Is Yoenis Céspedes the next great Cuban slugger?

What was first a tweet is now official:  26-year-old Yoenis Céspedes, YouTube sensation, is going to Oakland for four years and $36 million.

For better or worse, Céspedes, co-owner of the single-season home run record in Cuba’s Serie Nacional de Béisbol, is now the highest-paid player on the Athletics’ roster.

Curiosity surrounds him, mixed with skepticism.  Both are understandable.  Baseball executives and scouts can take their best guesses – and the A’s certainly hope that their guesses are better than everyone else’s – but the truth is that we do not know how a Cuban power hitter such as Céspedes, in the prime of his offensive career, will transition to the Major Leagues.  The sample size is far too small.

The list of high profile Cuban defectors is dominated by pitchers.  Liván Hernández provided the first major impact, defecting in 1995 and helping the Marlins win the World Series two years later.  In 1996, Rolando Arrojo defected directly before the Summer Olympics and later inked a $7 million contract with Tampa Bay.  In 1997, Orlando Hernández left Cuba via boat, leading to an international rigmarole that involved the United States Coast Guard and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno before it was through.  Among other notables:  Danys Baéz defected in Winnipeg in 1999, José Contreras in Mexico in 2002 and Aroldis Chapman in the Netherlands in 2009.

A number of infielders have created similar waves, beginning with Rey Ordóñez in 1993, followed by Yuniesky Betancourt in 2003, Yunel Escobar in 2004, Alexei Ramírez in 2007, Dayán Viciedo in 2008 and Adeiny Echavarria in 2009. 

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But the list of Cuban defectors noted for their slugging stops nearly as soon as it begins.  There’s the talented star-crossed Kendrys Morales, who also daringly escaped his home nation by sea.  After Morales, the number grows scant.

A fan could be forgiven for wondering whether there truly were any recent hitting stars in Cuba, or whether, since the days of Minnie Minoso, Tony Pérez, Tony Oliva and the latter-day duo of Rafael Palmeiro and José Canseco, if the baseball-mad country is producing only pitching and infield talents in the same way that Puerto Rico is noted for its catching talent.

Yet it was not too long ago when Cuba boasted two of the top hitters in the world, Omar Linares and Orestes Kindelán, each well-versed in excelling against international competition. Neither one defected, however, and because of this, their once-feared names are in danger of fading from baseball memory everywhere outside of their home borders.

In 20 seasons of professional Cuban baseball, Omar Linares is credited with batting at a .368 clip while cracking 404 home runs.  In one of his most prominent performances, “El Niño” starred in the gold medal game of the 1996 Olympics against Japan, hitting three homers and notching six RBIs in a 13-8 triumph at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

If they didn’t hear about the great third baseman in ’96, fans certainly learned his name three seasons later.  In the second of two exhibitions between Baltimore and the Cuban National Team, the 31-year-old Linares collected four hits and reached base two further times in an embarrassing 12-6 rout of the American Leaguers on their own home soil.  It was the closest baseball fans ever came to seeing “El Niño” in a Major League setting.

While Linares was a finer all-around hitter, Orestes Kindelán made sure there were no doubts as to who possessed the strongest bat in the Cuban lineup.

The all-time Cuban career leader in home runs, RBIs and total bases, “El Cañon de Dos Rios” swatted nine roundtrippers in as many games at the 1996 Olympics.  One of those blasts reached the third deck and was named by Philip J. Lowry in “Green Cathedrals” as the longest home run ever hit at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

Led in large part by Linares and Kindelán, the Cuban National Team put together an unprecedented, dynastic run of international success.  The Cubans won every World Championship from 1986 until 1998 and went undefeated en route to gold medals at the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics, the first Games in which baseball was not merely an exhibition sport.

The dominance ended at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. Surprisingly, it was the Netherlands who dealt mighty Cuba its first Olympic defeat, coming in preliminary play. Then, in the gold medal game, young U.S. right-hander Ben Sheets twirled a masterful three-hit complete game shutout, lifting the Americans to a 4-0 giant-killing triumph. Two of the three Cuban hits belonged to third baseman Linares, batting third. Batting fourth was first baseman Kindelán, hitless in three at-bats and victimized for two of Sheets’s five strikeouts.

The gold medal loss was perhaps symbolic; the golden prime of Cuba’s two great batsmen was nearing its end.

In 2002, Omar Linares, Orestes Kindelán and speedy defensive wizard Germán Mesa, another star from the 1990s, were allowed by Cuba’s national baseball commission to sign with a Nippon Professional Baseball club in Japan.

But, like Ruth with the Braves, Aaron with the Brewers or Mays with the Mets, it was evident that the stars’ best days were behind them.

Linares struggled to a .174 average in just 16 games with Chunichi, continued to underperform in 2003, and played one last season before retiring. Kindelán similarly failed to distinguish himself and hung up his spikes after the 2004 campaign.

Yoenis Céspedes, to the benefit of baseball fans everywhere, is coming to the Major Leagues in his prime.

In their prime, Omar Linares and Orestes Kindelán did not face Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson. They brought baseball glory to their country, true, but they did not compete at the highest level like their distinguished countrymen before them.

For nearly half of the 20th century, the major leagues did not feature all of the best baseball players the hemisphere had to offer. Oscar Charleston was not allowed to challenge Walter Johnson in an American League Game. Josh Gibson was kept separate from trying his luck against Dizzy Dean.

The reasons are different but the fact remains: Even with the arrival of Yoenis Céspedes, the best baseball players in the world are still not all allowed to compete in the major leagues.

Not without a boat.

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