Until recently, Cuba was known for producing great major league pitching. Brothers Orlando Hernandez and Livan Hernandez come to mind first perhaps, but Jose Contreras, Aroldis Chapman, Rolando Arrojo and even Danys Baez successfully made the difficult cultural and professional transition to Major League Baseball in the past.
But now we have Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig stateside, and Jose Abreu on the way, and it seems like a trend. The Dodgers got in line Monday, signing Alex Guerrero to a four-year, $28 million deal that could be worth as much as $32 million according to Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com. The risks with this newest signing — and the upsides — are considerable, even if both aspects aren’t on the same level as some of the recent deals with Cuban position players.
There are a few questions about Guerrero, even if he isn’t one-dimensional like Jose Abreu might be. The Dodgers’ new middle infielder played shortstop in Cuba, but because his defense has been called stiff, he’s expected to replace Mark Ellis at second base going forward. The simple fact that he can probably play a competent second base puts him also a win ahead of Abreu right from the start, thanks to the respective defensive value at those positions.
But, since there are some questions about the 26-year-old Guerrero’s defense, it’s hard to project him into defense so plus that he’s worth the contract without some value on the basepaths and at the plate. Most 26-year-olds capable of playing second base are average on the basepaths, so really the question becomes: Can he be average (or better) at the plate?
It’s a batting practice video (complete with the requisite pop song; hitting starts halfway through the second minute), so there isn’t a ton to learn. To this untrained eye, he looks powerful enough and there isn’t a lot of wasted movement that might lead to a high strikeout rate. And scouts agree on this part, to some degree — some worry the power won’t translate. Luckily, he walked 39 times against his 30 strikeouts (328 plate appearances) in his final season, and to be league average with the bat at second, he only needs to hit .250/.309/.372.
Clay Davenport has the most widely-accepted translations for Cuban League stats, but it’s a difficult thing, translating stats for a league where the best players top out under 400 plate appearances, and the park situation is best summed up by John Moist of Ballpark Digest:
Teams sometimes play in alternate parks, some very small and in rural areas, in order to reach more remote fans, and games are often shifted to different parks with little advance notice. (Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez once pitched in a game played at Havana’s Psychiatric Hospital.) Many players do not like to play in rural parks because there are fewer fans and the parks may be in poor and unsafe condition. The number of parks in the National Series the season has been reduced from over 100 to less than 40 for 17 teams.
In other words, it’s hard to know what his competition and park situation looked like. But let’s set up the Davenport Translations and MLB stats for the most recent Cuban position players to put Guerrero’s translated numbers into context. We’ll use the translations for the years with the biggest sample sizes.
|Yuniesky Betancourt||DT (2002||303||0.257||0.280||0.389|
|Kendrys Morales||DT (2002)||359||0.270||0.333||0.501|
|Yoenis Cespedes||DT (2010)||354||0.271||0.338||0.489|
|Yasiel Puig||DT (2009)||184||0.212||0.281||0.337|
|Jose Abreu||DT (2010)||315||0.321||0.446||0.660|
|Alexander Guerrero||DT (2010)||336||0.286||0.338||0.473|
Mark Ellis had a $5.75 million option and the 36-year-old was coming off a season that saw him hit .270/.323/.351. Along with his customary good glove, he was almost a league-average option. It seems the Dodgers were willing to pay up to $3.25 million more in 2014 (there’s a million-dollar buyout) to get ten years younger at the position and have a shot at more upside. Given the numbers Alexander Guerrero has put up in Cuba, that seems like a good proposition in the short run. Given the sample sizes of those numbers, though, the Dodgers may be relying on the eyes of their scouts in this situation.
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