April 1, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
Chicago White Sox: The Cuban Way
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the external Cuban pursuits of the White Sox and internal player development habits of the Reds.
On April 5th, 2014, Robin Ventura wrote nine names into his starting lineup, four of which stood out for the bond that unified them. Jose Abreu, Dayan Viciedo, Alexei Ramirez, and Adrian Nieto took the field as starters, becoming the first Cuban-born quartet to start for the same team in a Major League game since the Cleveland Indians did it in 1969. It was a moment that was years in the making as the White Sox have invested wisely in Cuban-born talent in a variety of ways.
Drawing talent from the well that is Cuba requires equal parts scouting, connections, and alchemy. The White Sox don’t always get the big Cuban name but what the current Sox regime has done best since 2004 is make smart decisions regarding Cuban-born players. In 2004 then-GM Kenny Williams signed Orlando Hernandez and acquired Jose Contreras via trade. Contreras and Hernandez would be strong contributors to the White Sox World Series win in 2005.
Jose Abreu concerned scouts and the community at large with what was reported to be a “slow bat”. Kenny Williams pushed hard to sign Abreu and he rewarded the team handsomely, casting aside the slow bat concerns and reports that his weakness would be velocity on the inner half. Abreu delivered an MVP-caliber season and set himself up as a franchise cornerstone, exhibiting both the ability to hit for power and average.
Alexei Ramirez was signed in 2008 and took on the role of super utility man with mixed results. He has since grown into a solid defender at shortstop and a competent hitter with solid power and speed throughout his career.
The current White Sox involvement with Cuban-born players has its roots in the Minnie Miñoso era. The late “Cuban Comet” was both a historically significant and great player for the Sox. He was Chicago’s first black player, the first star Latino player, and later in his life he became an important ambassador for the White Sox as Latino players looked up to Miñoso as their Jackie Robinson.
Miñoso stuck with the franchise and served as a mentor for the White Sox current crop of Cuban players. Stories about Abreu and Ramirez tend to feature a Miñoso cameo somewhere in the story as a grandfatherly presence. His loss will be felt throughout the organization, especially now that the embargo appears to be lifted and teams will have more freedom to explore Cuba and its ballplayers.
The White Sox international image was in shambles during the Wilder scandal and it’s taken a long time to dig out of that hole. Their spending in Cuba has helped. They aren’t always involved with the big name Cuban players but they’ve adeptly planted their flag on the island. The work they’ve done has already borne fruit, and it sets them up for future success in Cuba with the goodwill they’ve set up there.