Odrisamer Despaigne became the latest Cuban defector to sign with a major league team Saturday, as the Padres signed the 27-year-old right-hander to a minor league deal with a $1 million signing bonus. According to MLB Daily Dish, Despaigne will head to extended spring training before beginning his affiliated career in earnest at Double-A San Antonio.
Despaigne enjoyed a robust career in Cuba. He spent eight seasons with the Industriales of the Cuban Serie Nacional, the nation's top league, and recorded a 3.38 ERA, 6.8 K/9, and 3.7 BB/9 over 647 2/3 innings. He was part of two Industriales championship campaigns, as a reliever in his rookie year of 2006 and again in 2010, his first year as a full-time starter. He made the Cuban World Baseball Classic roster in 2013, but did not appear in the tournament. Although not a talent on the level of a Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig or Aroldis Chapman, Despaigne has been a consistently above average player in Cuba. As he told Cuban-Play.com in August, "I've won titles with Industriales, I played [in the] World [Baseball] Classic with Cuba and now need new goals, so I left my country to realize the dream of playing against the best in the big leagues."
Scouting reports of Despaigne, mostly coming from a February showcase in Arizona, have pegged Despaigne's stuff as average across the board. Padres GM Josh Byrnes referred to Despaigne as an "old generation" Cuban pitcher, pointing to Despaigne's ability to throw multiple pitches from varying arm angles, much like Livan Hernandez, Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez. Despaigne apparently agrees with the assessment. As he told MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez after the February workout, "I hope I can have half the career that [Orlando Hernandez] had, because he's been my idol since I was a child, but like him, I throw from a lot of different angles."
Despaigne had his struggles in his first two seasons as a full-time starter in 2010 and 2011. In 247 1/3 innings and 41 games started over those two years, Despaigne posted a 4.51 ERA with 202 strikeouts and 117 walks, an unimpressive line against a league rated on par with Low Class A by former Baseball Prospectus analyst Clay Davenport. But as Davenport noted, offense skyrocketed in the years between Despaigne's debut in 2006 and his promotion to a starting role in 2010. In 2007, the Cuban league produced a total of 669 home runs. By 2010, the league produced 1,498 home runs. 2011, the year that saw Jose Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes each set the Cuban League record with 33 home runs (in just a 90-game season), produced a comparable 1,449 blasts, all in roughly the same number of games and plate appearances. The power surge puts even MLB's steroid era to shame.
Despaigne gave up 20 home runs in 2010 and 2011 combined, including a career high 13 in 2011. Prior to the 2012 season, the Serie Nacional raised the pitching mound from 10 inches to 15 inches in an effort to counteract the rising power numbers, and there was a noticeable effect. Home runs dropped to 1,150 total in the 2012 season, and Despaigne allowed just six home runs despite pitching nearly 40 more innings than in 2011. He matched that mark again in 2013.
More importantly, Despaigne, a pitcher who works with finesse but lacks the "big stuff" of a Chapman or a Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, no longer had to pitch so carefully in 2012 and 2013. His walk rate declined from 4.3 per nine innings in 2011 to 3.5 in 2012 and 3.3 in 2013, as he was able to get away with more pitches in the zone and no longer had to fear some of the cheaper home runs that had entered the Cuban game in the power explosion. Unsurprisingly, Despaigne's ERA dropped to 2.58 in 2012 and a still respectable 3.27 in 2013.
Despaigne did not rack up gaudy strikeout numbers in Cuba, likely a big reason why he was limited to $1 million on the free market. In all likelihood, Despaigne's lack of swing-and-miss stuff places a hard ceiling on his career. His 6.4 K/9 in Cuban play is well below the 7.9 MLB average, and only Jordan Zimmermann and Bartolo Colon received Cy Young Award votes with K/9 marks under 7.0 in 2013.
But Despaigne need not be a Cy Young Award candidate to be a successful major leaguer, and plenty -- think Colon, Kyle Lohse, Mark Buehrle and Bronson Arroyo -- have put together excellent careers without piling on strikeouts. Those pitchers have all exhibited either great control or a great ability to prevent home runs. In the scoring desert that is today's major leagues, and particulary in the pitchers' haven that is San Diego's Petco Park, it isn't hard to imagine Despaigne's recent improvements and his finesse style carrying over well to his American career.
Cuban players with transcendent talent like Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes have drawn the eyes of both fans and scouts toward Cuba as they continue to tear up the major leagues. Unlike them, Odrisamer Despaigne isn't expected to be an All-Star. His path to major league success may require a switch to a middle or long relief role. But he has thrived in the same league that has produced the eye-popping talent dominating the major leagues right now. If he can do it in Cuba, the Padres figure, why not see if he can do it here too?