by Peter C. Bjarkman

August 11, 2011

The stage is finally set for a 45-day countdown to this fall’s major international baseball events scheduled for Panama (IBAF World Cup, October 2-15) and Mexico (Pan American Games at Guadalajara, October 19-25). This past Tuesday Team Cuba manager Alfonso Urquiola (skipper of National Series champion Pinar del Río) formally announced a 38-man “pre-selection” roster that will compete for 24 final lineup spots on the Cuban World Cup squad. The same ballclub (further pared down to a 20-man roster) well then move on to Mexico for Pan Am tournament action a couple of days after World Cup play winds down in Panama. Urquiola will manage the Cuban squad for both events and the remainder of his coaching staff is expected to be formally announced before the end of the month. Several unconfirmed reports out of Havana also suggest that a pre-selection squad from Puerto Rico may visit Havana’s Latin American Stadium in mid or late September for a series of tune-up exhibition matches with the host Cuban ball club.

Yohandry Urgellés
As a talented left-handed hitter Yohandry Urgellés could have the inside track on Cuba’s fourth outfield position.
There were a minimum of surprises on the 38-player preliminary Cuban roster, which was culled from the 90-plus players on three Cuban squads that earlier competed in British Colombia (gold medal at the World Baseball Challenge), Caracas (first place in the Venezuelan ALBA Games) and Rotterdam (second place at the Holland-based World Port Tournament). Notable for their surprise absences were veterans Norge Vera (Santiago de Cuba right-handed pitcher and long-time national team ace) and Alexander Mayeta (slugging Havana Industriales first baseman), as well as highly touted prospects Yasiel Puig (Cienfuegos outfielder) and Alexander Rodríguez (Guantánamo right-handed closer). Mayeta has been a recent backup to José Dariel Abreu at first base and Rodríguez is often mentioned as a likely future replacement for now-retired Pedro Luis Lazo in the Cuban bullpen. Puig (along with Cienfuegos teammate Erisbel Arruebarruena) was frequently touted this past season as one of the Cuban League’s can’t-miss newcomers.

At Tuesday’s press conference in Latin American Stadium Urquiola did address questions about the notable roster absences. It was explained that Vera’s recent sharp drop in performance in Vancouver suggested the 17-season veteran was no longer fit for top-level competition (a signal that Vera will likely soon follow Pedro Lazo into retirement). Urquiola commented that Mayeta simply did not fit the roster due to his lacking versatility (he is limited to first base and possible occasional backup DH assignments). Rodríguez is known to be suffering from a minor shoulder injury and Yasiel Puig is apparently currently under temporary suspension for an undisclosed disciplinary violation. Urquiola and league commissioner Higinio Vélez had earlier stressed that this year’s pre-selection (as is customary) would be based on consistent career achievement (especially at the international level), on-field performance during the recent Golden Anniversary National Series season, and current physical readiness for strenuous overseas competition.

One noteworthy selection was Industriales outfielder Yohandry Urgellés, an experienced left-handed batsman who enjoyed his best-ever season this past winter (.359 BA, ninth best in the league) but was then bypassed for selection on this summer’s three original Team Cuba squads. It appears that Urgellés was earlier excluded due to a hand injured which has now sufficiently healed to Urquiola’s satisfaction. A veteran of Cuba’s 2008 Beijing Olympic squad, Urgellés is a valuable addition to the mix if only because of the scarcity of top left-handed batting in the Cuban arsenal. He will battle prospects Rusney Castillo and Dariel Alvarez, plus still-injury-hobbled Beijing Olympic hero Alexei Bell, for an available fourth outfield slot. And the popular Industriales right fielder would seem to have the upper hand here mainly due to his highly valued portside swinging.

Norberto González
Versatile southpaw Norberto González should be manager Urquiola’s most valuable pitching asset heading into the World Cup test in Panama.
It is most likely that Cuba’s final World Cup roster will feature a pair of catchers (Pestano is the one certainty here), six infielders (with Enríquez likely filling the regular DH role as in the past, and Olivera playing any of the four different infield slots as needed), four outfielders (Cepeda and Despaigne can’t miss), and a dozen pitchers (eight righties and half as many southpaws). The most intriguing roster issue may well be the ultimate fate of 19-year-old shortstop Erisbel Arruebarruena; more than one expert has already projected the Cienfuegos phenom as Cuba’s best-ever middle infielder in the not-too-distant future. The only question facing Urquiola and his staff is simply whether or not Arruebarruena needs more seasoning before being thrust into the tensions of high-level tournament play.

My own selections for a final World Cup roster are indicated below in boldface. Four additional cuts before the team travels on to Mexico will likely be a pair of infielders and a pair of pitchers, reasonable deletions for the much shorter Pan American Games tournament schedule. It will be most surprising if Urquiola does not carry at minimum of four lefties on his pitching staff in Panama, with Yulieski González and Norberto González the most obvious choices for at least half that contingent. With Alex Rodríguez no longer available, Yadier Pedroso seems the most likely candidate for the closer role, with Jonder Martínez, Vladimir García and southpaw Misael Siverio the most obvious picks for middle relief roles. The corps of Team Cuba starters is most likely to feature the quartet of Miguel Alfredo González (still the island’s strongest arm), Freddy Asiel Alvarez (Cuba’s craftiest hurler), Dalier Hinojosa, and Yosvani Torres. Veteran southpaw Norberto González (recent World Baseball Challenge MVP and an past Olympic star in Beijing) remains Urquiola’s most valuable mound asset due to his tremendous versatility as both a savvy starter and durable long reliever.

Team Cuba’s Pre-Selection Roster for October Tournaments

Key: League teams (last season) in parentheses; most likely final selections in boldface; ** = switch hitter; * = left-handed batter; RHP = right-handed pitcher; LHP = left-handed pitcher.

Catchers (5): Ariel Pestano (Villa Clara), Yosvani Alarcón (Las Tunas), Yulexis La Rosa (Villa Clara), Frank Camilo Morejón (Industriales), Lorenzo Quintana (Pinar del Río)

Infielders (10): José Dariel Abreu (1B) (Cienfuegos), Héctor Olivera (2B/1B/DH) (Santiago de Cuba), Erisbel Arruebarruena (SS) (Cienfuegos), Yulieski Gourriel (3B) (Sancti Spíritus), Michel Enríquez (3B/DH) (Isla de la Juventud), Ernesto Molinet (1B) (Habana Province), Yoilán Cerce (2B) (Guantánamo), Rudy Reyes (SS) (Industriales), Yorbis Borroto (SS) (Ciego de Avila), Aledmas Díaz (SS) (Villa Clara)

Outfielders (7): Frederich Cepeda** (Sancti Spíritus), Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), Giorvis Duvergel* (Guantánamo), Yohandry Urgellés* (Industriales), Rusney Castillo (Ciego de Avila), Dariel Alvarez (Camagüey), Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba)

Pitchers (16): Vicyohandri Odelín (RHP) (Camagüey), Miguel Alfredo González (RHP) (Habana Province), Yadier Pedroso (RHP (Habana Province), Dailer Hinojosa (RHP) (Guantánamo), Norberto González (LHP) (Cienfuegos), Yulieski González (LHP) (Habana Province), Julio Alfredo Martínez (LHP) (Pinar del Río), Jonder Martínez (RHP) (Habana Province), Freddy Asiel Alvarez (RHP) (Villa Clara), Alberto Soto (RHP) (Granma), Misael Siverio (LHP) (Villa Clara), Odrisamer Despaigne (RHP) (Industriales), Miguel Lahera (RHP) (Habana Province), Vladimir García (RHP) (Ciego de Avila), Yosvani “Guajiro” Torres (RHP) (Pinar del Río), Robelio Carrillo (LHP) (Villa Clara)

Panama’s World Cup (number 39 in event history) will open on Sunday, October 2 in four stadiums spread around the isthmus. The tournament had originally been scheduled for late September but was moved back (mainly at the request of USA Baseball) to limit a gap before the subsequent Pan American Games and thus allow participating countries to send teams directly from one event to the other. The IBAF tournament format involves two eight-team first round groups battling in round-robin play for eight quarter-final slots (four from each group). Cuba is assigned to Group B where opponents will be Germany, Australia, Korea, Italy, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Group A is comprised of Team USA, Canada, Chinese Taipei, Greece, The Netherlands, Japan, Puerto Rico and host Panama. With Italy, Nicaragua, Germany and Venezuela stacked into Group B, it would seem at the outset that Cuba has drawn the far easier of the two pool-round assignments – avoiding qualifying round clashes with the defending champion Americans, the always pesky Dutch, the Japanese, strong Puerto Rico, and scary Taiwan (which will likely field much the same team that defeated the islanders on three different occasions this past summer). Cuba’s seven-game first round schedule is included here:

Whatever the final roster selections, this Cuban squad will carry a heavy burden on its back in October. After capturing 26 of 29 World Cup titles across a full half century and winning nine straight crowns in the two decades between 1984 and 2007, Cuba has now been upended in the finals two times by the archrival Americans (2007 in Taiwan and 2009 in Italy). The World Cup (and its earlier guise as the IBAF Amateur World Series) is a huge event on Cuban soil and the usually dominant islanders have not finished below second place (and second rather than first on only three occasions) since a bronze medal showing at Mexico City way back in 1951. Given all the hated discussion in the streets of Havana lately about a perceived dip in the level of Cuba’s cherished national pastime, this year’s World Cup event will represent both a pressure-packed testing grounds and a much-coveted chance for redemption. The 24 talented ballplayers heading to Panama City on October 1 will likely play under as much or more pressure and certainly under the cloud of higher expectations than any national squad that has ever preceded it.

Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for during the past five years and is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team..



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