Who are the all-time best players from Cuba?

October 12th, 2022

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, MLB.com presented a series of roundtables, debating the best players from various Latin American countries. Our final installment is Cuba.

Alyson Footer, moderator/editor: This should be a great debate, given all of the talent that has come from Cuba, and Cuban-born players, over time. When we debated the best players from Puerto Rico, we really had to start with the No. 2 player, because [Roberto] Clemente was the clear-cut No. 1 and no one came close. Is there a clear-cut best player from Cuba, ever?

Nathalie Alonso, editorial producer, Las Mayores: This is a complicated question, because some of Cuba's top talent has had limited playing time in the Major Leagues because of things like institutional racism and the political situation between the U.S. and Cuba. But also, because two of the most accomplished hitters that have come out of Cuba -- Rafael Palmeiro and José Canseco -- have also had their legacies tainted because of PED use. I don't think it's straightforward.

Sarah Langs, researcher/analyst: Completely agree here. I almost wonder if a better question is most impactful instead of best … impactful on the sport/his position/etc.

Mark Feinsand, executive reporter: Based on statistics alone, you would have to say Rafael Palmeiro. But the fact that he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs certainly clouds the issue quite a bit.

His career numbers speak for themselves: 569 homers and 3,020 hits are Hall of Fame-worthy, but the PEDs killed any shot of that. I think he was a very good hitter, but I never thought of him as one of the best in the game when he played. He was consistently very good, and he played for 20 years, so the numbers piled up. He was an All-Star only four times.

There are four Hall of Famers from Cuba: Tony Perez, Minnie Miñoso, Tony Oliva and Cristóbal Torriente (voted in by the Negro Leagues Committee). And then there’s Luis Tiant, who actually has the highest bWAR of any Cuban-born player other than Palmeiro.

Alonso: Martín Dihigo is a Hall of Famer, too, and was doing the two-way thing long before [Shohei] Ohtani did. We are so far removed from Dihigo's and Cristóbal Torriente's days that it's hard to appreciate just how good they were.

Langs: José Méndez is a Hall of Famer, too.

Feinsand: I might have to give my vote to Perez. His consistency was tremendous, and he played a key role in the Big Red Machine dynasty.

Alonso: If we're talking about impact as Sarah suggested, Miñoso is it for me. He's called the "Latino Jackie Robinson" for a reason. He was the first Afro-Latino in the AL/NL. This is why this one is tough -- there are lots of layers to it.

Footer: We have the advantage of having Nathalie as part of this discussion -- her family is from Cuba, and she is well-versed on this topic. So I'm just going to say "I agree with Nathalie" a lot today.

Alonso: If we’re going by bWAR, including both position players and pitchers, Palmeiro is first with 71.9, followed by Red Sox legend Luis Tiant with 65.6.Tiant is not in the Hall of Fame, but there are plenty of us who think he should be. Comparing pitchers and position players is tricky, but Tiant definitely is at the top of the list, too.

Langs: See, I agree with both Mark and Nathalie. Player-wise, it’s Perez for me, with his production and the team he played for. But when I think about Cuban-born players … the first I think of is ALWAYS Miñoso. Always. With impact in mind.

Footer: Putting my Rose-colored Reds glasses on (see what I did there?), Perez's greatness was diminished by the simple fact that his teammates were some of the greatest hitters of that era. He just didn't get talked about enough.

Feinsand: Agreed. He gets overlooked because of the players on those teams, but we’re talking about a guy with nine 20-homer seasons, seven 100-RBI seasons and an .804 career OPS. Those are pretty impressive numbers for the era in which he played.

Alonso: Tony Oliva, who was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, is not No. 1 for me, but he's definitely top five.

I also don’t think we can have this conversation without talking about Yuli Gurriel. The Gurriel family is baseball royalty in Cuba, and Yuli is the star. Yuli didn’t play in the Majors until age 32, but he helped Cuba win gold at the 2004 Olympic Games and then silver in 2008. He’s represented Cuba in the Caribbean Series, the World Baseball Classic, and has succeeded in every stage.

When Yuli first got to the Majors, Cuban players from other teams would go out of their way to introduce themselves to him. And Cuban Astros prospect Pedro León remarked a while back that every Cuban player of this generation has “a little bit of Yuli in him.” It really speaks to what Yuli represents for Cuba and Cuban baseball -- even if his time in the Majors has been relatively short.

Langs: That again gets to the important point that baseball history is not just MLB history, and the same for lineage in the sport.

Alonso: And what he’s done in the Astros only makes me wonder where he’d rank if he’d played his whole career in the Majors. He won a batting title last year and a Gold Glove as a first baseman, which to me is incredible, because he never played a single game at first base in Cuba or during his time in Japan. He’s just an incredible athlete, and the adjustment he made to the Majors is very impressive.

Langs: If we’re talking current players, José Abreu needs to come up, too. He’s fourth in homers behind Palmeiro, Canseco and Perez. And such a stalwart for so long in Chicago.

Feinsand: I’ll add my New York bias here: When I think of Cuban players, the first one that comes to mind is always Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. He obviously doesn’t fit into a category with the guys we’ve mentioned thus far, but he hit the scene with such hype and lived up to it. He was 32 when he got to the Yankees, so he was never going to have the long career that others before him did, but he was one of the most electric pitchers I have ever seen -- and one of the best postseason pitchers of his generation.

El Duque was such a character. Watching him and Jorge Posada yell at each other from 60 feet, 6 inches away was so entertaining.

Alonso: You can't tell the story of Cuban baseball without the Hernandez brothers, that's for sure. Like with Yuli, you wonder what might have been.

Feinsand: And despite pitching just nine years in the Majors, El Duque has the sixth-highest WAR of any Cuban-born pitcher in history.

Footer: Let's go back to Sarah’s comment -- if you have to name the most impactful Cuban player(s) and not necessarily the "best," is that different?

Feinsand: If we’re talking about impact on the game on AND off the field, then yes. Jackie Robinson wasn’t the best African American player in history, but he was obviously the most impactful.

For onfield impact, I would go back to Perez. If you’re a Hall of Fame cog on a dynasty team, that’s some pretty good impact.

Alonso: He's also second among Cuban-born hitters in bWAR (54.0), so that checks out. Miñoso is right behind, though, with 53.8. It took way, way too long for him to get into the Hall of Fame. Should have happened in this lifetime, but I digress.

Feinsand: I love that Miñoso’s Baseball Reference page lists his career from 1946-1980. At first glance, you just think, “Wait, he played for 34 years??? Who is he, Tom Brady?" Miñoso had a big-league hit at the age of 52!

Langs: Such an important figure for the sport, and also a great career. A seven-time AL All-Star, and just so consistent, hitting .307 in almost 1,500 games from 1951-60. The fourth-oldest player with a hit since at least 1901!

Feinsand: Tiant had a decade-long run of excellence. He was 140-106 with a 2.93 ERA from 1964-74, but the back end of his career wasn’t as strong (89-66, 3.89). I think he easily had the best pitching career of any Cuban-born player, but I’m not sure I can put him atop this list.

Alonso: He's in my top five, but not first. Also, we can't forget Tony Oliva, who finally made it into the Hall, too, this year.

Feinsand: One more thing I want to add in here: I wonder whether we would have been talking about José Fernández in this conversation if not for his tragic death. The first four years of his career were so special.

Alonso: And he was such a perfect fit for Miami.

Footer: Let’s rank the top five Cuban players of all time. Go!

Alonso: Perez, Miñoso, Tiant, Oliva, Y. Gurriel

Feinsand: Perez, Miñoso, Tiant, Oliva, El Duque

Langs: Perez, Miñoso, Tiant, Oliva, Abreu