The Astros have a strong recent track record of success with players from Cuba, beginning in 2016 with the signing of veteran infielder Yuli Gurriel, who was a core part of their 2017 championship team, to Yordan Alvarez, the 2019 American League Rookie of the Year whom they acquired in a lopsided trade with the Dodgers.
They hope the Cuban connection continues to serve them well with outfielder Pedro Leon, who Astros senior scouting advisor Charlie Gonzalez called “a rapid mover to the big leagues” when the club announced his signing for $4 million in January. The 22-year-old began working out in camp this week in West Palm Beach, Fla., after having his arrival delayed because of visa issues. Leon likely doesn’t impact the big league club until next year, but don’t rule out seeing him sooner.
“It’s a huge opportunity for me and it's honestly something that makes me feel super fortunate,” said Leon, ranked No. 7 on MLB Pipeline's Top 30 International Prospects list. “To have the opportunity to sign and go directly to a big league camp is something that not all ballplayers have that opportunity. I've been working on just not being anxious at all and just focused on the job that I have and the task at hand and just taking advantage of this opportunity that I have.”
Leon has been working out at shortstop the past five months, including in the first few days at Astros camp. The Astros aren’t shy about working out younger players at various positions, which is why catcher Garrett Stubbs has played some outfield and outfielder Myles Straw has dabbled at shortstop. Leon projects to be an everyday center fielder, but he’s OK with having more than one glove.
“It’s something the organization had informed me about a while ago, so it's not something that's made me too uncomfortable, maybe just a little bit, just getting used to the position,” Leon said. “I’m working on staying focused and working on the adjustments itself and that'll get better as time goes on.”
Leon comes to the Astros with impressive tools and an impressive resume, even if he’s still somewhat of an unknown commodity. In 65 games in two seasons for Mayabeque in Serie Nacional, Cuba’s top professional league, he hit .359 with 21 home runs and a 1.098 OPS.
During the 2018 season, he was named an All-Star at 20 years old after batting .383 with seven doubles, 15 home runs, 36 RBIs and a 1.256 OPS in 33 games. In 2019, he defected from Cuba. He had been a fan of the Astros since 2017, having watched Gurriel in the playoffs.
“To be honest, it was the team that was on TV the most of any team in Cuba, the Astros, so it was honestly my favorite team before signing,” Leon said. “It was just by chance that I had the opportunity to sign with them, so it was a great day for me to be able to show my skills for the organization and start my professional career.”
That career started quietly on the back fields at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, where he fielded ground balls and dreamed of life in the big leagues. He’s already become friends with Alvarez and Gurriel, as well as fellow Cubans, infielder Aledmys Díaz and Lorenzo Quintana, a non-roster catcher. He compares himself to Jose Altuve and can’t wait until he shares a dugout with the players he’s idolized for years.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Leon said. “It's really a dream come true, to be honest with you. It's something that we say a lot in Cuba, that we all have a little bit of Yuli inside of us. That's what the young kids say when playing with Cuba, so it's a dream come true to be here and to be around him.”