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Cuban Defector Yaniel Cabezas the Rays’ Latest International Splash

By Robbie Knopf
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He certainly can’t compare to recent Boston Red Sox signee Yoan Moncada, but the Tampa Bay Rays have responded by signing a Cuban defector of their own. Rene Rivera is set to be their starting catcher this season and Justin O’Conner could be their long-term answer at the position, but the Rays still face uncertainty as they figure out who will play alongside Rivera for now. Maybe Yaniel Cabezas, 25, could be that guy before long.

Cabezas first broke into the professional league in Cuba as an 18 year old with the Havana club in 2007. He was a teammate of current Detroit Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias. Despite his youth, Cabezas was able to earn playing time with the Vaqueros between his promising defense and strong plate discipline. He hit .231 in his rookie season, but with a strong 13-13 strikeout to walk ratio.

The next year, Cabezas received limited at-bats, and they would prove to be his last before leaving Cuba. Wait, you’re saying that Cabezas hasn’t played in the Cuban league since 2008? Yeah, that’s right–Yaniel Cabezas has actually been in America for a few years now. He signed with the Chicago Cubs as an international free agent in December of 2010. Everything about Cabezas figuring into the Rays’ catcher picture was a joke–did I get you?

In all seriousness, though, the Cubs thought that they were getting quite an interesting prospect back in 2010. Cabezas signed with Chicago for $500,000 after earning comparisons to a young Yadier Molina. The original link is broken, but Baseball America praised him for his advanced defensive tools and solid ability to put bat on ball. There was a time when Yaniel Cabezas was a sought-after player, although that time is well in the past at this point.

Cabezas was released by the Cubs in March of 2014 after doing nothing in his three years in their system. He hit to just a .215/.275/.263 line while never advancing past High-A, and he managed just a 24% caught stealing rate and 14 passed balls in 127 defensive games. He moved onto the New Jersey Jackals in Independent ball in 2014 and hit rock-bottom, managing just a .216/.250/.243 line, a 9% CS%, and 9 passed balls in just 21 games.

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Yet here we are talking about the Rays’ signing of Yaniel Cabezas to a minor league contract. Not only is he exceedingly far from being a high-profile Cuban defector at this point, but we also can’t find a reason why he should still be playing affiliated baseball. He had his chance, he squandered it, and then he played even worse in Independent ball. Who plays worse in Independent ball and then winds up returning to an organization for the following season?

The Rays do need some low minors catching depth since Oscar Hernandez is with the Arizona Diamondbacks and is out with a broken hamate bone anyway. However, this can’t be quite that simple–there are surely at least a couple of catchers better than Cabezas who are set to play Independent ball themselves in 2015. The Rays must see something else in him beyond that.

Maybe despite his struggles at the plate and unimpressive defense, Yaniel Cabezas is excellent at working with young pitchers. If he can help guys like Taylor Guerrieri develop as prospects, then it doesn’t matter what numbers he is putting up. Perhaps he made an adjustment to his swing and the Rays deemed him to be worth another chance. Or maybe his arm is strong enough that the Rays are considering trying him on the mound.

There is some reason that Cabezas is now with the Rays, just like there was some reason they signed Robert Zarate. We entered spring training with no expectations for Zarate after he was signed out of Japanese Independent ball, but then he proceeded to touch 94 MPH with his fastball to go along with a promising curveball. Will Yaniel Cabezas impress in a similar away? This may be the last time we ever hear of Cabezas, but there is some intrigue to this signing and we will have to see what happens.

Next: Jake Odorizzi Takes Next Step on Alex Cobb's Path

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