Each year, it seems, there’s a hot new Cuban making an impact in the big leagues. In 2011, we got our first full season of Aroldis Chapman. In 2012, it was Yoenis Cespedes in Oakland. The next year, Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig finished 1-2 for the NL Rookie of the Year. In 2014, Jose Abreu won the AL version for the White Sox, while the Red Sox and Cubs got brief late looks at Rusney Castillo and Jorge Soler, respectively. This winter, we’ve already seen the Diamondbacks pick up Yoan Lopez and Yasmany Tomas, and we’re currently waiting to see just how mind-blowing the bonuses Yoan Moncada and Hector Olivera (among others) will wring out of rich, talent-hungry teams.
Cubans in baseball aren’t exactly a new phenomenon, of course. According to Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, 185 Cuban-born players have taken at least one plate appearance since the start of the 20th century. That includes some very well-known names like Luis Tiant, Rafael Palmeiro, Jose Canseco, and Tony Perez, as well as more recent non-elite starter types including Adeiny Hechavarria, Yunel Escobar, Yasmani Grandal, and Yonder Alonso. And also, Yuniesky Betancourt!
Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about the reasons why. Baseball keeps restricting access to spend on young, non-union talent. Cuba’s evolving political situation has made it something of an untapped pipeline. The consistent recent jackpots on these largely unknown Cuban players – remember, when Puig was signed, the reaction was largely, “wait, who?” – have made teams more willing to jump into the market, and the prices, it seem, keep going up.
That will be the trend until one of these players busts, that is, and that’s generally been the feeling around these investments. They keep working, so why not? Which is fine, except that we’ve already seen two relatively expensive Cuban imports well on their way down that “this isn’t going to work” path, and I’m not talking about Dayan Viciedo or Yunesky Maya. I’m talking about Dodger infielders Alex Guerrero and Erisbel Arruebarrena, who combined to receive $53 million from the team last winter, and who currently couldn’t possibly find themselves less in the team’s plans.
Think about what you know about each of them, if anything. For Guerrero, it’s probably the unfortunate incident in which teammate Miguel Olivo bit part of his ear off (!) during a Triple-A brawl in the dugout. For Arruebarrena, it’s probably the unfortunate incident in which he instigated a separate Triple-A brawl by so casually rounding the bases after a home run that even I, a regular opponent of baseball’s self-appointed “fun police,” couldn’t defend it. Neither of those items involve on-field play, of course. When they did get onto the big league field, the pair combined to provided nine hits (eight singles) and three walks in 58 scattered plate appearances, most by Arruebarrena.
It’s not exactly a great outcome, considering that when the 2014 season began, this duo owned two of the only nine $15M+ contracts ever given to a Cuban free agent:
- Abreu $68M
- Puig $42M
- Cespedes $36M
- Jose Contreras $32M
- Chapman $30.24M
- Jorge Soler $30M
- Guerrero $28M
- Arruebarrena $25M
- Leonys Martin $15.5M
Obviously, that list has changed now, with Castillo and Tomas and the others. But we don’t really know what those guys will be yet, and each of the other six here had production that ranged from very good to elite — even the less-heralded Martin, who just put up a pair of three-win seasons for Texas.
Can that much really change in a year? Well, yes. But let’s quickly walk through what happened, and if either of these guys can find any remaining value anyway. Guerrero was signed for a very specific reason, to replace Mark Ellis at second base, since the Dodgers had absolutely no options there and since Guerrero was never viewed as being likely to stick at shortstop, his traditional position in Cuba – despite having almost no experience at second. The idea, at the time, was that his bat would carry him while he attempted to learn a new position and overcome questions about his defensive skill.
But as a hamstring injury limited his time in winter ball – this after not playing in 2013 in Cuba – and visa issues prevented him from participating in the team’s winter camp, we began to look at the position as a problem in January, and again in February. By the time the second week of March had rolled around, it was clear that the job had been won not by Guerrero, but by Dee Gordon, a failed shortstop who had shown no ability to hit at a big league level. But since Gordon hadn’t been all that impressive himself, as I noted at the time, “despite what’s being said, this is less about Gordon winning the job, and more about Guerrero needing some time.”
When Gordon went out and had a shockingly great start to the season, that bought Guerrero more time, and he spent it crushing the ball in the inflated offensive environment of Albuquerque. By May 20, Guerrero had a .376/.417/.735 line, Gordon was coming back to earth, and all reports were that Guerrero was mere days away from being recalled to add depth at three infield spots and, likely, try to beat out Gordon. It might have even happened the next day, since Juan Uribe pulled a hamstring and landed on the DL.
But in what might have otherwise been one of his final Triple-A games, Olivo assaulted him, and he didn’t make it back on the field until the second week of July. After spending most of the next month struggling to get his timing back, Guerrero began to hit again and found himself as a September call-up, though he saw only 12 plate appearances, all as a reserve, and only received defensive time in left, not second. His role in 2015 remains unclear, since the regime that signed him is out, Justin Turner is coming off a great season as the team’s main infield reserve, and he has contract clauses that state both that he can’t be optioned to the minors without consent and that he can declare free agency at the end of any year in which he’s traded.
Arruebarrena came in with the exact opposite reputation as Guerrero: All glove, no bat, with BA comparing him somewhat to Hechavarria and Jose Iglesias. His story isn’t quite as interesting as Guerrero’s, but it’s nearly as disjointed — four recalls to Los Angeles, two times being sidelined due to injury (right hip, right shoulder), one suspension, and five different Dodger uniforms worn. (Arizona League, Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A, MLB). All told, he hit .259/.304/.417 in the minors amid reports from local media about his unpopularity with teammates, then was DFA’d in December. He cleared and remained in the organization.
Now, the Dodgers have Howie Kendrick to play second. They have Jimmy Rollins to play short. They have Uribe at third, and Turner and Darwin Barney around in reserve, plus new utilityman Enrique Hernandez. They have prospect Darnell Sweeney nearly ready. They have mega prospect Corey Seager perhaps not more than a year away, and they’re considered frontrunners on both Olivera and Moncada. There’s not room, and perhaps worse for Guerrero and Arruebarrena, the regime that signed them is no longer calling the shots, and maybe that’s how this gets chalked up, as a mistake that can be blamed on those who aren’t there anymore.
That might be the only way forward, as Arruebarrena has one of the worst ZiPS projections I think I’ve ever seen (.221 wOBA), and Steamer (.254) isn’t much better. Guerrero may yet hit, but has no position and onerous contract clauses. For the Dodgers, under new management, flush with cash and talent, and projected to have enough good times this year to avoid anyone focusing on what looks like more than $50 million in wasted money, maybe this won’t matter. Maybe this was just a particularly rough start in American baseball (particularly thanks to Olivo), and with a new home elsewhere things turn around. For now, it’s a reminder: These deals aren’t always going to work out. They never do.