"Baseball in Cuba will not stop, there will always be new talent," said Luis Tiant, the Cuban pitcher boasting the most wins ever to have played baseball in the Big Leagues, during his most recent visit to the Island, as a guest invited to the Cuba vs. Tampa Bay exhibition game.
Tiant pitched for four teams in the Big Leagues over the course of 19 seasons (1964-1982), where he recorded 229 wins, a 3.30 ERA, and struck out 2,416 batters in 3,486.1 innings. During his visit to Havana in March the Boston Red Sox star made it clear that there is talent, and it is just a question of continuing to uncover it.
Followers of Cuba's leading pastime are no longer as attracted to it, and many think that the demonized and beleaguered Cuban league will never shine like it once did. I still think that the problem is not outside, but inside, hence the recent upsurge of players who are still reaching the MLB.
The deficient attention shown athletes, blundering management, and a lack of uniformity and organization have been stifling the roots of a sport that is part of the national culture.
Cuban baseball opportunities remain reserved for so-called "safe ballplayers:" those that the Government thinks will not leave the country, and will continue in its second-rate amateur baseball league.
Thus, young rising stars are seldom - almost never - allowed to don the national uniform at international games, out of fear that they will defect, lured away by the dream of playing in the Majors.
Why were talented players like Norel González, Ariel Martínez and Raidel Martínez - among the best today - not chosen to play in the Can-Am League, but selected to play in the exhibition game against the US on the Island?
The answer is simple. Sports policy in Cuba remains the main obstacle that continues to hamper the development of talent. Hence, there is no progress, and athletes end up leaving the country to compete at the highest level of baseball.
Here is a list of 10 current prospects, who have been virtually forgotten by Cuban baseball managers, even though they are still blossoming as players:
Luis Robert (Ciego de Ávila) was on the roster that played in the Can-Am League, although he was left out of the Caribbean Series in February. Robert is fast, can hit, and plays solid defense. He's 19, has a 281 average, with an OBP of 352, OPS of 735, and wOBA of 320 in three seasons, where he has 133 hits in 157 games played.
Norel González (Villa Clara): He has everything it takes to be a natural slugger in baseball - a lost art in Cuba. But he has only been able to play in 87 games since 2014. In the underr-23 national championship he was the most feared hitter, with 12 home runs.
Ariel Martínez (Matanzas) He stands out as one of the new figures in Cuban baseball. With powerful wrists, he is capable of hitting the ball out to any part of the park. Age 20, he has an OPS of 836 and an ISO of 156. At the under-23 national tournament this year he was the home run leader, with six.
Raidel Martínez (Pinar del Río): He is 20 and has only thrown 36.1 innings, with a 4.91 ERA and 4.42 K / 9. He throws a powerful fastball, at 90-94 mph.
Ariel Hechavarría (Havana): A 23-year-old hitter, clearly a slugger. Despite his 83 strikeouts in two leagues, only one complete, he slammed 11 homers and had 40 RBIs and 43.65 RC (Runs Created).
Yolbert Sánchez (Havana): He features speed and good defense on short balls. At the age of 19 he has only played in one series and been able to play in 59 games. He batted 280, with 49 hits and an equal number of participations in double plays.
Luis Serrano (Sancti Spiritus) He has shown a lot of power, at the age of just 21, in three seasons chalking up 18 homers and an ISO of 211. 34.3% of his hits have been for extra bases. He can play third base and outfield, and has a powerful arm.
Ariel Yera (Cienfuegos): A 19-year-old catcher standing 190 cm, with occasional power and good arm.
Luis Vicente Mateo (Cienfuegos): A perfect utility player. He has a strong arm, good hands, and covers a lot of ground, especially at shortstop.
Lázaro Najarro (Cienfuegos): A 18-year-old left-hander with excellent potential. He can throw a 90-mph fastball, though his main weapon is his curve.