Alfredo Despaigne Re-Signs with the Chiba Lotte Marines
Cuban Slugger Alfredo Despaigne will be returning to Japan’s NPB next year, signing a two-year deal with the Chiba Lotte Marines for a reported 500 million yen ($4.11 million). While that doesn’t sound like a lot by MLB standards, it’s a hell of a lot for a small-revenue NPB team for a player who has played only 45 NPB games to date.
Despaigne is an MLB caliber player — Kendrys Morales, who is a few years older, or Dayan Viciedo, who is s a few years younger, might be good comps — and NPB doesn’t get many MLB caliber hitters still near the prime of their careers. Every so often they develop one from among the native population, and every so often they find a hitter like Wladimir Balentien that MLB gave up on too soon. Almost all of the others, foreign and domestic, simply don’t have enough power to be MLB regulars at the defensive positions they play.
Despaigne will be 29 next year, and I expect he’ll have a big year in NPB unless he gets hurt. He’s listed as 5’9″ and 210lbs, so he’s stocky, which isn’t a great body type for long-term durability, but he isn’t enormous, and he isn’t 30 yet either.
The Yokohama Bay Stars are also working hard on bringing back Yulieski Gurriel for what has been reported as around 300 million yen ($2.47 million) for one year. Gurriel is two years older than Despaigne, but from what I understand has much more defensive value than Despaigne. Gurriel played mostly 2B for the Bay Stars in 2014.
If the Bay Stars aren’t able to re-sign Gurriel, it is likely another NPB team will. The Yomiuri Giants, far and away NPB’s wealthiest and most popular team, are reported be interested in Gurriel.
If the actual contracts are anywhere close to what Despaigne and Gurriel are reported to be getting, it will make them fabulously wealthy by Cuban standards even if the Cuban Government gets a cut significantly bigger than 50%. While these contracts may pale by comparison to the deals the top Cuban defectors receive to play in MLB, a $1 million goes much farther in Cuba than it does in the U.S.
The question, I guess, is whether we start seeing more elite Cuban players electing to play in NPB rather than having to leave Cuba forever (or at last for a very long time), as is the case for the defectors. In terms of culture, the defectors can buy palatial estates in South Florida and have all the Cuban culture they want, at least during the off-season. However, most of them have to leave their families behind at a minimum for many years. That can’t be easy no matter how well you are paid.
Obviously, the main limitation on elite Cuban players going to Japan is the fact that NPB teams have a roster cap of four foreign players to team. Many of those spots are going to 4-A players from the Americas, Koreans and Taiwanese players. In fact, a number of Cuban defectors who were shade too old when they fled or not quite good enough for MLB are playing in NPB right now.
Also, the salaries that Despaigne and Gurriel can apparently command are not salaries that any NPB team except the Yomuiri Giants, the Hanshin Tigers and the Softbank Hawks are willing to pay to more than one of their foreign players. That would leave the maximum number of roster spots on NPB teams at about 15.
For the very best Cuban players, the allure of MLB has got to be great. The money is unbelievable, and the best players usually want to play against the best. That said, I would think there is easily room for another six or eight elite Cuban players to play in NPB in the relatively near future.
P.S. I just saw something somewhere suggesting that the Cuban Serie Nacional is sort of like the old U.S. Negro leagues in the sense that the spread of talent is enormous. In other words, the best players in Cuba are world-class, but at least one MLB scout says that the worst pitchers in the Serie Nacional are little better than American high school pitchers.
That may be true if the American high school pitchers we’re talking about are the ones playing in professional rookie league ball the year after they graduate high school. With 16 top-league teams in a country of only 11 million people, the talent at the bottom of Serie Nacional rosters is probably pretty thin.