The Best Venezuelan Baseball Players

Of all the countries in South America, Venezuela has the richest baseball history by far. While the sport is enormously popular in Central America and the Caribbean, its popularity hasn’t fully spilled over to the big continent down south, except for its northern reaches. Venezuela has produced a litany of successful major leaguers, especially in more recent years. The country had a few star players in the mid-to-late 20th century, but it has become one of the major exporters of Major League talent since the turn of the millennium. Venezuela is primed to be a major contender at the World Baseball Classic next month, a sign of the country’s growing contributions to the game. This list of the best Venezuelan baseball players includes a couple of names on that roster. It also includes several other players very familiar to modern baseball fans.

The Best Venezuelan Players

Magglio Ordonez

Born: Caracas

Career WAR: 38.80

Our list of the best Venezuelan players kicks off with Magglio Ordonez. Spending his entire 15-year career in the AL Central, Ordonez made his debut in 1997 for the Chicago White Sox. He saw limited action that year, but the following year he finished fifth in AL Rookie of the Year voting. During his time on the South Side, Ordonez made four All-Star teams, including three straight appearances from 1999 to 2001. This was part of a four-year stretch (also 2002) in which he drove in over 100 runs every season.

In 2005, Ordonez signed with the Detroit Tigers as a free agent. His first season in the Motor City was hampered by injury, but he hit his stride again in 2006, helping the Tigers to the AL pennant. The 2007 season was the best of Ordonez’s career. He led the majors with a .363 average, led the AL in doubles with 54, and drove in a career-high 139 runs. He was the runner-up for AL MVP behind Alex Rodriguez. A three-time Silver Slugger winner as an outfielder, Ordonez hit .300 or better in all but four of his 15 seasons.

Dave Concepcion

Born: Ocumare de la Costa

WAR: 40.16

Dave Concepcion was one of the first Venezuelans to achieve stardom in the Major Leagues. He spent his whole career with the Cincinnati Reds, becoming a key cog in the Big Red Machine of the 1970s. A stalwart defensive shortstop, Concepcion won five Gold Gloves in a six-season span, including four straight from 1974-1977. He made up half of an elite double-play combo with Hall of Famer Joe Morgan. This was a vital ingredient of a stacked Reds squad that won back-to-back titles in 1975 and 1976. Concepcion was not much of a power hitter and had a career average of .267, but he did eclipse the .300 mark three times. He amassed 2,326 career hits, and the Reds retired his number 13 in 2007.

Carlos Zambrano

Born: Puerto Cabello

WAR: 43.87

Next up on the list is Carlos Zambrano. “Big Z” spent all but one of his 12 major league seasons with the Chicago Cubs, becoming their ace by the mid-2000s. In 2006, he led the NL in wins with 16, becoming the first Venezuelan pitcher to do so. Zambrano was also the only NL pitcher to win 13 or more games every year from 2003 to 2008. In September of 2008, he threw a no-hitter against the Houston Astros in Milwaukee. It was the first neutral site no-hitter in history, as the game was relocated from Houston due to Hurricane Ike.

Zambrano is remembered as one of the better-hitting pitchers of his day. A switch hitter, he had a .238 career average and hit 24 homers, hitting at least one in 10 different seasons. He slugged a career-high six homers in 2006. Zambrano’s capability at the plate garnered him three Silver Sluggers.

Omar Vizquel

Born: Caracas

WAR: 45.58

One of the greatest defensive shortstops of all time, Omar Vizquel won 11 Gold Gloves over a 24-year career. Starting out with the Seattle Mariners, he won his first Gold Glove in his fifth and final year there in 1993. It would be the first of his nine consecutive years winning the award, the next eight all with the then-Cleveland Indians. Vizquel would add two more Gold Gloves with the San Francisco Giants. He had very little power at the plate, with only 80 career homers, but he was a solid contact hitter who compiled 2,877 hits, good for second all-time among Venezuelan players.

Aside from his defensive ability, Vizquel also stood out for his longevity. He is the only shortstop in MLB history to appear in four different decades and is the all-time leader in games played at the position. He was the last active player across the four major American sports who played in the 1980s.

Jose Altuve

Born: Puerto Cabello

WAR: 46.49

We now move to the first active player on the countdown, Jose Altuve, who is set to play for Team Venezuela in next month’s WBC. Altuve has stood out for his offensive ability since debuting with the Astros in 2011. Despite his short stature of 5’6″, Altuve is a versatile hitter who provides both contact and power. A three-time AL batting champ, he led the league in hits for four consecutive years from 2014 to 2017. His .346 average and .957 OPS in 2017 helped him take home AL MVP honors to go with Houston’s eventual World Series win. Altuve also led the AL in steals twice (2014, 2015) before turning his focus to hitting. He is an eight-time All-Star and two-time World Series champ.

Felix Hernandez

Born: Valencia

WAR: 49.69

Arguably the most dominant Venezuelan pitcher in major league history, Felix Hernandez was highly touted from a very young age, and for good reason. After his talent was discovered by major league scouts at age 14, Hernandez made his debut with the Mariners in 2005 at age 19. Given the moniker “King Felix” right at the start, he went on to earn that title and then some over the next 15 years. In 2009, Hernandez made his first All-Star Game while leading the AL in wins with 19. The following year, he won the Cy Young Award thanks to a league-leading 2.27 ERA.

Hernandez regularly dominated on the mound when healthy, amassing over 200 strikeouts every year from 2009 to 2014. His WHIP hovered right around 1.000 in most seasons, and he posted a career-best of 0.915 in 2014, which led the AL. Along with his Cy Young win, Hernandez finished in the top 10 in voting five other times. He is the most recent pitcher to toss a perfect game, doing so in 2012 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Hernandez holds the Mariners franchise records for career wins (169) and strikeouts (2,524).

Johan Santana

Born: Tovar

WAR: 51.68

The last pitcher on our list of best Venezuelan players is Johan Santana, one of the best southpaws of the last quarter-century. Santana was the ace of the Minnesota Twins in the mid-2000s, and from 2004 to 2006 was easily the best pitcher in the American League. In all three years, he led the league in strikeouts, ERA+, FIP, and WHIP, bookending this run with two Cy Young Awards. He also led the AL in ERA three separate times.

The Twins traded Santana to the New York Mets prior to the 2008 season. He thrived in Flushing while he was healthy, nearly carrying the Mets to the postseason in 2008. He threw the first no-hitter in Mets history in 2012 (although a would-be Carlos Beltran double was incorrectly ruled foul in that game). Unfortunately, Santana was not the same pitcher after the no-hitter that year, and a shoulder injury effectively ended his career at age 33. Had it not been for injuries, Santana likely would have continued on a Hall of Fame trajectory.

Luis Aparicio

Born: Maracaibo

WAR: 55.85

We now come to the only Hall of Famer (so far) on our list of the best Venezuelan players in MLB history. Luis Aparicio blazed the trail for Venezuelans in the major leagues, becoming the country’s first star player. Aparicio’s hallmarks were speed and defense. Starting out with the White Sox in 1956, he took home AL Rookie of the Year that season. A nine-time Gold Glover, he formed a dynamite double-play combo with second baseman Nellie Fox. Aparicio was a key contributor to the “Go-Go” White Sox that won the 1959 AL pennant. Later going to the Baltimore Orioles, he led the AL in steals for the first nine seasons of his career, including four seasons of over 50 steals.

After a second stint in Chicago, Aparicio ended his career with the Boston Red Sox, retiring in 1973. At the time of his retirement, he was the all-time leader among shortstops in hits and total bases, marks that have since been surpassed. Aparicio was inducted into Cooperstown in 1984.

Bobby Abreu

Born: Maracay

WAR: 60.17

One of the more underrated hitters of his generation, Bobby Abreu could do it all at the plate. He started out with the Astros in 1996, but his career didn’t take off until joining the Philadelphia Phillies in 1998. Abreu first established himself as a contact hitter, batting over .300 six times while in Philly. He led the NL in triples in 1999 (11) and doubles in 2002 (50). Later in his career, his power increased, twice eclipsing 30 homers in a season and putting on a then-record-setting performance at the 2005 Home Run Derby.

After his trade to the New York Yankees in 2006, Abreu maintained his ability to hit for average and power, becoming a key contributor to their offense. This continued in his first year with the Los Angeles Angels in 2009 before his numbers gradually tapered off. Abreu is a two-time member of the 30-30 club, one of only 13 players to achieve the milestone twice.

Miguel Cabrera

Born: Maracay

WAR: 67.74

Topping our list of the best Venezuelan baseball players is one of the best hitters of his generation and a certain future Hall of Famer, Miguel Cabrera. Miggy helped the then-Florida Marlins to their second World Series title in his rookie year of 2003. In the next four years, he established himself as an All-Star caliber hitter, driving in over 100 runs in all four seasons.

Prior to the 2008 season, Cabrera was traded to the Tigers, remaining with them ever since. It was in Detroit that he achieved superstardom, continuing to hit for high averages and running up RBI totals. He had 11 consecutive seasons (2004-2014) where he had 100 or more RBI. Cabrera is a four-time AL batting champ, including three straight titles from 2011-2013. In 2012, he won the AL Triple Crown, becoming the first player in 45 years to do so. The following year, he nearly did it again on his way to a second straight AL MVP award.

The 12-time All-Star joined the 500 home run club in 2021 and the 3,000-hit club in 2022, becoming the first player from Venezuela to reach each milestone. He is one of three players, along with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, to have 500 homers, 3,000 hits, and a career average of .300 or better; certainly not bad company to keep. The 2023 season will be Cabrera’s last. Representing his country in the WBC will contribute to a fitting end to a brilliant career. Of the 462 Venezuelan players in major league history, none have been better than Miguel Cabrera.

Main photo credits:

Reinhold Matay-USA Today Sports

Players mentioned:

Magglio Ordonez, Alex Rodriguez, Dave Concepcion, Joe Morgan, Carlos Zambrano, Omar Vizquel, Jose Altuve, Felix Hernandez, Johan Santana, Carlos Beltran, Luis Aparicio, Nellie Fox, Bobby Abreu, Miguel Cabrera, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays