Following the departure of such high profile pitching prospects as Norge Ruiz, Vladimir Gutiérrez, and Cionel Pérez, Cuba finds itself a bit thin in the pitching staff. They will therefore lean heavily on their top pitchers, and Lázaro Blanco has staked his claim as the best which Cuba has to offer. So let’s take a look at how Blanco made his way to the top of the Cuban rotation.
Like many players on the island, Lázaro Blanco started young, making his way into the Serie Nacional at 18 with perennial doormat Granma during the 2004 season. Although he tossed only 22.1 innings that year, he appeared to have decent life on his fastball, and he posted a respectable 4.03 ERA against which seemed to bode well for him going forward, assuming he progressed from there and continued to develop. But Blanco did not improve. In 2005, working primarily out of the Alazanes bullpen (along with 3 spot starts), Blanco saw his ERA balloon to a whopping 7.83 to go along with a ghastly 2.107 WHIP. He followed this up with a 4.79 ERA in 2006.
The next season, moving to the rotation as Granma shifted from a 4-man to 5-man rotation, Blanco fared no better, posting another poor season with a 5.28 ERA. The next few seasons were no more kind to Blanco, seeing him clock in with ERAs of 8.77, 5.71, 5.90. Finally, in the 2011 season, Blanco hit rock bottom. He appeared in 5 games for Granma, but only lasted 11 innings. In those 11 innings, he surrendered 25 hits, 2 home runs, walked 5, struck out only 2, finishing with an abysmal 11.45 ERA and 2.727 WHIP. It was unclear that he had a future in the Serie Nacional.
That offseason, at 25 and with opportunities fast running out, Blanco began to work seriously with Granma pitching coach Delio Cumbrera Sánchez. Sánchez, who, in addition to being the pitching coach with the Granma club, was a standing member of the Facultád de Cultura Física de la Universidád Granma and has published papers on the topic of pitching mechanics, began the process of completely rebuilding Blanco as a pitcher from the ground up. At Sánchez’s suggestion, Blanco ditched his 4-seam fastball for a sinking 2-seamer. He likewise radically dropped his arm-angle to a delivery point between 3⁄4 and sidearm in order to get better run on his sinker and more action on his slider (check out the low angle delivery below).
And at last, Blanco seemed to have turned a corner. He went 11-7 with a 3.97 ERA in the 2012 Serie Nacional, pitching 147.1 innings, and was even picked up by Matanzas in the 2nd season draft. Blanco followed it up with seasons of 2.77, 3.46 and 3.47 ERAs. He was named to the Cuban team for the 2015 Pan-Am games, as well as to the 2016 team which participated in the Canadian-american Association. Blanco went 1-1 with a 2.79 ERA and struck out 20 in 19.2 innings.
In 2016, longtime Granma hurler Ciro Silvino Licea joined the coaching staff as the new pitching coach. Much as he had under Sánchez, Blanco grew further under Licea. Licea, during his playing career, had possessed one of the better true changeups on an island filled with forkballs. And he imparted that knowledge to Blanco, who scrapped the forkball which he had thrown during his whole career and developed a rather effective straight change. Armed with this new weapon, against left-handers in particular, Blanco launched an all out assault on the Serie Nacional in 2016. He went 14-3 with a 1.63 ERA and 1.18 WHIP tossing 143.1 innings to help lead the Alazanes to their first ever Serie Nacional title by winning both game 7 of the Serie Nacional Semifinal, and throwing 6 innings of 1 run ball in a 10-1 win for the Alazanes in game 3 of the Final.
Following the season, Blanco, as part of the champion club from Granma, was named to the selection which would represent Cub at the 2017 Serie del Caribe, and Blanco represented them well. Blanco won game one 4-0 against the Dominican Republic, striking out 6 in 6.1 innings pitched. In the semifinal, Blanco allowed only a single earned run in 7 innings pitched, but the Cuban offense couldn’t back him up in a 1-0 loss. He was named the tournament’s all-star pitcher.
While it’s not clear that Blanco could star in an MLB which is increasingly focused on pitcher velocity, he has developed a true knack for the savvy of pitching, and has become masterful at running his 2-seamer right in on the hands of right handed batters, as well as bringing it back over the plate against lefties. He is a capable fielder and displays about as lightning quick and deceptive a pickoff move as one will see from a righty. He doesn’t generate the excitement of triple digits on a radar gun, but it’s a real treat to watch the pitching acumen of Lázaro Blanco on display and to think back on the work and dedication required on his part gather it. For a Cuban team rocked by player departure, the pitching of Blanco may prove the key to the tournament.