From Cuba to Canada: Yariel Rodríguez’s Journey to MLB

The WBC put him on our radar, but his journey started long before 2023.

After 6 long years, the international baseball world could not wait for the World Baseball Classic to start last March. The first matchup, the Kingdom of the Netherlands vs Cuba, was full of major league talent and recognizable names: Xander Bogaerts, Luis Robert Jr., Yoán Moncada, Jurickson Profar, etc. These were the names expected to take the spotlight in the tournament’s opening game. And yet, as many fans tuned in, it was Cuba’s starting pitcher, virtually unknown to MLB fans, who stole the show and made batters look silly, striking out six in four innings.

Yariel Rodríguez is a 26-year-old right-handed pitcher from Camagüey, Cuba, and two weeks ago he agreed to terms with the Toronto Blue Jays. But just like every other Cuban-born player who pursues their MLB aspirations, his story is incredibly unique. How did he get from Cuba to Canada? It took a few stops all around the world. Let’s dive in.


Camagüey, Cuba


At just 18 years old, he made his Cuban National Series debut in 2015 with his hometown team Toros de Camagüey, and hit the ground running with a 2.35 ERA and 1.25 WHIP over 38.1 innings pitched over the full season. As he developed and stretched out as a starter over the next few years, he produced a 3.30 ERA over 464.1 innings pitched with 357 strikeouts, from 2015 to 2019. His fastball velocity gradually rose over that time, initially sitting in the high 80s but working its way up to the low 90s. The only big knock on him was his high walk rate, putting 4.6 men on base per nine innings. His stuff was undeniable. In fact, check out Rodríguez on the Cuban National Team striking out college baseball star (and future Chicago White Sox first baseman) Andrew Vaughn on the US Collegiate National Team in 2018:

Following the 2019 season, the 22-year-old was widely regarded as one of the top young pitching prospects in Cuba. In Japan, multiple NPB (widely regarded as the 2nd-best major professional baseball league after MLB) teams showed interest, but one organization in particular took notice.


Nagoya, Japan


In December 2019, NPB’s Chunichi Dragons swept in and signed Rodríguez for roughly $137,000. Chunichi’s scouting department had been very committed to their Cuban pipeline, and already had two Cuban players on their big league roster (Ariel Martinez and Raidel Martinez) at the time they signed the 23-year-old. It only took Rodríguez 17.2 IP (0.51 ERA, 16 K) in Chunichi’s farm system to earn his call-up and make his debut with the top team in 2020.

He absolutely shined in his NPB debut, throwing 5.1 no-hit innings with eight strikeouts before giving up two earned runs in the 7th inning, averaging 93 mph on the fastball and touching 96 mph. The rest of his 2020 was up and down as expected for a young foreign pitcher adjusting to a new league, a new culture, and a new life. He showed plenty of talent but lacked the consistency and control to be a high-end closer in the league.

His first full NPB season in 2021 was a step in the right direction for Rodríguez in terms of run prevention, reducing his ERA by almost half a run (4.12 in 2020 to 3.65). But again, he struggled with his control…rather, seemingly got worse. Over 11 starts and one relief appearance, he walked a whopping 38 batters in only 61.2 IP, a career-high mark of 5.5 walks per nine. Ever since his time in Cuba, his stuff was never in question. He simply walked too many batters, preventing him from going deep into games.

That offseason, Chunichi decided to spice things up.


From Starter to Reliever


Rodríguez wasn’t a liability in Chunichi’s rotation, but they wanted more from their prized Cuban arm. So they decided to convert him to a high-leverage bullpen piece, that way his upper 90s fastball and ELITE slider could excel.

And excel they did.

In 2022, Rodríguez transformed into one of the best relief pitchers in all of Japan. He produced a minuscule 1.15 ERA with 60 strikeouts and 11 walks through 54.2 innings pitched. His 0.91 WHIP was a career low. Strikeouts went up, walks went down, and velocity was a career-high, averaging 96 mph and finally topping out at 100 mph. He added a nifty upper-80s splitter to his pitch mix which, while it wasn’t his primary secondary pitch, helped keep hitters guessing more often. Chunichi now had a terrifying 8th and 9th inning Cuban combo in Yariel Rodríguez and one of the best closers in the NPB, Raidel Martinez.

Even with his career year, he had yet to become a household name for baseball fans in the West. But that spotlight was coming only a few months later.

While Cuban players historically have not been allowed to sign with MLB clubs without defecting, the Cuban Baseball Federation allows them to sign with NPB clubs and freely travel to and from home. In exchange, players agree to play for the Cuban National Team in international competitions and pay a considerable portion of their salary to the Cuban federation. Because of this, Rodríguez has competed in tournaments with the Cuban National Team many times over the last few years, but none larger than the 2023 World Baseball Classic.


2023 WBC (Taichung, Tokyo, Miami)


As WBC roster news began to trickle in for Team Cuba, rumors were swirling about Rodríguez potentially being converted back into a starter for the tournament. The Cuban roster had a stout bullpen, led by NPB stars Raidel Martinez and Livan Moinelo, but the starting rotation was considerably lacking compared to other participating countries. While his numbers weren’t as good as a starter, Rodríguez did have the experience. So the national team decided to use him as their ace for the tournament.

In the tournament’s opening game, Rodríguez took the world spotlight throwing six strikeouts and allowing one earned run over four innings. He generated 15 whiffs and topped out at 98.4 mph against the Dutch lineup. But the pitch that really captivated fans and scouts was his sweeper. The low-to-mid 80s pitch was up to 3000 RPMs and generated nine of his 15 whiffs against MLB hitters, namely Jurickson Profar, Didi Gregorius, and Joshua Palacios.

While he did run into a bit more trouble in his second and final start of the WBC vs Australia, he finished the tournament with 10 strikeouts and two earned runs over 7.1 total innings pitched. However, his main issue flared up again in this small sample size: across those two starts, he walked six batters.

Despite his second WBC start, the baseball world was already infatuated with his fastball/sweeper mix, and excited to see what he had in store for the 2023 season with Chunichi. Would they continue to use him as an elite setup man? Would they give him another opportunity to start with his new and improved arsenal? could he cement himself as one of the best relief pitchers in Japan?


Dominican Republic


Well, we’ll never know. On March 28, 10 days after Cuba’s last game in the WBC, Francys Romero reported that Yariel had broken his contract with the Chunichi Dragons and defected from Cuba to pursue his dream of playing in Major League Baseball.

He had left Japan and arrived in the Dominican Republic, where he would establish permanent residency in hopes that he would be granted free agency by MLB. This process was pretty messy, however. When a player devices to defect and “leave” their NPB contract, the contract doesn’t just disappear. The player is still legally bound to their agreement with the organization. Since Rodríguez left with two years still on his contract with Chunichi, the team placed him on their restricted list, preventing him from signing with another professional team while still under contract.

Rodríguez sat out the entire 2023 season and spent the year training in the DR. Six months later, following the NPB season, Chunichi decided to grant him release from his contract a year early, allowing him to apply for free agency with MLB.

Less than a month later (November 2023), MLB officially declared him a free agent, and the bidding wars began. Rodríguez threw multiple showcases for MLB scouts, yet again displaying his elite fastball/sweeper combo with high velocity and elite spin rates, while also showing his improved splitter and curve. As many as 15 teams were reportedly seriously pursuing Rodríguez and showed up to watch his showcases in the DR.


Toronto, Canada: Major League Baseball


And finally, on January 17, Yariel Rodríguez reportedly agreed to terms with the Toronto Blue Jays for four years and $32 million. All that is left to make it official is for him to obtain his visa for Canada and the USA, and to pass his physicals. Then he will become the first Cuban-born pitcher in Toronto Blue Jays history.

In my opinion? That is quite a bargain. Rodríguez wants to be a starter and has made it known throughout his free agency. Of course, it will take time to build him back up to a full workload after sitting out all of 2023. And many analysts believe he is best suited for the bullpen, or in a swingman role. But MLB’s Blue Jays beat writer Keegan Matheson is confident that Toronto’s plan is to prepare him to become a full-time starter by 2025. In the meantime, he should be used in a hybrid role, filling bullpen/rotation needs as they come. And I think that is the perfect situation for the Cuban pitcher. He will get the opportunity to try and start, and if he succeeds, $32 million could be a STEAL. If he remains in the bullpen, he should thrive in high-leverage situations. He’s done it before!

That is Yariel’s story, From Cuba to Japan, to the WBC, and now Canada. No matter when along his journey you learned his name, I can’t wait for us to see what this next step, his rookie season in MLB, has in store for fans!


One last note on MLB’s newest Cuban pitcher: his nickname in Spanish is Muñeco.

Translation? “Doll.”

Why? It is not meant in a cute, endearing way (on the contrary, I have rarely seen him smile. He ALWAYS stays locked in).

No. It’s because he supposedly looks like Chucky. hitters shiver in fear


Photo from Wikimedia Commons | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Shawn Spradling

Shawn Spradling is an International Baseball writer and content creator who specializes in World Baseball Classic coverage. His content looks at baseball through an international lens, and he loves to bring exposure to the growth and culture of the sport all across the globe. He is from Austin, TX, but is currently living in Dallas. He loves to travel, meet people and try food from different countries. Outside of baseball, he is an all-around sports fan who loves football, soccer, and F1. He loves music, Marvel movies, and is a big foodie.

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