How the 2014 All-Star Game developed such a Cuban flavor
Twenty-one Cuban players have either taken a plate appearance or recorded an out in the Major Leagues this year. Five of them will suit up for Tuesday night's All-Star game: Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramirez, Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman. Jose Fernandez would have been an All-Star lock if not for his injury. Leonys Martin is fielding like an All-Star, with six outfield assists and top-flight ratings from Baseball Info Solution's +/- system. And Odrisamer Despaigne has pitched like an All-Star to open his stateside career, as he recorded four straight starts with at least six innings pitched and two earned runs or fewer since the Padres activated him in late June.
Thus, depending on your standards, there are anywhere from four to eight elite Cuban players enjoying success in today's major leaguers. Prospects like Jorge Soler may join the list, and players like Kendrys Morales and Yunel Escobar are having down years in 2014 but have excelled in the past.
The idea that this wave of Cuban stars could jump from the Cuban Serie Nacional right to the major leagues was met with heavy skepticism. The Cuban league's talent pool is so much smaller, and there was concern that players like Cespedes and Abreu, who were breaking league records before their defections, were feasting on the bottom-barrel pitchers in the Serie Nacional, a luxury that wouldn't be afforded in the major leagues.
Of course, this is true to some extent -- Abreu has 29 home runs in 322 at-bats in the major leagues, and he hit at least 30 in under 300 at-bats in each of his final three seasons in Cuba; Cespedes is running a second consecutive on-base percentage under .300 for the Athletics; Ramirez lacks plate discipline and hasn't been an above-average hitter since his rookie year in 2008, etc. Some of the worst players in Cuba probably wouldn't ever see the field at any American professional level. The worst major league players have typically had to progress through five levels of the minor leagues.
But the widespread success of Serie Nacional players in the majors shows that the best players of the Cuban series rival the best players produced in America. This shouldn't be a surprise, given the historical power of the Cuban team in international tournaments and the immense cultural weight baseball carries in Cuba. The American baseball community, however, has never particularly cared about the international baseball world -- see the difficulties the United States has had with generating interest in the World Baseball Classic from both fans and players. Combine that with the typical assumptions of American exceptionalism and the willingness to dismiss Cuban players shouldn't be surprising.
Any doubts as to the quality of the top players in Cuba should be fully assuaged now. It's tough to argue with five All-Stars out of only 21 players on American soil, and one can only imagine how many more there would be if the barriers keeping Cuban stars out of the American league weren't so intimidating and numerous. At least some of these barriers are in the process of being knocked down, however. For now, Tuesday's large contingent of Cuban All-Stars seems impressive. As it becomes easier for Cuban players to make the migration to the major leagues, it just might become the norm.