Cuba’s WBC Roster Will Remain Potent With Several New Faces
by Peter C. Bjarkman
January 12, 2009
Special for www.baseballdecuba.com
One thing, if nothing else, is quite certain about the Team Cuba roster for the upcoming second edition of MLB’s showcase World Baseball Classic. This latest edition of the vaunted “Red Machine” will most certainly feature a heavy dose of new and less-than-familiar faces, deftly mixed in with the old standbys more familiar to followers of international baseball. Pedro Lazo should once again be trekking out of the bullpen to challenge big leaguers with tense late-inning games on the line, and veteran receiver Ariel Pestano will more than likely be yet again handling the talented Cuban mound corps from behind the plate. Much coveted Yulieski Gourriel—the most highly touted “unknown” in the Cuban arsenal during the inaugural “Clasico”—has seemingly locked up a repeat berth in the infield with the quickest offensive start of his career during current National Series #48 (he stands atop the league batting race at .404). But a contingent of entirely new sluggers—some already introduced to the outside world last summer in Beijing—will also be on the scene, and the revamped Cuba outfield, in particular, will likely look nothing like the one seen in San Juan and San Diego three years back. Alfredo Despaigne, Alexei Bell and Giorvis Duvergel have now inherited the mantle from Urrutia, Tabares and Cepeda, and the result should be a good deal more power and speed that the big leaguers saw from the runner-up Cubans the last time around.
Much has changed in the Cuban League since the previous Clasico—there have even been noteworthy developments in the five months since last summer’s Olympic shootout in Beijing—yet none of the shifts in personnel on the island home front would suggest any weakening in the national team arsenal. Despite the constant drum roll of predictions three years back that half the Cuban roster would flee in San Juan or San Diego for the promise of big league lucre, none of that has happened. From Cuba’s inaugural WBC roster, only utility outfielder-infielder Alexei Ramírez and showcase hurler Yadel Martí have abandoned the island, and the impact of neither “loss” has been very substantial. Ramírez had already forfeited his national team second base slot to Héctor Olivera in mid-2007, before his break for the Dominican Republic that would eventually lead him to the White Sox and a sensational American League “rookie” season. Martí was anything but impressive with Industriales during each of the past two National Series seasons, suffering dramatic breakdowns both years in the league playoffs. And if long-time team captain Eduardo Paret, early-2000s batting phenom Osmani Urrutia, and dependable slugger Freddie Cepeda have all lost a bit of luster during league play in recent months, it is also true that Cuba still continues to clone budding superstars at a far great rate than it loses them. Big league scouts on the Olympic scene in August were duly impressed with the consistent pounding of the ball by previously uncelebrated outfielders Bell and Despaigne, as well as by the overall physical talents of flexible utility replacement Héctor Olivera. Cuban baseball continues to renew and refresh itself as rapidly as the indomitable spirit of the island’s eleven million inhabitants themselves.
Biggest new headliners on the Cuban League scene are Bell and Despaigne, the former enjoying the greatest individual slugging season in league annals last winter as Cuba’s first 30-homer-and -100-RBI man (he also posted a .722 slugging mark), while Despaigne (pronounce Des-Spain) smacked 24 round trippers and finished seventh in the batting race (.at .364, while also tying teammate Yoennis Céspedes for third in the RBI race). Céspedes (Despaigne’s outfield sidekick in Granma) himself whacked 26 homers last year and was one of only four Cuban Leaguers with 200-plus total bases, and yet Céspedes could not crack last summer’s overloaded Olympic roster. Long-time national team third sacker Michel Enríquez (a docile quiet in the 2006 WBC, and yet owner of the third-best career BA in Cuban history, behind Urrutia and Omar Linares) has survived a year-long disciplinary suspension (mid-2007 through mid-2008) and returned with a vengeance during the Beijing Olympics. Pedro Lazo—a starter back home but the bullpen ace of the national team—has continued to remain on top of his game and is now the winningest hurler in league annals with 240 victories and counting. Cepeda is still a mainstay in the outfield in Sancti Spíritus and if he rarely stands atop the leader boards for league offensive stats, he nonetheless remains Cuba’s “Mr. Clutch” in big pressure international games, as demonstrated again last summer in China.
Urrutia and Paret, along with 2008 batting champion Yoandy Garlobo, have admittedly faded from the national team scene despite their continued relative productivity; Urrutia was left off the Beijing squad, although he hit .364 last winter and is climbing back toward that mark again this season. Héctor Olivera—normally a second baseman with defending champion Santiago, but utilized at first base in Beijing, and also a potential fill-in at the other infield slots—would get this writer’s vote as the island’s all-around best and and most obvious superstar-in-waiting. Olivera batted .353 in National Series #47 while scoring 91 runs (second best behind teammate Bell). And the top Cuban league pitchers feature a host of new prospects—headed by Luis Miguel Rodríguez, Yunieski Maya, and southpaw flamethrower Aroldis Chapman—all lined up to inherit the mantle of past Olympic stalwarts like Contreras, Vera, Lazo and Yadel Martí.
So where do the Cubans stand regarding their potential WBC lineup, and what can international fans expect to see from the Cubans come early March? We won’t know officially, of course, until February 13, when the Cuban Baseball Federation announces its 28-man roster selections on the heels of this year’s All-Star Game weekend. Cuban national teams are usually in large part based on player performances during the current season’s action, though quite often slots on the squad are handed to proven performers on the international scene. A veteran like Urrutia, Cepeda or Paret is often given preference over a newcomer sensation (like Villa Clara outfielder Leonys Martin last winter) who might be burning up the National Series but is not yet trusted on the pressure-packed world tournament scene. But one thing is quite certain (despite the constant misinformation in the North American press on this issue). The Cuban Federation always picks what it believes to be the strongest roster possible; top players are never left at home on the island just because of someone’s fantasies that a certain star or two might opt to depart the squad once overseas. (The repeated North American press stories on the eve of WBC 2006 that Cuba had not fielded its best potential squad were utter nonsense, as the outcome in San Diego should have underscored.) There may be surprises and controversy surrounding this year’s WBC lineup, as there frequently is with all national team selections. But the debate will be based on baseball issues alone and never on what outsiders like to see as politics.
So let the pre-event game of speculation begin. My colleague Ray Otero and I have ventured out on a proverbial limb for readers of www.baseballdecuba.com with the first (and we believe most informed) predictions concerning a likely Team Cuba roster for the March Classic. Hopefully our selections will stir some debate back on the island, as well as raising some eyebrows among international followers of Cuban baseball. Most importantly, our articles will fill the current void of information regarding a likely Cuban WBC team. For a valuable supplement to my English-language analysis of the predicted lineup found in this article, our bilingual readers are also encouraged to examine Ray’s independent Spanish-language commentary also detailing our roster selections.
The roster itself is as follows. Our three catchers: Yosvany Peraza (Pinar del Río), Ariel Pestano* (Villa Clara) and Yenier Bello (Sancti Spíritus). The infield is comprised of: Yulieski Gourriel* (Sancti Spíritus), Héctor Olivera (Santiago de Cuba), Alex Malleta (Industriales), Michel Enríquez* (Isla de la Juventud), Yorelvis Charles (Ciego de Avila) and Luis Miguel Navas (Santiago de Cuba). The six outfielders comprising our lineup would be: Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba), Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), Frederich Cepeda* (Sancti Spíritus), Giorvis Duvergel (Guantánamo), Yoandry Urgellés (Industriales) and Yoelvis Fiss (Ciego de Avila). And finally we have settled on a 13-man pitching rotation comprised of the following hurlers: Pedro Luis Lazo* (Pinar del Río), Yunieski Maya* (Pinar del Río), Jonder Martínez* (Habana Province), Aroldis Chapman (Holguín), Miguel Lahera (Habana Province), Maikel Folich* (Ciego de Avila), Norberto González* (Cienfuegos), Yicyohandri Odelín* (Camagüey), Yulieski González* (Habana Province), Norge Luis Vera (Santiago de Cuba), Vladimir García (Ciego de Avila), Luis Miguel Rodríguez (Holguín) and Yadier Pedroso* (Habana Province).
Those paying close attention will note that this roster contains a dozen holdovers from the 2006 Classic (all marked with an asterisk), along with 16 newcomers. Returnees number one catcher (Pestano), two infielders (Gourriel and Enríquez), only one outfielder (Cepeda), and eight of the thirteen pitchers (Lazo, Maya, Martínez, Folich, Norberto and Yulieski González, Vicyohandri Odelín and Yadier Pedroso). Although we believe our selections are well-reasoned ones, we also acknowledge that there are always surprises in the final selections by the Cuban Federation brain trust. And this year the choices will prove especially difficult in light of the crowded outfield and the strong performances of several potential national team “rookies.” In order to hedge our bets somewhat here, we therefore also offer a half-dozen-plus (seven total) “outside possibilities” for roster spots. Any of these seven “extras” may be as easily chosen as the 28 selections tabbed above. Our extra picks include three outfielders—Osmani Urrutia* (Las Tunas), Yoennis Céspedes (Granma), Leslie Anderson* (Camagüey)—as well as catcher Rolando Meriño (Santiago de Cuba), infielder Eduardo Paret* (Villa Clara), and pitchers Ismel Jiménez Cruz (Sancti Spíritus) and Reinier Roibal (Santiago de Cuba). The last-minute inclusion of any among these serious contenders would be no real surprise to the authors of this website.
The Cuban Federation has already released a 45-man list of “eligibles” reported on this website on Friday. There are ten players from the Federation roster that we do not include in our discussions for a simple reason: we do not believe any will actually make the team. The ten excluded from our deliberations are catcher Eriel Sánchez* (Sancti Spíritus); infielders Yoandy Garlobo* (Matanzas), Yadil Mujica (Matanzas), Rudy Reyes* (Industriales), José Daniel Abreu (Cienfuegos), and Donald Duarte (Pinar del Río); outfielder Leonys Martin (Villa Clara); and pitchers Yaumier Sánchez (Santiago de Cuba), Yolexis Ulacia (Villa Clara), and Wilber Pérez (Isla de la Juventud).
Sánchez (Pestano’s backup for a half-dozen-plus years), Reyes (who can play second, third or short) and Garlobo (a first baseman) are all veterans of WBC 2006 and the latter (Garlobo) was last year’s league batting champ. All are still potent performers who will simply succumb to better competition. Garlobo’s bat is hardly a premium when so many other sluggers like Malleta, Olivera and Meriño (who can all play first) are much better fielders. Reyes’s value as a utility fill-in has been negated by the arrivals of Navas and Olivera. And it is hard to see Sánchez beating out Meriño or even his new teammate Bello. Mujica may well be the Paret replacement of the future, but at 24, and without a taste of international experience, his time has not yet arrived. Leonys Martin will again be eliminated, as he was on the eve of the Olympics, by the obvious surplus of good outfielders packing much more power. Among the three extra hurlers, Pérez likely has the best shot, but only if the first month of National Series #48 is given extra weight. He leads the league with a 0.93 ERA and owns an advantage of being a rare southpaw. But Yaumier Sánchez, Ulacia and Pérez all have yet to prove season-to-season consistency. None ranked in the league’s top 30 in ERA last season, and Yaumier posted a 4.94 ERA despite laboring with the league champions.
In the following paragraphs I break down our selections, play-by-player, and also provide some of my own personal reasoning regarding the speculative choices. While Ray and I have agreed on the 35 players to be named here, we often differ a bit in our individual ballplayer analyses, which is an argument for also reading Ray’s analysis alongside my own. Those of you wishing to debate any of our choices, we enthusiastically await your responses.
Two of the three slots here seem to be almost gold-plated certainties. It is hard to image Ariel Pestano not being there for one more go-around. If Pestano is not hitting much this season (.288 with 3 homers), he is never there for his bat alone, despite some clutch international slugging across the years (as noted below). Pestano has been handling the top Cuban pitchers almost every inning of the way in international matches for a full decade, and doing so with big-league tools and unrivaled proficiency. He is also a clubhouse leader and will be relied on for that role even more heavily if Eduardo Paret is no longer on the scene. And the Federation bosses will also not likely repeat the mistake made last summer when Yosvany Peraza was left on the sidelines for Beijing; Peraza is a solid receiver, but more importantly a devastating threat with the bat. Rolando Meriño will be again hard to overlook, especially given the fact that he is solid as both a DH and occasional first base emergency replacement. And Eriel Sánchez (who we are not choosing this time around) has long been a national team backup standby. If there is anyone not on our roster of 28-plus-seven who sneaks under the wire, my own bet is that it could be veteran backstop Eriel Sánchez (also a DH).
Ariel Pestano (Villa Clara) is the heart and soul of the Cuban national team and also one of the best clutch performers in Cuban Olympic history. For the better part of the past decade I have been telling anyone who might listen that if I could draft three position players from the Cuban League directly into starting roles in the majors those three would be Pestano, Paret and Cepeda. Pestano, even when nearing age 40, has all the tools of any big league backstop plus the heart and confidence of a seasoned gladiator. And if he is in the lineup mainly for his receiving skills, few Cuban stars have come up bigger offensively at just the right moments. There was the unforgettable mammoth homer into the fog in Haarlem that blew open the World Cup 2005 semifinals with Panama; there was last summer’s game-turning late-inning Beijing semifinals smash against team USA; and Pestano simply owned the 2004 Athens Olympics with an MVP performance that included the tournament lead in BA, hits, doubles and RBI. Often, as goes Ariel Pestano, so goes Team Cuba.
Yosvany Peraza (Pinar del Río) wields as hefty a bat as anyone on the island. Over the past two seasons he has stroked some of the longest tape-measure shots in Cuban League history. And unlike Kindelán or Linares, he is doing it with wooden bats. Peraza is also a rapidly improving defensive fixture behind the plate, and a potent force in the DH role; this is no free swinger either, but a disciplined batsman who hit .336 overall (with his 25 dingers and .672 slugging mark in only 342 plate appearances). Peraza has also drawn extra motivation from being left off last summer’s Beijing roster, and he has now marshaled that disappointment into another fast start this winter that includes to date seven long balls, 20 RBI, and a .352 hitting mark. If Peraza isn’t the team’s starting receiver he probably should be the frontline DH, or at worst the first bat off the bench in crucial late-game pinch-hitting scenarios.
Yenier Bello (Sancti Spíritus) has been given the chance to play after returning to Sancti Spíritus from Camagüey for National Series #48 and has so far made the best of his opportunity. Alternating at DH and catcher with long-time national team substitute receive Eriel Sánchez, Bello has put up big numbers since the first week of the campaign. He is currently batting .313 and matching Meriño (probably his top rival for the reserve catcher post) atop the home run leader board with ten. While Yenier Bello looses out to both Eriel Sánchez and Meriño in big-game world tournament experience, he makes up for it in youth and physical explosiveness. This could be 2009’s biggest surprise national team rookie. In the end Bello may lose out here simply because Pestano and Sánchez are far more experienced, Peraza is even stronger, and Meriño is much more versatile.
Rolando Meriño (Santiago de Cuba) is perhaps the most remarkable story in Cuban baseball over the past two seasons. Despite advancing age (matching Pestano at 38 years and 18 seasons in the National Series) Meriño continues to whale away as one of the most potent bats on the hit-heavy roster of the two-time defending champions. This winter he is hitting a hefty .366, slugging at a astronomical .723 clip, and has recently taken over the home run race. Last season his .361 BA (eleventh in the circuit) and his .579 slugging average were only preludes to an MVP post-season performance. Meriño nosed out Peraza for the final Beijing roster spot as number three receiver but was rarely used (four hitless pinch-batting appearances) once the Asian games began; he won’t likely surpass Peraza this time around. But he could easily sneak by less-experienced Yenier Bello or the veteran Eriel Sánchez.
Is it possible that Eduardo Paret will not return to his personal post as shortstop and captain of Team Cuba after a dozen-year reign? We tend to think so, but if we are wrong (“off base” so to speak) anywhere, it is likely to be here. On the whole, the Cuban infield is the easiest sector to predict. Enríquez and Gourriel will assuredly be there, with the only question being who will play where. Olivera is also a must, and will likely man several infield posts before the tournament is over. Malleta has been a disappointment in international events while batting in the cleanup slot, but the question remains who might be better than the big lefty slugger. Unless, of course, it is Olivera who ultimately mans first base; he has been shifted there by Santiago for the current National Series. Like the others in this flexible contingent, Luis Navas (equally at home at either short or second) and Yorelvis Charles (a third sacker who has manned first this year in Ciego de Avila) can seemingly play almost anywhere. Outside of the batting power of Enríquez and Gourriel, the biggest plus with the current Team Cuba infield is that it is as versatile as could possibly be imagined. Malleta is the only candidate limited to a single position in the defensive alignment or in the batting order, which might in the end be the ultimate factor that leaves the giant Industriales first sacker back at home on the sidelines.
Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus) was dubbed by this writer and numerous others on the eve of WBC I as perhaps “the best player in the world nobody ever heard of” and also selected by Baseball America as one of the top ten WBC prospects “outside the major leagues” (he ranked number three on the Baseball America listing). While Yulieski has remained solid the last several years, he has so far not taken that next big step to Cuban League superstardom, though his .400-plus batting pace so far in 2008-2009 suggests this might finally be his true breakout season. Gourriel owns significant bat speed and yet (and this is the downside) he is at the same time not a particularly disciplined hitter. MLB hurlers quickly found his weakness for outside breaking balls in the latter portions of WBC 2006. He nonetheless remains one of the biggest threats in the middle of an always-potent Cuban batting order. In the first 25 games this season he has banged out 7 homers and is hitting a robust .404 (locked in a first-place seesaw battle with Ciego de Avila’s Yoelvis Fiss). Two seasons back he was the league leader in two-base-hits, and he posted a very rare double a year earlier (2006) as the circuit pacesetter in both triples (11) and homers (27).
Michel Enríquez (Isla de la Juventud), one of only two league batting champions outside of Osmani Urrutia in the 2000s (the other being Yoandy Garlobo), also owns the third highest career batting mark on the island (.363 after 11 seasons). The stocky right-handed “hitting machine” is also a solid hot corner defender who has proven his mettle in numerous international venues. In fact, the only major international tournament in which Enríquez flopped to any extent was ironically the first WBC, in which he batted a measly .194 and booted several routine plays at third. But he has been a stellar performer in other top venues, walking off with the batting title at the 2003 Havana World Cup and also topping all hitters at the same event two years later in The Netherlands. After an ugly incident involving an assault on a league umpire in mid-season 2007, Enríquez sat on the sidelines for nearly a year back home, immediately after capturing his first batting crown in National Series #45 (2006). But after returning to his national team slot this past summer he rebounded strongly in Beijing, where he hit .286 overall (one homer and seven RBI) and smacked a crucial two-bagger in the historic extra-inning tie-breaker-rule rally versus Team USA, plus a game-tying seventh-inning homer in the gold medal loss to South Korea.
Héctor Olivera (Santiago de Cuba) emerged on the national team scene with the Cuba B squad at the Rotterdam World Port Tournament of August 2007. During that particular event several big league scouts told this reporter that Olivera was the most impressive prospect in the tournament field (which also included a young Alexei Bell, Alfredo Despaigne and tournament MVP Yosvany Peraza). Olivera subsequently replaced Alexei Ramírez at second base for the 2007 Taipei World Cup squad and did extra duty at first base last summer in the late stages of Olympic play. There is no player more versatile in the entire Cuban arsenal, since Olivera seems at home at any infield slot and obviously could also handle himself well chasing down fly balls in the outfield. And his National Series offensive numbers just seem to get better and better: a solid .353 hitter with last year’s league champs (and second in the league behind teammate Bell with 91 runs scored), Olivera has upped his mark a few points this winter (.356) and is among the pacesetters in base hits (42), RBIs (23) and runs scored (also 23) at the one-third mark of the current campaign.
Alex Malleta (Industriales) has posted big National Series numbers the last few go-rounds (he was the league’s sixth-best hitter a year ago at .365, with 17 HRs and 67 RBI); but over the past few years he has also failed time after time to come up as big as expected in international venues. A mid-tournament batting slump out of the important cleanup slot in Beijing (where he batted .167 overall and produced only a single homer and 4 RBI) caused manager Antonio Pacheco to replace the Industriales star at first base with Héctor Olivera during the medal round. Malleta can be awesome at the plate when he is hot, but he has so far not seemed to respond well under the pressures of the biggest tournament games. If either Pacheco or Higino Vélez return this March as national team manager, it is not unreasonable to speculate that Malleta may end up wasted on the bench as an occasional pinch hitter, or worst yet, back in Havana as a mere spectator.
Yorelvis Charles (Ciego de Avila) enjoyed a very brief “cup of coffee” with the national team at the 2003 World Cup in Havana’s Latin American Stadium, but he has largely been ignored since then, despite some impressive offensive numbers. He hit .355 in 2004, .324 in 2005, and .344 in 2006, before fading the past several winters. But in National Series #48 the converted third baseman (now playing first on a regular basis) has come back with a vengeance and is currently slugging the ball at a .360-plus clip and teaming with Isaac Martínez and Yoelvis Fiss as one of the league’s most potent one-two-three middle-order offensive punches. Charles may be a test case this time around for just how seriously the Cuban National Federation committee weighs current season status when drawing lots for its national team roster.
Luis Miguel Navas (Santiago de Cuba) was the valuable (if little used) utility infielder on the 2007 Pan American Games and World Cup squads and the 2008 Beijing Olympic team (where he delivered base hits in his only two opportunities at the plate). With the rapid fade of Eduardo Paret in Villa Clara this season, Navas may now be perfectly positioned to move into the coveted starting shortstop slot that Paret has owned for a dozen years. Navas is no offensive slouch for a valued glove man, stroking the ball at a .326 clip for champion Santiago in National Series #47 and even bashing seven homers. So far he is hitting an even .300 for the current campaign, but he now already more than makes up in international experience for what he might lack in National Series attention-grabbing star quality.
Eduardo Paret (Villa Clara) has been a fixture since he took over for suspended middle infield sensation Germán Mesa at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Like Villa Clara teammate Ariel Pestano behind the plate, Paret has been out there for just about every important inning of every Cuban international game played in the decade of the 2000s. The single exception was the medal round of the 2005 World Cup in Holland when a base running injury sent him to the sidelines; ironically it was in that same tournament that hefty pool play round hitting earned the team captain MVP honors. Paret was for years the ideal leadoff hitter and stroked a homer as the opening Cuban batter in the WBC gold medal game with Japan. But fading foot speed and the emergence of Duvergel has dropped him to the bottom of the order of late. Earlier this season, Paret (slowed by minor injury) was not even starting regularly for National Series frontrunner Villa Clara. But it may be still too early to count him out of the national team picture, his days are definitely numbered. Our notion is that Luis Miguel Navas will likely be manning shortstop when the club arrives in Mexico City, but it is admittedly a very shaky call on our part at best.
It is in the outfield that we are certain to see the biggest changes since 2006 and perhaps even some surprise departures from 2008 and the Beijing silver medal lineup. It is unquestionably also with the outfield alignment that the toughest choices have to be made, since it is likely here that the competition is the most crowded. The biggest outside challenges will come from Leonys Martin (who we are not betting on being ready yet) and Yoennis Céspedes (who we consider as a challenger but not a likely breakthrough), the former having lost the batting race by a fraction of a point last winter (also barely missing out on hitting .400), and the latter a year-long contender for the home run, RBI and total base crowns. The decision regarding Urrutia will again be as difficult and controversial as it was with last summer’s Olympic choices: can you leave the all-time league leader in batting average at home, especially after he proved he could slug big league pitchers during the 2006 Classic? And the strong seasons this year by both Leslie Anderson and Yoelvis Fiss (now deadlocked with Gourriel in a race for the hitting crown) can only make the process of selection that more difficult. If there is always controversy on the island surrounding national team selections, this time around the complaining will likely be louder than ever. Especially in Havana, if Urgellés is overlooked, or from many of the island’s knowledgeable masses, if Urrutia is once again jettisoned. And then there is the issue of Alexei Bell: what do you do with a slugger who enjoyed the best season in league history last year, continued to turn heads in Beijing as well, but this winter has been able to produce only one meager homer and bat at a .195 clip over the season’s first 25 games? You don’t ever want to lose an emerging superstar like Bell, but such a loss can best be tolerated here in a jam-packed outfield.
Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba) is currently the biggest mystery on the island. His remarkable 2008 season has completely gone south on the heels of his thunderous Olympic debut in Beijing. During the month of December Bell wasn’t even a shadow of the player who slugged so effectively only a few months back. So what happened? The trouble seemed to arise with an opening day beaning at the hands of Pinar hurler Yunieski Maya. Bell seemed shaken in a post-game television interview after the November 28 incident and hasn’t been the same aggressive hitter since. Are the scars purely psychological, or were there also physical injuries (clouded vision perhaps)? And whatever it is, what happens with Bell now? At the start of the season it would have been unimaginable to think of the Cuban WBC roster without new slugging star Bell at the heart of the lineup. But now the situation is somewhat murkier at best. One strong signal has already been sent out by the Cuban Federation bosses when they put Bell on the list of 45 “eligibles” for final roster selection; it appears that no one in Cuba’s baseball hierarchy is about to throw in the towel early on one of the best island prospects of recent memory.
Alfredo Despaigne (Granma) is a new tower of strength in the Cuban lineup and he may well be the most genuine “sure thing” choice for this roster outside of Yulieski Gourriel and Pedro Lazo. For several years I have been tabbing Cepeda as the best all-around Cuban Leaguer (or at least the best bet among position players to step straight into a major league batting order); but after Beijing the scales seem to have tilted ever so slightly toward Despaigne. He led the Olympic squad in homers (the only man with two in pool play), RBI (11) and slugging (.667); and several of his late-game hits where huge factors in igniting victory. Last winter he paced the Cuban League in doubles (33) and would have also been a pace-setter in slugging (.717) if Alexei Bell had not performed somewhere in another universe (with a .722 mark). Add to the offensive contribution the fact that Despaigne is an excellent defender at any of the three garden posts and you have the anchor of this year’s Cuban outfield. If Malleta is either left home or on the bench, Alfredo Despaigne should probably be Cuba’s clean-up slugger this time around.
Frederich Cepeda (Sancti Spíritus) has been Cuba’s version of “Mr. October” (translate as “most reliable clutch batsman in the biggest-pressure contests”) for much of the decade. For several seasons many have been predicting his demise on the national team but it hasn’t happened yet. Coming off a late season injury last winter, Cepeda didn’t round back into shape until late-summer exhibition games in Korea on the eve of the Olympics; but his continued presence in the lineup was taken for granted by Cuban brass all along the road to Beijing. He didn’t fail to deliver either, with a .316 Olympic BA, a .632 slugging mark, and a crucial deciding homer in the slim 1-0 victory over Chinese Taipei. Cepeda has awesome power from both sides of the plate (he stroked the longest homer I have ever witnessed in Latin American Stadium during the 2006 Olympic Trials tournament) and yet he is one of the most disciplined and selective batsmen this author has ever observed: annually he leads the circuit in both walks and on-base percentage. And the list of clutch at-bats in big international matches is truly unprecedented. During the 2003 World Cup gold medal victory over Panama Cepeda’s two solo late-inning shots were the deciding margin in a 4-2 thriller; he scored the game-winning run in the 2005 World Cup finale versus Korea; his two-out ninth-inning blast salvaged a crucial opener with Australia at the 2007 Taiwan World Cup. And when Yulieski Gourriel bounced into a game-ending bases-loaded double play that spelled 2008 Olympic gold medal defeat versus Korea, it was none other than Cepeda who was standing on second base with the game’s potential winning tally. Also in the gold medal WBC loss to Japan it was Cepeda’s late blast that temporarily lifted the Cubans back into contention. As long as he can still lift a bat Frederich Cepeda should be a firm fixture in the Cuban lineup, even though his value now seems designed to be that of a still-productive DH and not a dependable outfield defender.
Giorvis Duvergel (Guantánamo) has inherited the mantle of “ideal leadoff hitter” from late-1990s mainstay Luis Ulacia and early-2000s fixture Eduardo Paret. The fleet-footed and sweet-swinging lefty is perhaps so very valuable at the top of the batting order with Team Cuba precisely (and ironically) because he does not perform anything like that role for his own hometown club in Guantánamo (where he bats third as a long-ball and run-producing threat). Duvergel has plenty of pop in his bat and 12 homers last winter, plus six already a third of the way through the current Cuban campaign, might well cast him as the MLB-style modern-era prototype of a Rickey Henderson; Duvergel’s slugging percentage (.554 a year ago) is more impressive than his on-base percentage, and (perhaps breaking the Rickey Henderson mold) he only stole five bases during National Series #47. His base-on-balls totals a year ago were well less than a third of those posted by selective-swinging slugger Freddie Cepeda. But Duvergel is a marvelous outfield defender, and he has thus become as much of a fixture in the Cuban lineup over the last several seasons (i.e., since the last WBC) as Gourriel and Cepeda, or even Paret and Pestano.
Yoandry Urgellés (Industriales) is our long-shot choice to unseat Urrutia once again, just as he didn’t last summer in Beijing. The fleet southpaw basher barely missed out on a batting title of couple of years back (when he was runner-up to Urrutia in 2005 with a .360 mark) and hasn’t slowed much since (sixth at .362 in 2006 and fourth last winter at .374). Urgellés has many plusses: included are his portside hitting (ideal for spot pinch-hitting assignments), plenty of speed on the base paths (where his productive hitting obviously often places him), and a rifle arm and glue-like glove at any of the three outfield positions. He also packs some legitimate power with home run totals of 17 (2008), 8 (2007), 5 (2006), 14 (2005) in recent seasons. It is a stretch to see Urgellés replacing either Bell, Duvergel or Despaigne (if all remain healthy) in the currently crowded Red Machine regular outfield. On the other hand, there are few first-rate backups quite as versatile: he is a far better defender that either Urrutia or Céspedes, he outstrips both Fiss and Anderson in international experience, and he can run better than Cepeda.
Yoelvis Fiss (Ciego de Avila) for a couple of years now has played a roll similar to that once occupied by 1980s-era slugger Lázaro Junco. Junco is the only man in league history (outside of Kindelán and Linares) to boast 400-plus homers and yet the Matanzas basher was rarely ever considered for national team status. Fiss also puts up huge numbers consistently, but few on the island ever talk about him in the same breath with the rest of the top island fly chasers when talk turns to national team candidates. A year ago he blasted 22 round trippers (fifth place), collected 208 total bases (third behind only Bell and Despaigne), rang up a .350 average, drove home 64, and slugged at a .632 clip (eighth in the league), but nonetheless he was not among the half-dozen or so outfielders selected for the first stage of Olympic squad selection during the José Huelga Tournament competitions in Havana. The big problem here was that three outfielders hit more long balls, a half dozen owned more RBIs, and three were statistically more robust sluggers. But this year Fiss seemingly is stronger than ever, and his nagging presence may be somewhat more difficult to deny. For one thing, he has at least narrowed the statistical gab significantly on his competitors. He trails only Yulieski Gourriel in the batting race (where he is hitting .398 at the moment), only Gourriel and three catchers outpace him in homers, and the recent slumps of Despaigne, Bell and Céspedes (all now dipping well below .300) may have cracked a small wedge in the door for Cuba’s most underestimated outfielder.
Osmani Urrutia (Las Tunas) is the modern-day island version of legendary MLB Cooperstown fixture Rógers Hornsby. From 2000 through 2007 Urrutia was a veritable hitting machine, and he has long since obliterated all the marks on the island when it comes to proficient hitting: he owns the best lifetime (.370) and single-season (.469) averages in National Series play. But he also has his critics among big league observers (who say his lofty averages are merely a product of feeble Cuban League pitching which is AA-caliber at best) and among the Cuban brain trust itself, which left him off last year’s Olympic squad. The downside to Urrutia is that he has now evolved with increasing age from “average” as a fielder and base runner to something far less in those departments. It is admittedly a great luxury to have an exceptional hitter of Urrutia’s quality coming off the bench when someone in desperately needed to put the ball in play during crucial late-game situations. Even against top MLB arms in the first WBC Urrutia stroked the ball at a .345 clip (but then Garlobo, another weak defender, hit .480 in the same tournament). With Despaigne, Bell, Cepeda, Gourriel, Duvergel, Malleta, etc. to rely upon, however, Urrutia’s one-dimensional offensive contributions may be just too much of a luxury to risk in the long run.
Yoennis Céspedes (Granma) (the first name is also often spelled Yohenis in island publications) combined with Alfredo Despaigne last winter to provide the most impressive pair of home-run clubbing teammates in Cuban League history: Despaigne socked 24 while Céspedes launched 26 for the last-place Granma Stallions. He has posted other eye-catching offensive numbers as well (last season he was fourth in runs scored, fourth in total bases, and third in RBI) and has been one of the island’s top young outfield prospects for at least four full seasons and his still only 22 years of age. But on the heels of last winter’s strong showing he was nonetheless unable to supplant Bell, Cepeda, Duvergel, and teammate Despaigne on the Olympic roster. And a .244 BA and only five round trippers during the first third of National Series #48 are not very good indicators that Céspedes has anything more going for him this time around. Perhaps the only hope for seeing two Granma outfielders during the WBC (assuming that Despaigne is already a lock to be there) would be a decision by Higinio Vélez and company that Alexei Bell is simply not the same player he once was before this year’s early-season bean ball incident.
Leslie Anderson (Camagüey) was perhaps the least visible member of the last Cuban WBC roster (if you don’t count Róger Machado, who never caught a single inning), and he also has been all but invisible on the Cuban League scene during the several seasons that have followed. That is until this current winter (and perhaps last) when he has again exploded on the scene as one of the circuit’s top hitting wizards. The Camagüey lefty is currently hovering around the league’s top ten hitters with a robust .361 mark; in last year’s National Series he blasted 19 homers and hit .364 to boot. Anderson admittedly has loads of raw physical talent and he has been a most consistent performer over the years on a largely unheralded and also-ran ball club. But these are rarely guarantees of national team status, especially when your chief rivals are such league stalwarts as Cepeda, Urrutia, Despaigne, Bell and Duvergel. As with Fiss, his numbers are enough to turn heads; but at the same time he just doesn’t quite measure up to the level of the considerable competition. It would likely be much easier for either Anderson or Fiss to find a slot in some big field outfield than to make the final cut on the Cuban national team. It is a scenario already proven during the last twelve months by sensational Chicago White Sox rookie Alexei Ramírez who (at the hour of his 2008 defection) had already fallen out of the mix as a Cuban league all-star.
Peter C. Bjarkman, author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 will cover the 2009 WBC II for www.baseballdecuba.com and the New York Times. His latest books entitled Baseball’s Other Big Red Machine: The History of the Cuban National Team and Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1962-2007 will also both appear during the coming year.