When Cuba announced that their players would be available for professional summer leagues many of the Japanese professional teams jumped on the opportunity to enhance their roster with foreign players. Many of those teams wanted pitching but the best talent available and the players Cuba was promoting were their professional hitters.
Four Cuban players have signed with the Japanese professional team. Only one is performing decently and he has an injury that will keep him out of the lineup until mid-August. Playing in a new culture is filled with unexpected challenges, especially when the language and food are filled with surprises. Younger players are usually more open to experiencing new cultures, but for the most part the Japanese teams have gone with the more experienced Cuban players to fill their rosters.
Frederich Cepeda was the first player signed from Cuba by the Yomiuri Giants. He was expected to play in left field and move another Cuban who fled his country for the major leagues, Leslie Anderson, to move to first base. That would have put Jose Lopez on the bench. Except Cepeda could not lift his average above .200 and was sent down to their minor leagues (ni-gun) to get his bat working. Down in the minor leagues Cepeda has played in 11 games and shown very little power, hitting just .286 with three doubles. He looks like a bust, but then his offensive output in Cuba was also on the down slide the last couple of years.
Yulieski Gourriel looked like a success for the Yokahama Bay Stars, despite their discovery Yulieski did not like flying. This is not a bad thing in Japan where the rail system is excellent, except when you have to fly to Hokkaido to play the Nippon Ham Fighters. Myworld has traveled to various stadiums on the train and you can get to each city by train within a day. Myworld has never been to Hokkaido.
Yulieski started the season well hitting .340 with six homeruns and 23 RBIs. Those would be numbers good enough to keep company with the league leaders. The Bay Stars began to develop a culture of winning with the arrival of Gourriel and all was well. Until a side injury sidelined Yulieski for at least a month. At least the Bay Stars continue to win and they hope to have their Cuban star back to make a run for a playoff spot, a rare feat for this team.
Alfredo Despaigne was recently signed by the Chiba Lotte Marines. It is still too early to measure his success since he has only played three games. In the game yesterday he went 0 for 4 grounding into a double play and striking out three times. He got a hit in his first game and has not seen another since, hitting .083. He is probably pressing a little and should do fine once he gets his timing and a better understanding of how Japanese pitchers approach him.
The pitching tends to be better in Japan than in Cuba so expecting the inflated averages these Cuban players produced in their homeland is asking for too much. They will struggle as they get acclimated but they should achieve some success.
Speaking of pitching, the Yomiuri Giants signed a 20 year old pitcher from Cuba named Hector Mendoza. He has a nice fastball that sits in the mid-90s but lacks experience. He pitched in the bullpen in Cuba for the equivalent of the Bay Stars in Cuba Isla de la Juventud, picking up 13 saves. Not really too sure what the Giants have planned for him. He has yet to appear in their ni-gun league (the minor leagues) or their major leagues. Juventud had two other younter pitchers who pitched well, Jorge Despaigne (2-3, 4.54) and Joan Lopes (3-1, 3.12), but both have defected for the major leagues.
The signing opportunity for acquiring more Cuban players has passed. What you have now is four Cubans playing in the NPB. It will be interesting to watch how they impact the Japanese season. Their success will dictate whether Japanese teams look to Cuba to find their foreign players or continue to mine the major leagues AAAA system for potential impact players. It will also be interesting to see the Cuban players reaction as they mix with other players where they will learn what the other Cuban players are earning who defected and are now playing in Japan like Hector Luna and Leslie Anderson. This may force the Cuban government to revise the amount of money they extract from their player’s salary as they act as buscones for the Cuban ball players.