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Detroit Tigers’ Cuban Combo Havana Good Time

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The island of Cuba is known for communism, 1950’s-era American cars, and fine cigars.

You might want to add beisbol players to that list.

Fortunately for Tiger fans two such athletes are calling Comerica Park home this year, and both are off to an incendiary start.

Of course I speak of Cuban natives Jose Iglesias (Havana) and Yoenis Cespedes (Campechuela).

Jose Iglesias

Iglesias was acquired in July, 2013, in a three-way trade with Chicago and Boston. The Detroit Tigers sent outfielder Avisail Garcia to the White Sox and pitcher Brayan Villarreal to the Red Sox, while Boston also picked up pitcher Jake Peavey in the transaction.

Iglesias played shortstop down the stretch in 2013 for the Tigers, replacing Jhonny Peralta, who was serving a 50-game PED suspension. After slashing a heady .330/.376/.409 with Boston through July, his bat came back to earth in Detroit, as his end-of-season line fell to .303/.349/.386.

Last year Iglesias’s season was over before it began as he suffered a recurrence of shin splint problems in late February. Surgery was performed on both legs in March and he lost the entire season.

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Though in late 2014 doctors declared him 100% recovered, Iglesias has been closely watched this spring for any lingering shin complications. To date he appears completely asymptomatic, which has been reflected in his dashing play.

After a full year removed from major league pitching, Iglesias struggled at the plate this spring training, batting only .135.

Ever since the opening bell rang, though, he’s been making consistent contact and finding holes. Though he won’t maintain his stratospheric April pace–.396/.453/.479, with four steals– he’s served notice he can be an integral part of the Tiger offense, providing some welcome punch at the tail-end of the line-up.

Of course as well as Iglesias has started offensively, it’s his glove that separates him from mere mortals.

Simply said, his stupendous range, lightning quick hands, and unparalleled athletic ability conspire to make him a defender of the highest order.

Considering the tumult that enveloped the shortstop position last year, on its own merit Iglesias’s return makes the Tiger pitching staff better.

Secure in the knowledge a premier shortstop lurks behind them, hurlers can now pitch more comfortably to contact. This not only discourages over-throwing, but depresses their pitch count.

Such are the salutary effects of a defender of Iglesias’s caliber.

Yoenis Cespedes

In contrast to the finesse game on display with Iglesias, Cespedes’s game is far less subtle.

It’s all about power.

Sporting the sculpted physique of an NFL running back, he thinks of pitchers as a lion regards a zebra:

Mmmm. Lunch.

Like the king of the jungle, Cespedes does not always chase down his prey.

But the hunt is always mesmerizing.

The antithesis of watchful teammate Alex Avila, Cespedes does not get cheated on his hacks. While this tendency will typically suppress his OBP, he’s a big knocker when contact is made, as it was last Sunday, when he stroked two home runs against the White Sox.

One of the homers, a grand slam, was a seed deposited deep into the left field stands.

His swing speed on that pitch? 

A mere 112.9 mph–which is about as fast as a human being can wield a two-pound stick of maple.

Whether the bat makes contact with the ball or not, this summer patrons of Comerica Park will be the beneficiaries of free air conditioning, compliments of one Yoenis Cespedes.

Encouragingly, Cespedes has driven the ball hard to right field on several occasions this month, which can only make him more difficult to defend.

It isn’t hard to imagine the influence of Miguel Cabrera in that scenario, as perhaps for the first time in his career Cespedes is surrounded by top-flight run-producers and doesn’t have to be “the guy” who pulls every pitch that appeals to him.

Like Iglesias, Cespedes is off to a fast start, slashing .311/.328/.574, versus his career numbers of .265/.316/.469. He has three home runs and 13 RBI’s this season, and seems comfortable hitting in the sixth slot.

Defensively, Cespedes’s above average speed and elite arm serve him well in left field. Despite a stirring display of over-the-wall home run thievery on Opening Day, though, he occasionally takes circuitous routes, and has neither the instincts nor the glove of a pure outfielder.

Nonetheless, considering his offense and ability to discourage would-be base advancers, Cespedes has quickly established himself as a force in a Tiger uniform.

The Bottom Line

With the return of Jose Iglesias and the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes, the Detroit Tigers have upgraded their offense and defense at two key positions.

Though it’s early, the team has begun the season in full gallop, in no small part due to the contributions of this pair.

They are playing freely, and if dugout smiles and visible camaraderie are any measure, each appears content on a Tiger team laden with teammates of Latin descent.

There’s a long way to go, but this bodes well for a team for whom it’s been “close, but no cigar” for several years.

If perchance this is the year the team finally earns that ultimate stogie, odds are it’ll be ignited by a couple of talented Cubans with a hot hand.

Next: More Nathan fallout; Krol demoted

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