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Cuban Players Are Powering The White Sox



The Chicago White Sox haven’t had a winning season since 2012 — and it’s been even longer since they were truly relevant. The last postseason series the South Siders won came in the 2005 World Series, when they beat the Houston Astros for their first championship since 1917. As a general rule, the Pale Hose are practically never among the most electrifying teams in baseball.

This year, however, is different. After a slightly rocky start to the season, the ChiSox have won nine of their last 12 games — including two of three against the crosstown rival Cubs over the weekend — raising their playoff chances to 94 percent according to the FiveThirtyEight prediction model. And they’re doing it with a very particular source of production: a record-breaking ensemble of Cuban-born stars.

On Aug. 1, the White Sox became the first team in MLB history to have an all-Cuban top four in their lineup when they started their contest against the Kansas City Royals off with center fielder Luis Robert, third baseman Yoán Moncada, first baseman José Abreu and catcher Yasmani Grandal hitting in order. (The quartet went 11-for-22 with 17 total bases in the game.) That group also dominated for the Sox against the Cubs this weekend, with 10 total home runs and 16 runs batted in.

Chicago has plenty of American-born talent on hand, of course, led most notably by shortstop Tim Anderson, who has an 1.063 on-base plus slugging with 1.3 wins above replacementour JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data every day this season.

“>1 already this season. It also has a wealth of Latin American talent from outside Cuba, headlined by Dominican left fielder Eloy Jiménez (0.7 WAR). But even so, it’s true that the White Sox would not be winning anywhere near as much — or be anywhere near as exciting to watch — without Robert, Moncada, Abreu and Grandal leading the way.

It’s early still, but no team has ever gotten as much from its Cuban players as those four are tracking to give Chicago in 2020. Together, the quartet has already generated 3.61 WAR in 29 games, which would work out to 20.2 WAR over a full, 162-game season. Going into this season, the MLB record for WAR (per 162 games) by Cuban players on one team was 14.6, by Zoilo Versalles, Tony Oliva, Camilo Pascual and Sandy Valdespino of the 1965 Minnesota Twins. That club came within a game of winning the World Series with a core of Latin American players signed by scout Joe Cambria while the team was still the Washington Senators, who also show up high on the list in 1959:

Latin-Born Players Cuban-Born Players
Season Team WAR* Share of Tm WAR* Share of Tm
2020 White Sox 26.9 45.9% 20.2 30.7%
1965 Twins 14.6 31.5 14.6 31.5
1968 Indians 16.3 39.1 13.8 32.7
1964 Twins 12.5 27.7 12.6 27.7
1959 Senators 11.2 38.4 11.2 38.4
1970 Twins 16.5 33.4 10.9 22.2
1954 White Sox 16.3 32.6 10.7 21.4
1969 Twins 19.6 36.4 9.9 18.5
1923 Reds 9.4 21.3 9.4 21.3
1962 Twins 10.7 24.9 9.1 21.0
1963 Twins 9.4 18.4 9.1 17.9
1963 Phillies 9.2 21.6 8.8 20.7
2019 Astros 21.1 32.1 8.4 12.6
1970 Athletics 10.0 22.9 8.1 18.1
1967 Indians 9.0 29.8 7.9 23.7

*Per 162 team games.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

The 1968 Cleveland Indians, who rank third on the list above, also deserve mention for the stellar trio of starter Luis Tiant, center fielder José Cardenal and catcher Joe Azcue. (Tiant in particular had an incredible season that year, leading the American League with a 1.60 ERA.) But it’s also no coincidence that the majority of teams on the list are concentrated in a very tight range of seasons. Aside from the Senators, most teams had not considered Latin America as a serious source of talent — to their great detriment — until the 1950s. (Cincinnati Reds pitcher Dolf Luque stood out in the 1920s,2 but he was very much the exception.) What followed was an era of Latino stars who rose to become some of the best in baseball, led by the likes of Tiant, Pascual, Versalles, Puerto Rico’s Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal of the Dominican Republic and Tony Pérez of Cuba. Chicago even had its own Cuban superstar in Minnie Miñoso, who starred for the Sox in four different decades.

Unfortunately, MLB’s Cuban heyday came to an end around when the United States began an embargo against the country in 1960, forcing countless subsequent stars into a terrible choice between defecting (which can be a dangerous act for numerous reasons) and giving up their major-league dreams to play for far less than their worth on government-owned teams. It’s no coincidence that, as the generation of players who began their careers in the 1950s — and starred through the 1970s — retired, there was a huge dropoff in Cuban production at the MLB level:

That trend reversed some in the late 1980s and into the ’90s, as José Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro emerged as perennial All-Stars — though both grew up in Miami after their parents left Fidel Castro’s Cuba for the U.S. An arguably greater watershed moment came with pitcher Liván Hernández’s midnight defection in 1995, aided by scout Joe Cubas. Hernández dominated the 1997 postseason, earning World Series MVP honors with the Florida Marlins, and his brother Orlando made a harrowing journey to America by boat several months later. Along with countryman José Contreras, the Hernández brothers starred for six World Series champions from 1997 through 2005, powering a Cuban revival in the 21st century.

That renaissance continued with the emergence of such talented Cuban hitters as Yunel Escobar, Kendrys Morales, Alexei Ramírez, Leonys Martín, Yoenis Céspedes and Yasiel Puig, to go with a new generation of fireballing pitchers headlined by Aroldis Chapman and José Fernández. The same era also helped produce Robert, Moncada, Abreu and Grandal — all building blocks behind the White Sox’s impressive 2020 season.

Abreu landed in Chicago first, signing as an international free agent in 2013 and winning Rookie of the Year honors in his debut season the following year. He has generated 21.0 WAR in his career, or 3.0 per season — fourth most of any Cuban player ever, behind Fernández, Palmeiro and Tiant — with a career OPS 36 percent better than league average. So far this year, he’s been the South Siders’ best player with 11 home runs and 1.6 WAR.

Then came Moncada, who was acquired from the Boston Red Sox in 2016 as part of the Chris Sale trade — which cost Chicago an all-time pitcher but gained them one of the best young infielders in all of baseball. Since the start of 2019, only four third basemen — Alex Bregman, Anthony Rendon, Matt Chapman and Nolan Arenado — have more WAR than Moncada’s 6.0 mark, and Moncada (who turned 25 in May) is younger than any of them.

Robert arrived next, after defecting in the winter of 2016-17. Although he hasn’t been quite as good as Abreu, he might be the most exciting player in Chicago — if not the entire major leagues — in 2020 so far:

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Though he strikes out a ton (in 36 percent of plate appearances, to be exact), Robert hits the ball hard, runs very fast and has been one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball this year. Robert may be a rookie, but the second-best prospect in all of baseball going into the season3 hasn’t really needed much of an adjustment period before excelling against MLB competition.

The final piece, Grandal, was added as a free agent last fall after enjoying a solid 2019 season (3.8 WAR) with the Milwaukee Brewers. After coming to America as a child under a special Cuban immigration lottery, Grandal lived and went to college in Miami before being taken with the 12th overall pick in the 2010 draft. Including 2020, he’s been the second-best catcher in baseball by WAR (behind Buster Posey) since first becoming a regular in 2014.

Together, the White Sox’s Cuban connection has been the primary force behind the team’s long-awaited breakout season. They have hit 26 combined home runs with an .863 OPS and 206 total bases. They’ve also produced a little less than one-third of the team’s WAR, with Abreu and Robert in particular ranking as two of the team’s three best players (sandwiched around Anderson). No other team in baseball history has showcased Cuban talent so front and center, and there will likely be more where that came from as the season goes on.

The White Sox’s success is also another milestone in the evolution of MLB’s Cuban players, whose contributions have grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade. Back in 2016, it looked like the influx of players from Cuba would increase even more dramatically after then-President Barack Obama loosened the U.S.’s embargo on the country. A couple of years later, MLB had even agreed with the Cuban government to streamline the path for players to play in America. That agreement was scuttled, however, when the Trump administration declared it illegal last year. But even if the relationship between countries remains fraught, Cuba’s baseball talent can’t be denied — and there’s no greater proof of that than the turnaround transpiring in Chicago this summer.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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