Cuba’s Baseball MVPs Revisited

By Peter C. Bjarkman*

Yadier Pedroso is Bjarkman’s choice as this year’s Cuban League MVP
Yadier Pedroso is Bjarkman’s choice as this year’s Cuban League MVP

HAVANA TIMES, May 13 – The baseball playoff season is also a time for individual post-season honors, and Cuba is certainly no exception. It is, however, a little more difficult to find comprehensive lists of past-season winners, and that is due largely to a strange gap in the Cuban League record books.

The annual guides (perhaps due to severe space restrictions and printing costs) do not carry any season MVP or Rookie-of-the-Year lists for bygone campaigns, although both these distinctions are annually announced in the Cuban sporting press. Cuba has no other major individual awards-such as a Cy Young Award for pitchers-and there is no “official” designation of a playoff MVP. The top post-season performer has, however, been “unofficially” recognized for the past dozen seasons by Havana’s Radio COCO, one of the top Cuban media outlets for coverage of the national game.

Since I have received numerous requests over the past several years for a list of Cuban MVPs (or for winners of the honor in this season or that season) it would seem most appropriate to publish such a list. I did not provide one in A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2007 (published in 2007). So I offer an up-to-date listing here, along with a handful of related editorial comments touching on trivial curiosities pertaining to past selections, plus the prospects for the certain-to-be-controversial current season MVP selection.

In reviewing lists of past winners, a number of historical oddities are worth noting. Only a small handful of ballplayers have tacked together multiple MVP seasons, and fewer still have captured the top rookie designation and then later taken MVP honors.

The only three-time winner of the MVP laurels is Omar Linares, but with Yulieski Gourriel only now reaching his peak years this may soon change. Gourriel might well have been in the running for this year’s coveted honor (it would have been his third) had he not dropped the batting title to Michel Enríquez during his final season’s at-bat, or had his Sancti Spíritus club performed better (drawing more attention to his own torrid slugging) during early weeks of the past National Series campaign.

In nearly a half century there have been but six players who have repeated as National Series league MVP, with Omar Linares the only three-time honoree. Yulieski Gourriel and earlier Wilfredo Sánchez are the only pair to wear the MVP crown in consecutive years, while the trio of Lourdes Gourriel (Yulieski’s father), Cheito Rodríguez, and Michel Abreu were Rookie-of-the-Year selections who later also earned the MVP distinction.

Outfielders make up the largest proportion of MVPs, with Industriales not surprisingly having produced more winners of the honor than any other single ball club. Players from Pinar del Río (including that club’s several appearances under the name Vegueros) can claim seven MVPs and thus Pinar stands a close second in the team category.

This Season’s Choice

The current year’s honoree will not be announced until the end of post-season play and this time around will likely represent a most difficult MVP decision. Alfredo Despaigne essentially matched Alexei Bell’s sensational season of a year ago (when Bell was the consensus selection) and was indisputably the outstanding performer, at least on offense-setting a new league home run mark, becoming the first player to reach 100 homers in his first five National Series seasons, and also pacing the circuit in both RBIs and slugging average.

But does that necessarily mean he was the MVP-as opposed to the league’s most visible star, which is quite another thing? This is the same debate that occurs often with big league selections. Should a player from a last-place club be considered all that valuable, since his teammates would have finished in the same tail-ender position with or without his output? The question always is whether the candidate’s performances had the same impact on his team’s achievements as they did on the record book? I am of the school (the majority of MVP voters, I suspect) that still believes this award should say as much about a player’s value in the lineup as it does about his hefty personal stats.

My own vote would probably go to either Yunieski Maya (Pinar del Río), Maikel Folich (Ciego de Avila) or Yadier Pedroso (Habana). These three outstanding pitchers have done the lion’s share of the work in putting their teams into the playoffs, and one of them may yet carry his teammates to a league championship during the playoff round.

There is also some prejudice against pitchers, of course, since some would argue that the MVP should go to a ballplayer from the everyday lineup and not one who appears but once or twice a week (that is, a pitcher). In the major leagues, this line of thinking is also supported by the existence of a special pitcher’s award; the CY Young Award is designed for the American League and National League MVP pitchers.

But in the Cuban League there is no equivalent Cy Young Award; perhaps we should have a José Huelga Trophy for the year’s top pitcher, but we do not. Thus in the past Cuban League pitchers have faired comparatively well in MVP voting, claiming ten (a little more than one-fifth) of the previous 47 crowns. Maels Rodríguez was the last hurler to walk off with the honor, during the year (2001) when he smashed a celebrated single-season strikeout mark and thus also bagged most of the winter’s top headlines.

My own vote for MVP, then, goes to league ERA champ Yadier Pedroso of Habana Province. But if pushed to predict the actual winner I would guess that it will in the end be either batting champion Enríquez (his team at least made the playoffs, even if they were crushed in the opening round) or home run record setter Despaigne.

Just like in the “grand” leagues, in Cuba it is the sluggers and not pitchers “that drive the Cadillacs.”  Well not exactly, of course, because almost no one in Cuba drives a Cadillac-or at least not one built during the last five decades. But the point here is that in modern-era baseball it is the run-producing sluggers who garner the bulk of media attention-even in more baseball-pure Cuba.

Cuban NATIONAL SERIES Most Valuable Players (1962-2008)

1962 -62 (NS#1) Edwin Walters (Occidentales) Outfielder
1962-63 (NS#2) Modesto Verdura (Azucareros) Pitcher
1963-64 (NS#3) Pedro Cháves (Occidentales) Outfielder (First Baseman)
1964-65 (NS#4) Urbano González (Industriales) Second Baseman
1965-66 (NS#5) Lino Betancourt (Henequeneros) First Baseman
1966-67 (NS#6) Pedro Cháves (Industriales) Outfielder (First Baseman)
1967-68 (NS#7) Eulogio Osorio (Habana) Outfielder
1968-69 (NS#8) Wilfredo Sanchez (Henequeneros) Outfielder
1969-70 (NS#9) Wilfredo Sánchez (Henequeneros) Outfielder
1970-71 (NS#10) Antonio Jiménez (Industrriales) Pitcher
1971-72 (NS#11) Agustín Marquetti (Industriales) First Baseman
1972-73 (NS#12) Armando Capiró (Habana) Outfielder
1973-74 (NS#13) Antonio Múñoz (Azucareros) First Baseman
1974-75 (NS#14) Wilfredo Ruíz (Agricultores) Pitcher
1975-76 (NS#15) Omar Carrero (Ganaderos) Pitcher
1976-77 (NS#16) Isídro Pérez (Azucareros) Pitcher
1977-78 (NS#17) Fernando Sánchez (Henequeneros) Outfielder
1978-79 (NS#18) Wilfredo Sánchez (Citricultores) Outfielder
1979-80 (NS#19) Pedro José Rodríguez (Cienfuegos) Third Baseman
1980-81 (NS#20) Rogelio García (Vegueros) Pitcher
1981-82 (NS#21) Fernando Hernández (Vegueros) Outfielder
1982-83 (NS#22) Lázaro Junco (Citricultores) Outfielder
1983-84 (NS#23) Luis Giraldo Casanova (Vegueros) Outfielder
1984-85 (NS#24) Omar Linares (Vegueros) Third Baseman
1985-86 (NS#25) Lázaro Vargas (Industriales) Third Baseman
1986-87 (NS#26) Javier Méndez (Industriales) Outfielder
1987-88 (NS#27) Pedro Luis Rodríguez (Habana) Catcher
1988-89 (NS#28) Orestes Kindelán (Santiago de Cuba) Outfielder (Catcher)
1989-90 (NS#29) Omar Linares (Vegueros) Third Baseman
1990-91 (NS#30) Lázaro Madera (Vegueros) Outfielder
1991-92 (NS#31) Jorge Luis Valdés (Henequeneros) Pitcher
1992-93 (NS#32) Omar Linares (Pinar del Río) Third Baseman
1993-94 (NS#33) Lourdes Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus) First Baseman (Outfielder)
1994-95 (NS#34) Amado Zamora (Villa Clara) Outfielder
1995-96 (NS#35) Jorge Fumero (Industriales) Pitcher
1996-97 (NS#36) José Estrada (Matanzas) Outfielder
1997-98 (NS#37) Oscar Machado (Villa Clara) Outfielder
1998-99 (NS#38) Michel Enríquez (Isla de la Juventud) Third Baseman
1999-00 (NS#39) Norge Luis Vera (Santiago de Cuba) Pitcher
2000-01 (NS#40) Maels Rodríguez (Sancti Spíritus) Pitcher
2001-02 (NS#41) Michel Abreu (Matanzas) First Baseman
2002-03 (NS#42) Javier Méndez (Industriales) Outfielder
2003-04 (NS#43) Osmani Urrutia (Las Tunas) Outfielder
2004-05 (NS#44) Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus) Infielder
2005-06 (NS#45) Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus) Infielder
2006-07 (NS#46) Osmani Urrutia (Las Tunas) Outfielder
2007-08 (NS#47) Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba) Outfielder
2008-09 (NS#48) Not Yet Announced

Multiple Year MVP Winners: Omar Linares 3 (1985, 1990, 1993); Wilfredo Sánchez 3 (1969, 1970, 1979); Yulieski Gourriel 2 (2005, 2006); Osmani Urrutia 2 (2004, 2007); Javier Méndez 2 (1987, 2003); Pedro Chávez 2 (1964, 1967)

Consecutive Year MVP Winners: Yulieski Gourriel (2005, 2006) and Wilfredo Sánchez (1969, 1970)

MVP Winners by Playing Position: Outfielders (22), Infielders (14), Pitchers (10), Catchers (1) (#Main position only considered)

MVP Winners by Ball Club: Industriales (8), Vegueros (6), Henequeneros (5), Sancti Spíritus (4), Santiago de Cuba (3), Azucareros (3), Habana (3), Villa Clara (2), Las Tunas (2), Matanzas (2), Occidentales (2), Citricultores (2), Pinar del Río (1), Agricultores (1), Ganaderos (1), Cienfuegos (1), Isla de la Juventud (1)

Double Winners of MVP and Rookie-of-the-Year Honors: Lourdes Gourriel (1977 ROY, 1994 MVP); Pedro José Rodríguez (1974 ROY, 1980 MVP); Michel Abreu (1997 ROY, 2002 MVP)

Cuban NATIONAL SERIES Rookies of the Year (1967-2008)

1962-62 (NS#1) Not Awarded
1962-63 (NS#2) Not Awarded
1963-64 (NS#3) Not Awarded
1964-65 (NS#4) Not Awarded
1965-66 (NS#5) Not Awarded
1966-67 (NS#6) Arturo Linares (Habana) Outfielder
1967-68 (NS#7) Rodolfo Puentes (Habana) Infielder
1968-69 (NS#8) Armando Sánchez (Henequeneros) Outfielder
1969-70 (NS#9) None Selected
1970-71 (NS#10) Heriberto Arboláez (Las Villas) Infielder
1971-72 (NS#11) Pedro Jova (Azucareros) Infielder
1972-73 (NS#12) Roberto Ramos (Azucareros) Pitcher
1973-74 (NS#13) Pedro José Rodríguez (Azucareros) Third Baseman
1974-75 (NS#14) Eduardo Terry (Citricultores) Pitcher
1975-76 (NS#15) Eladio Iglesias (Pitcher)
1976-77 (NS#16) Lourdes Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus) Outfielder
1977-78 (NS#17) José Riveira (Villa Clara) Pitcher
1978-79 (NS#18) Alejo O’Reilly (Villa Clara) Outfielder
1979-80 (NS#19) Reinaldo López (Pitcher)
1980-81 (NS#20) Rolando Verde (Industriales) Third Baseman
1981-82 (NS#21) Jorge Millan (Habana) First Baseman
1982-83 (NS#22) Rafael Gómez Mena (Metropolitanos) Pitcher
1983-84 (NS#23) Rolando Arrojo (Villa Clara) Pitcher
1984-85 (NS#24) Eddy Rojas (Villa Clara) First Baseman (Outfielder)
1985-86 (NS#25) Buenafé Nápoles (Camagüey) Pitcher
1986-87 (NS#26) Alexis Cabrejas (Industriales) Outfielder
(T) 1987-88 (NS#27) Alexander Ramos (Isla de la Juventud) Infielder
(T) 1987-88 (NS#27) Teofilo Pérez (Camagüey) Pitcher
(T) 1988-89 (NS#28) Idalberto Castillo (Granma) Pitcher
(T) 1988-89 (NS#28) Deisy Lomba (Cienfuegos) Pitcher
1989-90 (NS#29) Rubén Rodríguez (Santiago de Cuba) Pitcher
1990-91 (NS#30) José Lamarque (Holguín) Outfielder
(T) 1991-92 (NS#31) René Espin (Metropolitanos) Pitcher
(T) 1991-92 (NS#31) Jorge Díaz Olano (Villa Clara) Infielder
1992-93 (NS#32) Vaisel Acosta (Matanzas) Outfielder
1993-94 (NS#33) Reinier Capote (Pinar del Río) Shortstop
1994-95 (NS#34) Larry Rodríguez (Habana Province) Pitcher
1995-96 (NS#35) Eriel Sanchez (Sancti Spíritus) Catcher
(T) 1996-97 (NS#36) Maikel Quintero (Industriales) Pitcher
(T) 1996-97 (NS#36) Michel Abreu (Matanzas) First Baseman
(T) 1997-98 (NS#37) Yasser Gómez (Metropolitanos) Outfielder
(T) 1997-98 (NS#37) Ismael Cortina (Pinar del Río) Pitcher
1998-99 (NS#38) Norlis Concepción (Pinar del Río) First Baseman
1999-00 (NS#39) Yoandry Urgellés (Industriales) Outfielder
2000-01 (NS#40) Pedro José Rodríguez, Jr. (Cienfuegos) Infielder
2001-02 (NS#41) Kendry Morales (Industriales) Infielder
2002-03 (NS#42) Yordanis Samón (Granma)
2003-04 (NS#43) Frank Montieth (Industriales) Pitcher
2004-05 (NS#44) Yadier Pedroso (Habana Province) Pitcher
2005-06 (NS#45) Alberto Soto (Granma) Pitcher
2006-07 (NS#46) Raiko Olivares (Industriales) Infielder
2007-08 (NS#47) Yosvany Pérez (Villa Clara) Pitcher
2008-09 (NS#48) Not Yet Announced

Cuban NATIONAL SERIES Post-Season Most Valuable Players

While the Cuban Baseball Federation has never published any “official” listing of MVP Awards for post-season play, Havana’s Radio COCO has in recent years provided its own “unofficial” choices of Playoff MVPs for all post-season series since 1998 (National Series #37)

1997-98 (NS#37) José Contreras (Pinar del Río) Pitcher
1998-99 (NS#38) Norge Luis Vera (Santiago de Cuba) Pitcher
1999-00 (NS#39) Fausto Alvarez (Santiago de Cuba) Outfielder
2000-01 (NS#40) Norge Luis Vera (Santiago de Cuba) Pitcher
2001-02 (NS#41) Oscar Gil (Holguín) Pitcher
2002-03 (NS#42) Antonio Scull (Industriales) First Baseman
2003-04 (NS#43) Enríque Díaz (Industriales) Second Baseman
2004-05 (NS#44) Ormari Romero (Santiago de Cuba) Pitcher
2005-06 (NS#45) Alexander Mayeta (Industriales) First Baseman
2006-07 (NS#46) Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba) Outfielder
2007-08 (NS#47) Rolando Meriño (Santiago de Cuba) Catcher
2008-09 (NS#48) Not Yet Announced

*To read more from Peter C. Bjarkman on Cuban baseball check out:http://www.bjarkman.com

For a look at how the regular Cuban baseball season concluded including the standings and top batters and pitchers see: http://havanatimes.org/?p=8128

Peter Bjarkman

Peter Bjarkman: My initial visit to Cuba occurred in February 1997, when I began research for the first of several books treating the island’s remarkable baseball history. I rapidly fell in love with Cuba’s national sport, as well as with its remarkable people, culture, and music, all of which have subsequently become a central part of my life. I have made over 40 visits to Havana where “home away from home” is the Hotel Telegrafo on the Parque Central. My actual home base is Lafayette, Indiana, where my wife is a professor at Purdue University. My reporting on Cuban baseball has allowed me to follow the Cuban national team to most major international tournaments in the past decade.



One thought on “Cuba’s Baseball MVPs Revisited

  • Wilfredo Sanchez was a three time MVP of the LIga Nacional. He would have been a sure Major Leaguer, if it wasn’t for the lack of freedom that has existed in Cuba since 1959.
    It is a shame that Ichiro Suzuki is allowed to exhibit his talent to the baseball world, and Wilfred was never given the opportunity, since he was a very similar talent.
    The political control of the totalitarian Communist regime in Cuba destroyed many wonderful baseball careers. When are you going to address this subject in your writing Mr. Bjarkman?!
    Of course this would automatically mean that you would not be allowed to enter Cuba and continue to write about the island’s baseball culture, but why don’t we take a stand against oppression.

    Reply

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