, and tenth in career steals. In the National Series, he won in batting average five times, runs six times, walks seven times, and triples once. In other series, his wins all came in Select Series. He won batting average, homers, and hits once each, RBI and runs twice each, and walks three times. I'm quite impressed by the broad range of his skills demonstrated by these marks: hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, and plate discipline.
Linares acquired almost mythological status for his ability to supplement these superior marks with a penchant for delivering in key situations on big stages. As with many myths based on historical fact, it can be difficult to separate the myth from fact.
Linares was born in October, 1967, the son of a baseball player good enough to have made the Cuban National team in his own right as an outfielder. Omar broke on to the scene at the tender age of 14, in 1982. This is a major reason he earned the nickname "El Nino" ("The Kid").
At his peak, Linares was just over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds. He was professionally courteous though soft spoken. He was also a staunch supporter of the Castro government. He had a quick bat, foot speed, nimble feet on defense, and a powerful throwing arm.
However, in his final five seasons in Cuban ball, Linares gained weight and appeared to have lost some enthusiasm for the game. Some of this may have been due to nagging injuries exacerbated by an already lengthy playing career. Chief among the injuries were his shoulders and knees. Other issues may have been the general lack of financial incentives for a living legend like Linares to continue playing, but also conditions somewhere between those experienced by Negro Leaguers and modern minor leaguers: travel on buses lacking air conditioning over poor roads, then sleeping in sparse dormitory-style accomodations under ballpark grandstands.
Here's the season-by-season record of Linares' career inside Cuba, which includes the National Series, the Revolutionary Cup, and the Selective Series as given on page 355 of Bjarkman's book, though I will note I have had to calculate AB from H/avg and TB/slg and OBP from (H + BB)/(AB + BB). My sources give the career AB, but my calculations may not add up to that figure.
In his career, he had 246 steals against 95 caught stealings. His career defensive statistics are:
He played in Japan from 2002-04 for the Chunichi Dragons. However, he appears to have been washed up by this time, posting poor .246/.327/.387 avg/OBP/slg marks in less than 400 PA in those three seasons. Please note that all data in this article is only through 2006.
Second place goes to right hand pitcher Braudilio Vinent. In career terms, he's first in complete games and shutouts, second in wins and IP, third in games started and strikeouts, and seventh in games pitched. In National Series, he led three times each in wins, strikeouts and shutouts, four times in complete games, twice each in ERA and games started, and once in IP. In other series, he led one all-star series each in ERA and strikeouts. In select series, he led in complete games five times, four times each in games started and IP, and once each in wins and winning percentage. He was dominant in the 1970's and was known as "The Meteor from La Maya". He also boasted a 56-4 record in international competition. The data on his career marks from Bjarkman's book is as follows, with the hits and homers marks added from the Official Guides.
Antonio Munoz, a left handed first baseman is in third place. He leads in career walks and is second in career RBI, fourth in each career doubles and career homers, fifth in career RBI, and tenth in career AB. He led National Series in walks nine times, twice each in runs, RBI and homers, and once in doubles. In the one 10 Million Series, he led in triples. In all-star series, he led in triples once and runs twice. In select series, he led in homers six times; walks, runs and RBI four times each, and twice in hits. He was most dominant in the 1970's and was known as "The Giant of Escambray". Sports Illustrated writer Ron Firmrite described him as a "left-handed Tony Perez." His career totals, cobbled together from Bjarkman and the Guides, are as follows:
His career defensive data is as follows:
Fourth is Rogelio Garcia. He's first in career strikeouts, second in career shutouts, third in career complete games, fifth in career winning percentage, sixth each in career wins and career IP, and tenth in career games started. In National Series, he led in strikeouts seven times; twice each in ERA, shutouts and complete games; and once in wins. In select series, he led in shutouts five times; ERA three times; twice each in ERA, wins and games started; and once each in IP and complete games.
He was a right handed power pitcher whose dominant period was in the late seventies into the eighties. Unfortunately for him, the thing many Cuban fans remember about him is he was the losing pitcher in a memorable 1981 international game against the US and future pro Ed Vosberg. His career marks follow, compiled from the usual sources:
Orestes Kindelan ranks fifth. He's the career leader in both homers and walks, second in both career runs and slugging percentage. He's fourth in career walks and eighth in career doubles. In the National Series, he led in homers three times, twice in walks, and once each in average, RBI and runs. He led the Revolutionary Cup Series in runs one time, and in the Selective Series, he led in homers five times, RBI three, twice each in walks and runs, and doubles once.
Kindelan played the vast majority of his career with an aluminum bat, and showed great power with that kind of club. He didn't just hit for power, as his .406 average in international play would attest. He starred in the 1980's and 90's, and Bjarkman reports a Japanese team once offered $10 million for the services of Linares, Lazo and him in a package deal, which the Cuban authorities declined. His career batting stats appear below:
Bjarkman also describes Kindelan as a merely middling fielder, which is supported by the fact he played a great deal at DH and also by his career defensive below:
Jorge L. Valdes is next. This lefty starred both internationally and in Cuba in the eighties. He's the leader in career wins and the runner up in both career games started and career complete games. He placed in both career games pitched and career IP, and adds a fourth place finish in career strikeouts. In the National Series, he led in wins four times, complete games twice, and ERA, IP and winning percentage once each. In the Selective Series, he led twice in each of the following: games started, complete games and shutouts, and once each in IP and wins.
The seventh spot goes to Lazaro Junco. He's second in career homers, fourth in career slugging percentage, and sixth in career RBI. In the National Series, he led in homers ten times, RBI four and doubles and triples once each. In the Selective Series, he led once each in RBI and homers.
This right-handed power hitting outfielder starred in the 80's and 90's. Bjarkman says he was adequate defensively, and adds the following:
Pedro L. Lazo is ranked eighth in my method. His best finish on a career level is third in wins. He adds three fifth place finishes in the categories of games started, IP, and strikeouts. He's sixth in complete games and tenth in winning percentage. In the National Series, he led in wins four times, complete games twice, and once each in ERA, shutouts, IP and games started. In the Selective Series, he led in winning percentage once. In the Super Series, he led once each in wins and IP. In the Revolutionary Cup, he led in strikeouts twice and once each in wins, winning percentage and complete games.
This 34 year old right hander is still active. He's been a dominant starter in Cuba since the mid-90's, but has performed as a closer for the National team in international competition. He reputedly has a fastball in the high mid 90 MPH range and a wicked slider. One of the few knocks on him (according to Bjarkman) is that he sometimes "sleepwalks through non-vital mid-season outings." Whether that is accurate or not, he served as the ace on back to back National Series champion squads, which is certainly notable. He's also had to deal with batters armed with aluminum bats during most of his career.
Ninth in the ranking system is Carlos A. Yanes. He's still active despite pitching since the early 90's and, according to Bjarkman, laboring much of it in a hitter's park. He's the career leader in IP, games pitched and games started. He's fourth in career wins, fifth in complete games, and sixth in career strikeouts. In the National Series, he led in IP and games started three times each, and shutouts, wins and complete games once each. In the Selective Series, he once led in games pitched, and in the Revolutionary Cup, he led in games started and complete games once each.
The selection of a .500 pitcher with a 4.53 career ERA seems surprising at first. I'm not thrilled with it, but there are reasons for it. He's had a very long and productive career, and in this method, it pushes him forward quite strongly. It may well be that in this try, I've given too much weight to career accomplishments. However, since the rest of the list seems to comport with the kinds of choices I'm happier with, I'll go with it. It would be most interesting to know exactly how strong Yanes' clubs were (if they were generally weak, it could go a long way toward explaining the .500 record) and the actual park effects (that 4.53 ERA may be better than it appears). Those things said, I doubt this is one of the method's finest moments.
Rounding out the top ten is Antonio Pacheco. According to Bjarkman, he's regarded as one of the two best defensive second basemen in the Castro era. His most dominant years occurred in the 1980's. He was regarded as a leader and was a consistent performer. He's the career hits leader, and is third in each career RBI and career doubles, fifth each in career AB and career average, sixth in career runs, and ninth in career triples. In the National Series, he led in triples and runs once each. In Selective Series, he led in hits twice, and doubles and triples once each.
The second ten begins with Victor Mesa. He's second in career steals, fourth in career runs, fifth in career doubles, sixth in career hits, and seventh in both career AB and career RBI. In the National Series, he led in steals seven times, and doubles and runs twice each. In the Select Series, he led in steals nine times, and once each in hits, runs and walks.
According to Bjarkman, Mesa
Wilfredo Sanchez is ranked twelfth. This lefty outfielder sprayed line drives to all fields. He starred by hitting for high averages from the late 1960's to the early 80's. These qualities earned him the nickname of "The Hit Man". He's fifth in both career hits and career steals, sixth in career triples, and tenth in average. In the National Series, he led in hits sixt times, average five, steals four, and runs and triples once each. He led two all-star series in steals. In the 10 Million Series, he lead in average, hits and runs. In the Selective Series, he led in hits four times, and once each in steals, triples and average.
Lucky thirteenth place is held by Enrique Diaz. He starred from the 1980's to several years ago. He's first in career triples and steals, third in career runs, and seventh in career walks. He led the National Series in steals eleven times, triples and runs three times each, and walks once. In the Revolutionary Cup, he led once each in runs and steals, and he once led the Super Series in triples.
Lazaro de la Torre is 14th. He was a durable, hard throwing right hander who starred from the late 70's to early 90's. He's fourth in both career IP and career games pitched, fifth in career wins, 7th in career games started, 8th in career strikeouts, and 9th in complete games. In the National Series, he led once each in shutouts, IP and complete games. In the Select Series, he led in games pitched four times, IP twice, and once each in complete games and winning percentage.
Fifteenth place belongs to Luis G. Casanova, a top hitting OF of the seventies and eighties who had a knack of churning out special performances for the Cuban National team. He's third in career slugging, sixth in career homers, eighth in career walks, and tenth in career runs. In the National Series, he led in homers and walks twice each, and once each in RBI, runs and doubles. In the Selective Series, he led twice each in average, walks and triples, and once in runs.
Sweet 16th place belongs to Jose Ibar. He was a right handed starter who didn't excel until the latter half of his career, when he mastered a variety of breaking balls. In 1997-98, he was truly dominant, leading in wins, ERA, strikeouts, win percentage, and IP. He also is the winningest Cuban pitcher of the 90's. He's 10th in career wins and 9th in career strikeouts. In the National Series, he led in wins and IP three times each, twice in strikeouts, and once each in: saves, shutouts, games started and winning percentage. In the Selective Series, he led in ERA, complete games, and shutouts.
Seventeenth place belongs to Jose Aleman, who had his best years in the 80's and early 90's. He's fourth in career complete games and ninth in each of the following career categories: wins, IP, shutouts and games started. In the National Series, he led in wins, complete games and IP twice each as well as ERA, saves and strikeouts once each. In the Select Series, he took one title in each of the following categories: ERa, games started, shutouts, and winning percentage.
Fernando Sanchez is rated 18th. He played from the 1970's into the 1990's as a right-handed outfielder. He's second in career hits, fourth in both career RBI and career AB, seventh in career doubles and 8th in career triples. In the National Series, he led once each in average, homres and doubles. In the Selective Series, he led in RBI and hits twice each and in doubles once. Not as good as his brother Wilfredo, but quite good in his own right.
Javier Mendez is rated 19th. He is one of the leading hitters for average in the 90's with a .333 mark for the decade. He had a long career as an outfielder. He's the leader in career doubles, third in career walks, eighth in career RBI, and 9th in career hits. In the National Series, he led once each in average, RBI and walks. In the Revolutionary Cup, he led in average once. In the Selective Series, he led in doubles and walks once each.
Omar Ajete rounds out the top 20. This hard throwing lefty was at his best in the 80's and 90's before arm troubles ended his career. In career marks, he's 7th in strikeouts, 8th in both wins and winning percentage, and 9th in games pitched. In the National Series, he led in complete games twice and winning percentage once. He led the Selective Series three times in each of the following: wins, games started, and complete games. He led in IP twice and ERA and saves once each.
In 21st place is Santiago Mederos, a lefty who dominated in the 1970's before his untimely death in an auto accident. According to Bjarkman, he is one of the top three pitchers in Castro's Cuba before 1990. He's fifth in career shutouts, sixth in career ERA, and ninth in career winning percentage. In the National Series, he led in strikeouts three times, shutouts and IP twice each, and once each in wins, games started, and complete games. In the 10 Million Series, he led in complete games. In All-Star series, he led in complete games twice and IP and strikeouts once each. In the Selective Series, he led in winning percentage, IP and complete games once each.
Right handed slugging third sacker Pedro J. Rodriguez is ranked 22nd. He starred in the 70's and 80's and was nicknamed "Little Che". Some of his top performances came in international competition. He was darned good in Cuba, too, leading the National Series four times in homers, three in RBI, and once each in runs and walks. In the Selective Series, he led in RBI four times, homers twice, and doubles and walks once each. On a career basis, he was 10th in homers and 6th in slugging percentage.
Romelio Martinez takes 23rd place in this rating. His best years were in the 1980's and 90's. He is fifth in career homers, sixth in career walks, and seventh in slugging percentage. He led the National Series twice in walks and once each in RBI and homers. In the Select Series, he led in homers and walks three times each and in RBI twice. All data below is only through 1999.
One of the two men tied for 24th place is Faustino Corrales. This recently retired lefty had the best ERA of the 1990's in Cuba, largely due to his excellent curve. He had a no hitter and in another game set the Castro-era record of 22 strikeouts in a single game. He's second in career strikeouts, 4th in career games started and 8th in career IP. In the National Series, he led in strikeouts three times, shutouts twice, and complete games once. In the Select Series, he led in complete games once.
The other man tied for 24th is Luis Ulacia. This switch hitting shortstop/center fielder was at his best in the 80's and 90's. He moved to CF from short and developed into a fine flycatcher. He seemingly saved his best performances for the National team, for whom he led off. He's fourth in both career hits and steals, sixth in career AB, and ninth in career runs. He led the National Series three times in average,and once in steals. In the Select Series, he led in average and steals once apiece.
Twenty-sixth place belongs to this active 28 year old (born 1979) who plays third for the current National Team, Michel Enriquez. Bjarkman calls him a "sure-fire" major league calber talent. He's third in career average and ninth in career slugging percentage. In the National Series, he's led in doubles three times, average twice, and runs, hits and slugging percentage once apiece. He once led the Super Series in hits.
Twenty-seventh place belongs to another active player, 29 or 30 year old Osmani Urrutia . He's a right hander who won five consecutive batting titles, and is also described by Bjarkman as a "sure-fire" major league caliber player. He's the current leader in career average and has six National Series batting titles to his credit to go with titles in hits and RBI in that series.
His four year run of seasons with .400 batting averages is most impressive (these are the first four of the five consecutive batting titles), and Bjarkman gives the data for those seasons:
Walfrido Ruiz is the next to last man we will discuss. He starred in the late 60's and 70's, and is fourth in career winning percentage, fifth in career ERA, and tenth in career shutouts. In the National Series, he led in games started twice, and shutouts, wins, ERA, and winning percentage once each. In All-star series, he led once each in wins, ERA, strikeouts and complete games.
Our final man is Victor Bejerano, who scored precisely at the 150 point cutoff. He's second in career AB, fifth in career doubles, and eighth in both career runs and career hits. He once led the National Series in triples (in 1989).