Introducing Roenis Elias, MLB's Under-the-Radar Cuban Star

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJune 26, 2014

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Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, Roenis Elias.

If you think the last name on that list doesn't belong, you haven't been paying attention.

Cuban MLB players are almost always greeted with media attention and a hefty dose of hype; if they live up to the hype—as Cespedes, Puig and Abreu have—they quickly become household names.

Not so for Elias, who, despite winning a spot in the Seattle Mariners rotation this spring and emerging as one of the more promising young left-handers in the game, has flown mostly under the radar.

On June 1, he threw nine scoreless frames against the hard-hitting Detroit Tigers, allowing just three hits, striking out eight and becoming the first Mariners rookie since Freddy Garcia in 1999 to toss a shutout.

The Mariners have won four of Elias' last five outings. Overall, the 25-year-old southpaw is 7-4 with a 3.74 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 98.2 innings.

“His stuff is as good as any lefty in the league,” Seattle skipper Lloyd McClendon told The Seattle Times after Elias blanked Detroit. “He’s got quality, quality stuff. If he throws strikes, he’s usually going to be around late in the ballgame.” 

When Elias made his pro debut in 2011 with little fanfare, he relied on a mid-90s fastball and a big, bat-missing curve. This season he's added a changeup, mimicking the grip used by teammate Felix Hernandez. Not a bad guy to emulate.

Elias has also started to control all his pitches, something he struggled with early on.

After getting shelled by the New York Yankees on June 12, he switched up his between-starts routine, throwing off flat ground instead of a mound.

In his next start against the San Diego Padres, he lasted seven strong innings, surrendering three hits and one run. "The pitching coach told me if you keep the ball down, you're going to be unhittable," Elias said through an interpreter after the game, per

"He tells me all the time, 'I want to pitch. I want to stay in there,'" McClendon said in the same Seattle Times piece. "I said, 'Well, then, pitch better.'"

Challenge answered.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Like most Cubans who make their way to the majors, Elias has a compelling backstory. He left Cuba in 2010, climbing aboard a boat in the dead of night with a group of fellow defectors and telling only his mother about his plans.

He spent some 30 hours adrift on the Atlantic Ocean, not knowing whether he'd ever reach the United States.

"Once I got on the boat, it was just like do or die," Elias told the Victorville Daily Press in 2012 while pitching for the Mariners' A-ball affiliate. "I didn't really have time for fear. It was either get caught and go to prison or we get there."

Elias got there and ultimately signed with Seattle. He shaved points off his ERA and upped his strikeout totals in each of his three minor league campaigns and entered spring training this year with an outside shot at making the big league roster.

Sounds like pressure, right? Not so much if you ask Elias, per the Daily Press:

Once you go through that experience in life, knowing that you're leaving and you're risking your life out in the ocean or you're risking getting caught and having to face whoever you have to face back home, once you go through that experience, this isn't pressure.

That fearlessness, a common denominator among Cuban players, is serving him well. In his gem against Detroit, he stared down the heart of the Tigers order, including reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera.

Ian Kinsler, Cabrera and Victor Martinez, the Tigers' three most dangerous hitters, went a combined 0-for-11 with two strikeouts. If Elias wasn't on their radar coming into the game, he is now.

Eventually, if he keeps it up, he'll be on everyone's radar. And the Mariners, currently lurking around the fringes of the playoff race at 42-37, could insert themselves into the picture.

Elias has already proved he belongs—in the big leagues, on a short list of young arms to watch and certainly in the same sentence as his more-hyped countrymen.