Alfredo Despaigne Signs with NPB’s Chiba Lotte Marines
As many people have been expecting since he was banned for life from the Mexican League, Cuban slugger Alfredo Despaigne is going to Japan. This is obviously a great signing for the Marines, both because Despaigne has the potential to challenge the 60-home-run-in-a-season record Wladimir Balentien set last season, and also because Cuban players are relatively affordable, even by NPB standards, when they start their Japanese careers.
Despaigne is 28 this season, so he could have a long career in Japan if things break right for him and the Cuban government allows him to return regularly in future years.
In Cuba’s Serie Nacional, Despaigne was comparable to both Jose Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes as a slugger. While scouts don’t regard him to be as good an all-around hitter as Abreu or nearly as athletic as Cespedes (Despaigne has a Kirby Puckett body, listed as 5’8″ and 215 lbs), his raw power may be the best of this trio.
The question now is whether or not Despaigne gets off to a good start in NPB. NPB teams are notorious for demanding that highly paid foreign players perform well immediately or quickly shipping them out to give a look to someone else. For example, another Cuban non-defector, 34 year old Frederich Cepeda, has already been sent to NPB’s minor league, after only 102 plate appearances for the Yomiuri Giants in which he batted only .171, but had an OPS of .702, thanks to lots of walks and five HRs.
Meanwhile, the other current Cuban non-defector Yuliesky Gurriel (I’m using the spelling on NPB’s English language website) is hitting .347 with a 1.041 OPS for the Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars in 25 games and 113 plate appearances, so he’ll stick around for a while.
I wasn’t overly impressed with Despaigne’s performance in short parts of two seasons in the Mexican League, mainly given what a great hitters’ league the Mexican League is. However, it was a limited number of games in a new league and in a new country, and he improved significantly in year two compared to year one. Still, it will be a challenge for Despaigne to adapt to a better league in a country with a culture much, much different from either Cuba or Mexico.
In Despaigne’s favor is the fact that he is 28 this season, which history suggests is the ideal time for foreign players to start in NPB (actually both age 27 and 28 are good start times historically).
A couple of things will be interesting about the Cuban government’s decision to let its biggest stars play in Japan to keep them from defecting to the U.S. First, NPB has a number of Cuban players who defected in years past. Don’t think the defectors and non-defectors won’t be sharing notes about what it’s like to live and play outside of Cuba. Cepeda (34) and Gurriel (30) are too old to have much of a future in MLB were they to defect, but a good second half in Japan, and Despaigne will have a viable shot at becoming a major league player if he defects in October.
Second, adding the best Cuban non-defectors will add some world-class baseball talent to NPB’s game.