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Roenis Elias and Odrisamer Despaigne: successful Cuban rookies

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Cuban prospects Roenis Elias of the Seattle Mariners and Odrisamer Despaigne of the San Diego Padres both pitched solidly in their big league debuts this year.

Roenis Elias and Odrisamer Despagine
Roenis Elias and Odrisamer Despagine
photos by Otto Gruele, Jr., and Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images

Two of the more successful rookie pitchers in Major League Baseball this year were Roenis Elias of the Seattle Mariners and Odrisamer Despaigne of the San Diego Padres. Neither Cuban defector received a great deal of pre-season attention, but both performed well enough to solidify their roles on big league pitching staffs for 2015.

A reader recently asked for a take on both pitchers, so here's a look.

Roenis Elias signed by the Mariners as a free agent in May of 2011. He pitched 48 innings that year between rookie ball and the Midwest League, posting a combined 4.28 ERA with a 41/21 K/BB ratio. At age 23, he was quite anonymous at the time.

That began to change in 2012: he made 26 starts for High Desert in the High-A California League, posting 3.76 ERA with a 128/41 K/BB in 141 innings. Keep in mind that this was at High Desert, which is a terrible place to pitch. Here is the comment from the 2013 Baseball Prospect Book:

SLEEPER ALERT!! Elias is a Cuban defector signed by the Mariners in 2011. He’s received almost no attention, but he had a really nice year in the California League, not an easy thing to do when pitching for High Desert. He’s a thin lanky lefty with an average fastball, but his curveball is very good, he throws strikes, knows how to pitch, and is said to perform very well under pressure. It remains to be seen if he’s a future fifth starter, relief option, or just a minor league inning soaker, but anyone who survives High Desert with his confidence (and his statistics)  intact needs to be watched closely in Double-A, whether or not he shows up on top prospect lists. Grade C but very interesting.

Elias lived up to the sleeper alert and followed up with a fine '13 campaign, posting a 3.18 ERA with a 121/50 K/BB in 130 innings for Double-A Jackson in the Southern League. That led to this comment entering 2014, written in early April due to the delay in the book this year:

I had Roenis Elias as a Sleeper Alert! guy last year based on his ’12 performance at High Desert. The Cuban defector ended up having a strong ’13 season in Double-A and opened ’14 in the Mariners big league rotation. Despite this, he has received little attention from mainstream sources. Elias has an 88-92 MPH fastball that hits 93-94 at times. He has a curve, slider, and changeup, with the curve being the best of the group. Although his command has held up in the minors thus far, he comes at hitters from different arm angles, which confuses hitters as much as it turns off scouts who (understandably) want to see a guy repeat his delivery and prove he can throw strikes. While Elias doesn’t have the upside of a Taijuan Walker or James Paxton, he has a chance to be a decent back-end starter or bullpen asset despite (or maybe because of) his unconventionality. He’s looked good in big league action so far this spring. Grade C+.

Elias went 10-12, 3.85 in 29 starts for the Mariners this year, with a 4.03 FIP, 143/64 K/BB in 164 innings, ERA+ 95, 1.40 WAR. Although not ace-quality, it was a worthy debut season and I think it is an exactly fair representation of his ability.

The problem now is health: his season ended early with an elbow injury, a "strained flexor bundle."  IF he is healthy, I think we can expect more of the same type of pitching from him in the future, but we'll have to see what happens with his arm.

Odrisamer Despaigne got even less fanfare than Elias did. The Padres signed the 27-year-old Cuban in early May for $1,000,000, a price which was regarded as excessive by some clubs given a fastball that is usually around 90. He made seven tuneup starts in the minors then entered the Padres rotation in June. He made 16 starts for San Diego with solidly decent results, posting a 3.36 ERA in 96 innings, 65/32 K/BB, 3.74 FIP, 0.7 WAR, ERA+ 100.

Like Elias, Despaigne doesn't burn radar guns and tops out around 94, but he has a wide assortment of secondary pitches from which to choose including a change-up, a slider, and a slow breaking pitch as low as 62 MPH.

In comparison, Elias gets more strikeouts, but also gives up more walks; Despaigne doesn't generate as many whiffs as Elias, but has better control and gets more grounders.

Although their styles are a bit different, the overall results were very similar in terms of value, with ERAs around league-average and extremely close xFIP marks (3.95 for Elias vs. 4.01 for Despaigne). Elias generated 1.4 WAR in 164 innings, Despaigne 0.7 in 96 innings, which pro-rated comes out to 1.2 WAR if he'd pitched as many innings as Elias.

Overall, I don't think either guy is a fluke: both are capable of being league-average starting pitchers, eating innings and filling a fourth or fifth spot in a rotation for most teams. The main glitch at this point is Elias' elbow trouble.