By Yusseff Díaz
Cubans have been playing in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league for more than four decades. Since the days of Chico Barbon and Tony González, they have made their presence felt in the land of the rising sun.
The flood gates for Cubans opened up when the Cuban National Series opened its gates to professionalism in 2014. This has resulted, in my opinion, in the beginning of a Golden Era for Cuban baseball in the far east.
Now, in the following I will illustrate how those from the largest of the Antilles have flourished in the orient.
This was the first year Cubans from the Serie Nacional were signed by Japanese league teams. Yuli Gurriel made his professional debut with the DeNa Baystars and in 62 games the slugger hit .305 with 11 dingers and 30 runs batted in, he also slashed .349/.536/.884.
One of the more highly touted international prospects, Alfredo Despaigne also made his debut with the Chiba Lotte Marines. The slugger hit 12 bombs and drove in 33 in 55 games.
Frederich Cepeda a little past his prime was playing in his first season in the Nippon circuit with the Yomiuri Giants hit a paltry .194. His teammate that year Leslie Anderson was on his way to an all-star season until he suffered a season-ending injury. During Anderson hit .319, deposited 15 balls in the seats and knocked in 50.
Yoslan Herrera was the grand surprise of that season as a reliever, the ex-Major Leaguer compiled in ERA of 2.96 for DeNa. Frederich Cepeda was relegated to the minors for most of the year and Leslie Anderson injured.
Alfredo Despaigne had his worst year in the land of the rising sun hitting .258 with 18 homers and driving in 62 runs in an injury-shortened season with Chiba Lotte.
Yuli Gurriel and his brother Lourdes Jr were both signed by DeNa but didn’t report and eventually defected from Cuba a few months after. This was arguably the worst year for Cubans in Japan of the era.
In his final year with Chiba Despaigne came back with a vengeance going yard 24 times, knocking in 92 and hitting .280.
Dayán Viciedo debuted in the Nippon circuit hitting .274 while depositing 22 balls in the seats and driving in 68 for the Chunichi Dragons.
Alfredo Despaigne signed a lucrative contract with the SoftBank Hawks to be their star slugger and he didn’t disappoint. The power-hitting Cuban hit 35 bombs that year and drove in 105 runs to lead the league in each of those categories. But most importantly won a league title with Fukuoka.
Dodgers castoff Alex Guerrero made an impressive debut in the league with Chunichi and tied Despaigne for the league lead in round-trippers with 35 of his own.
His Chunichi teammate Raúl Valdés had an effective season toeing the rubber en route to a 6-9 season and putting up an ERA of 3.76 in spite of a lack of run support.
Coming off a disappointing 2017, once highly regarded ex-Whitesox prospect Dayán Viciedo came back with a strong season winning the Central League batting title hitting an impressive .348 while knocking in 99 and also going yard 26 times.
Ex-big leaguer Onelki Garcia in his first year in Japan had a record of 13-9 and an ERA of 2.99 in 26 starts with Chunichi.
Alfredo Despaigne continued to be the model of consistency in Japan putting up 29 dingers and plating 74 runs with the SoftBank Hawks.
Although Ariel Miranda came to SoftBank late in the season after being released by the Seattle Mariners,he still managed to win 6 games and put up a sparkling 1.89 earned run average. Miranda was also a key figure in the Hawks winning back to back titles.
This year was arguably the best for Cubans in the land of the rising sun. Dayán Viciedo turned in another solid campaign posting a line of .315,18HR, 93 RBI’s.
Yurisbel Gracial hit .319 in his second year with SoftBank while hitting 28 homers and driving in 68 runs, but made his most important contribution in the Japan Series when hit .375 and was named MVP.
Alfredo Despaigne had 30 longballs for the third consecutive season and his third consecutive ring in Fukuoka. His 88 RBI’s were also impressive and cemented his legacy as one of the most feared sluggers of the current era in the Nippon League.
For the first time in the history of the Japanese League, two Cuban pitchers made more than 40 appearances in a season when Liván Moinelo of SoftBank (1.52,60) and Raidel Martínez of Chunichi accomplished the feat.
Leonys Martín in 193 games in the NPB has walked 49 articles and driven in 130 runs. The lefty from Villa Clara is on pace to shatter Alfredo Despaigne’s record for a Cuban of 161 homers in the league.
What will the season have in store for the Antilleans this year? Well, only time will tell.
Cubans who have played in the NPB
- Michel Abreu
- Roberto Barbón
- Yuniesky Betancourt
- Bárbaro Cañizares
- Frederich Cepeda
- Oscar Colas
- Alfredo Despaigne
- Orestes Destrade
- Chico Fernández
- Leonys Martín
- Leonardo Urguelles
- Adolis García
- Tony González
- Yurisbel Gracial
- Alex Guerrero
- Yuli Gurriel
- Félix Pérez
- Yadir Drake
- Yoslan Herrera
- Omar Linares
- Ariel Martínez
- Raidel Martínez
- Román Mejías
- Héctor Mendoza
- Juan Miranda
- Ariel Miranda
- Liván Moinelo
- Raúl Valdés
- Zoilo Versalles
- Yariel Rodríguez
- JC Muñiz
- Andy Rodríguez
- Rusney Castillo
- Adeiny Hechavarría