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Defective? Underachieving Cuban pitchers are an increasingly risky investment

Feb. 02, 2004
Feb. 02, 2004

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Feb. 2, 2004

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Defective? Underachieving Cuban pitchers are an increasingly risky investment

Three months ago righthander Maels Rodriguez defected from Cuba
hoping to find the same frenzy for his services that followed the
arrivals of Ariel Prieto, whom the Athletics drafted instead of
Todd Helton in 1995, and Jose Contreras, to whom the Yankees last
winter gave a bigger four-year contract ($32 million) than the
one Jason Schmidt had received from the Giants the year before
($30 million). Rodriguez's agent, Henry Vilar, said in December
that Contreras's deal was "a good starting point" for
negotiations. But after the failure of several Cuban pitchers to
adapt to the more rigorous major leagues, Rodriguez, 24, has been
met with as much skepticism as excitement.

This is an article from the Feb. 2, 2004 issue Original Layout

Last Thursday Rodriguez threw for scouts from about 15 teams in
El Salvador, his temporary country of residence. Once clocked as
high as 100 mph in international competition, his fastball did
not exceed 90 mph. The workout left clubs wondering about his
health (the Cubans say they left him off their Pan Am team last
year because of right arm and back injuries) and his potential as
a big league starter.

"You judge each pitcher on his own merits," says one general
manager from a team that scouted Rodriguez, "but you have to be
concerned about the track record of the pitchers who have come
over [from Cuba]. It's a difficult adjustment. In Cuba they pitch
in spurts with a lot of rest between tournaments."

The G.M. said he projected Rodriguez to be a reliever "in the
mold of K-Rod," Venezuelan-born Francisco Rodriguez of the
Angels, because of the workload factor and because "he's never
been a pinpoint control type of guy." Asked about the likelihood
of Vilar's client getting a Contreras-sized deal--the Angels,
Mariners, Mets, Rangers, Red Sox and Yankees appear to be most
interested--the G.M. replied, "No. I think he's more like a
first-round pick." The average first-round bonus last year was
$1.76 million, with top pick Delmon Young getting a five-year,
$5.8 million deal.

Of the 13 Cuban pitchers in the big leagues since Rene Arocha
debuted in 1993 (box, left), only three have thrown 200 innings
in a season. (Rodriguez threw 113 innings last year and 17811/43
when he set the Cuban strikeout record three years ago.) Most of
the pitchers, including Contreras last year, have been beset by
injuries or simply ineffective.

On the same day that Rodriguez threw for scouts, righthander
Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, who missed all of last season with
a shoulder injury, did likewise in Miami. Claiming he was 85%
healthy, Hernandez (listed as 34 but rumored to be four years
older) didn't throw as hard as 80 mph. After going 29-13 in his
first two seasons with the Yankees combined (1998 and '99), he is
24-25 over the past four years. Hernandez's raft-to-riches story
swelled the mystique of Cuban pitchers, but his decline has
helped diminish that aura.

COLOR PHOTO: ANNE MARIE/AP Rodriguez and Hernandez (inset) had disappointing velocity in their auditions.COLOR PHOTO: J. PAT CARTER/AP (INSET) [See caption above]

American Dreams

Of the 13 pitchers who defected from Cuba since 1991 and reached
the majors, only Livan Hernandez established himself as a mainstay.

PITCHER,
YEARS MAJOR LEAGUE PERFORMANCE

Rene Arocha, Only 36 starts; went 18-17 for Cards and Giants
1993-97

Ariel Prieto, Fifth pick in '95 draft; 15-24, then blew out elbow
1995-01

Osvaldo Fernandez, After $3.9M deal, 19-26, two elbow operations
1996-01

Livan Hernandez, Burly righty (84-79) eats up innings--and more
1996-

Rolando Arrojo, $7M contract but only 40-42 for three teams
1998-02

Orlando Hernandez, Started postseason career 8-0; 1-3 since
1998-

Vladimir Nunez, Middling reliever (17-29) with D-Backs and Marlins
1998-

Michael Tejera, Lefty reliever is 11-12 in three years with Marlins
1999-

Danys Baez, After 10 blown saves in '03, Cleveland gave up
2001-

Adrian Hernandez, Total innings for this Yankees bust: 28
2001-02

Eddie Oropesa, Only 83 IP in three years for D-Backs' lefty
2001-

Hansel Izquierdo, Went 2-0 in 20 appearances for Marlins
2002

Jose Contreras, Limited to 71 IP by early struggles, shoulder strain
2003-