The first season of the so-called “Cuban invasion” into Japanese baseball has ended with mixed results and the uncertainty as to whether it will continue in 2015 or was a one-time fad that will fade quickly. Eight Cuban-born players were signed to contracts in Japan in 2014, and their performances ranged from excellent to downright pathetic.
The season began with four Cuban defectors who had previously played in the U.S. in the major leagues or Triple-A, and the best of those turned out to be Yomiuri Giants first baseman/outfielder Leslie Anderson who, despite missing a good chunk of the schedule with a couple of injuries, managed to hit 15 home runs with 50 RBIs while batting .319.
On the other end, Orix Buffaloes infielder Yuniesky Betancourt, a nine-year MLB veteran, could hit only .141 with no homers and four RBIs in just 18 games. Slugger Michel Abreu of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, the 2013 Pacific League home run king with 31, was recently released after missing all but six games this season because of back problems.
The influx of Cuban players into Japan picked up quickly in late April after the Cuban Series season ended. Taking advantage of the decision by the Havana government to allow stars from the league and Cuba national team to play abroad, the Giants acquired 34-year-old outfielder Frederich “Freddy” Cepeda.
That was quickly followed by the Yokohama BayStars signing infielder Yulieski Gourriel, who had been rumored last winter to be headed for Japan and, at 30, was considered a better player than Cepeda.
The Chiba Lotte Marines joined the parade in June, picking up outfielder Alfredo Despaigne, 28, and said to be even better than Gourriel, and the final season stats of the three former Cuban World Baseball Classic teammates would seem to confirm that.
Cepeda wound up playing just 52 games for Yomiuri, hitting .194 with six homers and 18 RBIs. He stayed on the farm team during the final month of the season and watched as the varsity Giants clinched the Central League pennant.
Gourriel, in 62 games, hit .305 with 22 doubles, 11 homers and 30 RBIs. Despaigne batted .311 with 12 home runs and knocked in 33 runs while appearing in 45 games. Neither of their teams qualified for postseason play.
Cepeda, while still with the Giants first team in August, indicated the Japan experience turned out different than what he had expected. “When I heard the top club in Japan was calling me, I thought I would be coming here to play every day,” Cepeda said.
Playing every day in the Giants starting lineup is only a guarantee, however, if your last name is Abe, Chono, Murata or Sakamoto. Yomiuri manager Tatsunori Hara platooned at the other four defensive positions, and Cepeda never got comfortable starting one day and riding the bench the next game. Cepeda said he could not improve his timing or hit with any sense of consistency.
“I am not a sub-.200 hitter,” he said. “I’ve always hit for a good average when playing every day in Cuba.”
Gourriel, prior to a game at Tokyo Dome on Oct. 4, said he hopes to return to Yokohama in 2015 but is not sure what will happen. He left Japan Oct. 12 and said, “By Oct. 20, I will be preparing for the Cuban season which goes until April. If I do come back, I would probably not return until next May again.”
“I thought I adjusted well to Japanese baseball and life in Japan,” he said, but off the field there were problems.
“I cannot get used to Japanese food. Outside of yakiniku Korean barbecue, there is not much I can eat here,” he complained.
Also, there was an incident in early July when he refused to accompany the team on a flight to Okinawa for a two-game series against the Giants, because he was concerned about flying safely through a typhoon forecast that week.
All the Cuban players said the biggest on-the-field adjustments were playing on artificial turf and in domed stadiums. Anderson said the surfaces at most Japanese ballparks were hard on his legs and played a part in his hamstring injury. Asked if he might have doubled his home run and RBI totals to 30 and 100 respectively, had he played the full 144-game season, the former Tampa Bay Rays farmhand said modestly, “Maybe I could have hit 25 homers.”
Another Cuban player, Barbaro Canizares, 34, played only eight games for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, hitting .308. Pitcher Hector Mendoza, 19, was signed by the Giants in July and made four appearances with Yomiuri’s Eastern League farm team, going 0-0 with a 1.59 ERA.
It remains to be seen if the “Cuban invasion” will continue next year. Some observers have pointed out all the best Cuban players have already gone to Japan or are playing in the majors.
There are several questions to be answered: Which Cuban players will and will not return to Japan? Will the Japanese teams continue to allow them to come after Golden Week (April 29-May 5), rather than report to spring camps with the other players on Feb. 1? Are there more guys in Cuba such as Gourriel and Despaigne who could be .300 hitters in Japan?
Time will tell.
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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com