Alfredo Despaigne is a veteran of 2 prior world baseball classics, and has been part of a formidable Cuban offense in each tournament. This year, he will have to make up for a lot of Cuban power which has found its way into MLB uniforms over the past 4 years. Let’s take a closer look at one of Cuba’s most prolific sluggers.
Cuba has seen most of its golden generation from the 2000’s, perhaps the last great wave of domestic Cuban players before a possible new posting system or a reunified national team, depart the team over the course of the last several years. Some stalwarts, such as Norge Luis Vera, Ariel Pestano, and Eduardo Paret, have ridden off into the sunset of retirement. Others, like Abreu, Chapman, or Gurriel have departed their homeland. Of the few who remain, none is likely better, nor more central to the hopes of team Cuba than slugger Alfredo Despaigne.
Despaigne hit the ground running as an 18-year-old with one of Cuba’s doormat clubs, Granma, in 2004. Despaigne batted .313/.343/.491 as a rookie and even cracked 10 home runs, narrowly missing out on the rookie of the year trophy which went to La Habana hurler Yadier Pedroso (since passed). Despaigne didn’t let missing out on the award dissuade him, however, as he posted batting averages over .300 and homer totals over 15 in each of his next 3 seasons. By age 21, he had established himself as one of the best offensive players on the island, and was even named to the preliminary roster for the 2006 WBC team, thought he was ultimately passed over in favor of more veteran ballplayers.
But all of that success would prove to be a mere prelude. Between 2007 and 2011, Despaigne would become embroiled in a multi-year home run chase with a number of other sluggers that would make Mantle and Maris proud. It began in 2007, when Santiago de Cuba outfielder Alexei Bell burst out and belted 31 home runs, to break the Serie Nacional record which had been held by legendary first baseman Oresten Kindelán. Bell was not the only challenger to the record that season, however, as two Granma outfielders Yoenis Céspedes and Despaigne had knocked out 26 and 24 respectively. Bell’s record would be short lived, however, as the very next season saw Despaigne hit 32 long balls to claim the record for his own. In 2009, Despaigne led the league again with a near-record 31 homers, but a new challenger emerged, as Cienfuegos 1B José Dariel Abreu was breathing down his neck with 30 homers of his own. 2010 saw the record fall again, as Abreu and a rejuvenated Yoenis Céspedes battled down the stretch to rewrite their own name in the record book. In the end, both names would find themselves there, as the pair finished with a new record 33 home runs a piece. The next year, after Céspedes’ departure from the island, Abreu and Despaigne dueled down the stretch, with each one pace to break the record. Coming into the second to last game of the season, Abreu had broken the record and led Despaigne 34 HR to 33 HR. That night, against Industriales, Despaigne smashed to bombs to take the lead in the home run chase.
While Abreu tied him in his next game day, Despaigne had one final trick in store. In the final game of the season, Despaigne struck a ball into the outfield which evaded the Isla de Juventud outfielders and allowed Despaigne to hustle all the way home with a record clinching inside-the-park homerun.
Since that time, Despaigne, while not quite as prolific as in his record setting days, has remained a consistent slugger in domestic Cuban baseball, and, in 2014, signed a contract to play overseas with the Chiba Lotte Marines of NPB, where he has posted a .277./.360/.497 line.
Physically, Despaigne is small for a power hitter. Compared to his fellow record chasers Yoenis Céspedes (5’10’’) or the hulking Jose Abreu (6’3’’), Despaigne is downright lilliputian. But he has a powerful and stocky build, weighing in 209 pounds, and tremendous arm and hand strength which give him truly prodigious opposite field power for a man his size. At the plate, Despaigne looks a familiar figure, showing the classic Cuban stance with hands held high and tight and the body closed to the pitcher, though one wonders about the kind of power he might have, or might have had if he had been coached with a more open, pull oriented go-for-broke swing characteristic of modern major league players. On another Cuban team, one bursting at the seems with outfielders like Puig, Céspedes, Martín, Tomás, Heredia or Solér, Despaigne would likely find himself as the team’s regular DH, as he is no great shakes with the glove. Given the paucity of bats on this 2017 iteration of Cuba, he will likely be the starter in left, so that fellow veteran slugger Frederich Cepeda (who can no longer really play the field) can get his bat into the lineup. Team Cuba will need power if it is going to advance beyond the first round of the tournament, or further still, and it will have few places to go looking for it. But if there’s anyone capable of mashing for a whole team of Cubans, it might just be Alfredo Despaigne.