by Peter C. Bjarkman
July 3, 2009
Aroldis Chapman’s departure may have little impact on Cuba’s September national team plans.
Rotterdam’s 2007 World Port Tournament was something of a landmark event for Cuba’s marquee national baseball program. On the heels of a victorious but rather lackluster performance by the premier Cuban national squad at the Brazil-based Pan American Games, a backup Cuba B outfit managed by controversial Victor Mesa rolled to nine straight wins and an impressive championship in the eleventh edition of the Rotterdam event. This second-string Cuban team under Mesa’s flamboyant tutelage featured such up-and-coming young prospects as Yosvani Peraza, Héctor Olivera, Alfredo Despaigne, and Alexei Bell—all enjoying their maiden outings on an international stage. Not only did Mesa’s contingent of future “stars-in-waiting” easily sweep the field in Rotterdam, but they also twice manhandled (by 8-2 and 5-1 counts) the identical Team USA squad that only a month earlier was barely overhauled 3-1 during the Pan American Games gold medal match by the frontline Cuban lineup featuring the likes of Lazo, Cepeda, Paret, Pestano and Gourriel.
Team Cuba’s impressive showing at the last WPT event included three dramatic duels with Chinese Taipei: a pitching-rich 2-1 tournament opener decided by Donald Duarte’s clutch seventh-inning solo homer; a thrilling 6-5 extra-inning affair featuring Yosvani Peraza’s fourth-inning grand slam and game-winning thirteenth-inning sacrifice fly; and a nip-and-tuck 2-0 championship match-up highlighted by brilliant relief work from southpaw Yulieski González. Yosvani Peraza walked off with tournament MVP honors, while six Cubans dotted the tournament all-star roster (Peraza as catcher, José Julio Ruíz at first base, Donald Duarte at third; Despaigne and Bell in the outfield, and Victor Mesa as manager). Alfredo Despaigne was the tournament’s top hitter (.462), José Julio paced the field in slugging (4 home runs), and Yosvani Peraza far outdistanced the field with 17 runs batted in.
From the start, his year’s WPT tournament could not possibly promise the same primetime prominence. For one thing, there was the upcoming IBAF World Cup event—also scheduled for Europe later this fall—which worked to diminish the Rotterdam field considerably. Few countries would be likely to send the same squad to Europe in early July and then again in early September. Even more luster was lost by the event in late June when at the last moment USA Baseball abandoned its commitment to send its own team, reducing the normal five-team field to but four and thus requiring an overhaul of the proposed (and traditional) two stages of round-robin competition. The withdrawal by the Americans was yet another example of USA Baseball’s visible lack of any serious commitment to support international baseball competitions not featuring high-profile professional all-stars.
The Róger Machado-managed Cuban squad dispatched to this year’s Rotterdam event is similar in many respects to the Mesa-led team of two summers back. We again have a roster filled with promising future talent stacked alongside of a mix of veterans that have experienced few previous opportunities for international play. In the former category are promising Cienfuegos first baseman José Dariel Abreu, Guantánamo middle infielder Yolían Cerce, Ciego de Avila infielders Adonis García and Yorbis Borroto, and Villa Clara outfielder Leonys Martin. All five are likely to figure prominently in future national team plans. The pitching corps also features a handful of bright new prospects in Miguel Alfredo González (Habana), Freddy Asiel Alvarez (Villa Clara) and Yaumier Sánchez (Santiago). And among the veterans boasting only minimal roles on past top-level national teams are catchers Rolando Meriño (Santiago) and Eriel Sánchez (Sancti Spíritus), first baseman Ariel Borrero (Villa Clara), fly-chasers Giorvis Duvergel (Guantánamo) and Liván Monteagudo (Sancti Spíritus), and pitchers Yadier Pedroso (Habana), Miguel Lahera (Habana), and Maikel Folch (Ciego de Avila). From this odd mix of new and old faces at least a handful of surprising dark horse contenders for the September World Cup roster are likely to emerge.
Of course history has not always been kind to Cuban ball clubs playing on Dutch soil. With the clear exception of the same Rotterdam venue of 2007, the WPT and sister Haarlem Honkbal (Haarlem Baseball Week) events have never been much of a primetime stage for the Cubans. In eleven previous WPT editions Cuban clubs have topped the standings on seven occasions, four of five times since true national teams (though not usually the elite national squad) began attending in the late-nineties. The Haarlem Honkbal extravaganza has been less favorable to the Cubans, with four titles in eleven events entered, but also a string of five straight second or third place finishes across the present decade. Not a bad récord overall, but far off the mark of Cuba’s normal 90-plus percent success rate in all major international tournaments staged over the past full half-century. This is of course in large part due to the repeated choice to send largely second-level clubs to Rotterdam and Haarlem. In top-draw events the Cubans have performed well here, most recently capturing the Holland-based 2005 IBAF World Cup staged at five different Dutch venues.
Last summer’s visit to Haarlem was full of disappointments—most attached to a failure to match the dominant level of play expected by fans back home on the eve of the Beijing Olympics. One of the strongest Cuban lineups in years failed to produce more than a handful of necessary runs and the Pacheco-managed club barely limped into the finals on the strength of a game-saving homer stroked by Alexei Bell against a mediocre Japanese university all-star squad. The same Cuban team that would reach the finals in Beijing a month later was twice shut down by the pitching of an American club that was admittedly a distinct level below the Beijing Olympic squad later fielded by USA Baseball. Major league prospect Mike Minor stymied the Cuban forces 1-0 in opening-round action and then repeated the performance in a 4-1 gold medal rematch. But certainly those Cuban “failures” against Team USA in Haarlem were somewhat overplayed by the island press corps, since the Cuban squad was clearly in “training” mode while in The Netherlands. Pacheco’s ball club was engaged in serious weight training and extra batting practice sessions each morning during the entire stay, and the team game plan was obviously focused on winning later in Beijing and not triumphing at the moment in Haarlem.
This year’s visit to Rotterdam would seemingly not contain the same exacting demands of last year’s Haarlem Olympic tune-up. It is true enough that there will be enormous pressures on the Cuban World Cup squad in September to atone for a series of recent disappointments (the second-place finishes at the 2007 Taiwan World Cup and 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the failure to reach the final round at this spring’s second edition of MLB’s World Baseball Classic). But this is not at all the same ball club that the Cuban Federation will field come September, and the island’s World Cup hopes are in no way hanging on the performances of this month’s Rotterdam contingent. Nonetheless things did not start out well this week in The Netherlands, with one major setback coming before Machado’s club even had a chance to take the field. On the eve of the opening game there was already a major disruption in the form of the unexpected “defection” of star pitcher Aroldis Chapman from the Cuban camp. Long coveted by major league scouts for his limber portside arm and touted 100-mph fastball, Chapman decided to make a break for the seeming Promised Land of untold big league riches. The blow was probably more psychological than strategic, since it is not at all apparent at this point in time just how seriously Chapman figured in Cuba’s September World Cup plans.
Chapman remains a considerable mystery and his future in North American professional baseball is not easy to predict. The 21-year-old Holguín lefty has opted to trade potential gold medals for designer golden neck bracelets and a huge bank account—that much is certain. But will he become the next José Contreras or the next Maels Rodríguez? Contreras, of course, had accomplished far more in both international and domestic play by the time he abandoned the island back in 2003 while touring in Mexico. Rodríguez broke every imaginable strikeout récord on the island before suffering an unfortunate arm injury that ruined his pro prospects even before his own departure later that same year. Chapman definitely has his negatives, foremost among them a demonstrated lack of strike-zone control, a one-pitch arsenal, and an inconsistent Cuban League performance over four National Series campaigns. Hurling for a Holguín club that made this year’s post-season and has been largely a middle-of-the-pack outfit during Chapman’s tenure, the southpaw flame thrower has won only slightly more than half his decisions (24-21), though he did enjoy his best season (11-4 and a league-best 130 Ks in 118 innings) this past winter. He has twice topped the 100 K mark but never approached Maels’s récord-setting standards. Chapman is definitely more a raw “thrower” than a savvy “pitcher” and numerous questions surround his abilities to master the finer details of his craft. But Aroldis Chapman has definitely already displayed one easily definable characteristic of a true major leaguer: by abandoning his teammates on the eve of an important international tournament (and thus leaving the squad short of starting pitchers) he has dramatically signaled that personal career advancement for him far outweighs any ball club loyalties. He is only the most recent poster child for rampant baseball free agency.
Chapman’s récord—more so than that of Maels Rodríguez a few years back—was largely one of brief moments of brilliant potential rather than one of any truly noteworthy récord-book feats. Chapman enjoyed one great game in international play as a 19-year-old (during the 2007 World Cup semifinals versus Japan) but never quite returned to that stellar form. His Cuban League récord had some noteworthy features (379 Ks in 341 innings) but was on the whole disappointing (210 walks over the same span, only one career shutout, a lofty 3.72 ERA, an 0-2 post-season récord, only one winning season in four tries). Chapman pitched badly enough in last summer’s José Huelga Tournament in Havana to play himself off the Cuban Olympic roster, and while his fastball drew attention in two outings at the recent WBC, he was hardly dominant against either the Australians or the Japanese. The bottom line is that Chapman has great potential and could well end up in a major league uniform. Certainly he will hold up some big league franchise for millions in signing bonuses and thus enrich both himself and some opportunistic player agent. But the jury is still out (and likely will be until at least September) regarding how badly this departure might actually damage Cuban national team prospects. The full impact of Chapman’s loss is especially open to question given what has transpired on the playing field at Neptunus Family Stadium in slightly more than 48 hours since his departure.
As Cuban squads have done so many times in the past, this edition immediately shrugged off such a potential distraction and got immediately down to the main business of winning tournament games. Two opening opponents were certainly not entirely comparable to future September World Cup opponents, but then this is also not the normal patented Cuban lineup either—one featuring Maya or Vera or Norberto González on the mound, Navas and Olivera guarding the middle infield defense, and Cepeda, Gourriel, Despaigne and Bell in the meat of the batting order. And the current Rotterdam opponents should not be too quickly underrated either, given the increasingly level playing fields of international tournaments. Opening night opponents—the host Dutch squad—boasted many of the same faces (Eugene Kingsale, Raily Legito, Bryan Englehart, Danny Rombley Vince Rooi, Sidney de Jong and Diegomar Markwell) that comprised the veteran Dutch lineup in Beijing, as well as the club that twice surprised the star-studded Dominicans in the recent WBC. And Team Japan is also a talented top-level amateur squad, despite the lack of more recognizable Nippon League professional performers.
Whatever the opposition, Team Cuba has been nothing if not impressive in its opening two Rotterdam matches. Over 18 innings six Cuban hurlers allowed but seven scratch hits and no tallies while shutting down both the pesky Dutch (1-0) and the overmatched Japanese (8-0) challengers. In the Thursday night opener recent National Series post-season MVP Miguel Alfredo González worked six strong shutout innings, yielding a pair of harmless hits, striking out two and walking three. Yadier Pedroso (two innings) and Vladimir García (earning the save in the ninth) effectively closed out the narrow victory. The winning blow came in the third when veteran DH Rolando Meriño singled home Pinar second baseman Rafael Valdez with the game’s only marker. Friday afternoon’s second contest saw Ciego de Avila ace southpaw Maikel Folch (a surprise late cut from the March WBC squad) ring up a near perfect seven frames, allowing but one hit and one walk while striking out eight. Unheralded Noelvis Entenza (Cienfuegos) and Miguel Lahera (Habana) each permitted a lone base hit in their combined two innings of smooth relief. Leonys Martin, Yoelvis Fiss and veteran Ariel Borrero paced the offense with two hits apiece, with Fiss knocking home two runs and shortstop Yorbis Borroto also scoring twice.
Cuba will play seven more games over the next nine days, and then possibly a eighth game in the championship match (between the two clubs with the best overall récords after nine contests apiece). Along the way some unexpected prospects for September’s World Cup roster may well emerge. Miguel Alfredo and Maikel Folch have already made strong statements about their legitimate candidacies for World Cup starting rotation slots. Leonys Martin with 2-for-4 and 2-for-5 outings will most certainly loom large in the national team outfield picture, especially given his proven value as a stellar late-inning defensive fill-in. And Yoelvis Fiss has also enjoyed multi-hit games in his initial two international outings. Chapman’s departure aside, so far the Cuban visit to Rotterdam has been largely a resounding success story. The next nine days, nonetheless, may well hold many intriguing surprises.