Cuban National Series Reopens Amid Changes and High Expectations
by Peter C. Bjarkman
December 03, 2008
With the first winter snowfalls on the horizon in North America, the baseball universe now must settle for the vacant fantasies of “hot stove” chatter and faint dreams of mid-summer glories long past; but in the warmer climes of the southlands the joyous cry of “play ball” is once again awakening spirits and spurring expectations across the balmier environs of the Caribbean islands. The entire island nation of Cuba unites this first week of December for the ritual opening action of a forty-eighth “National Series” baseball campaign that promises to hold numerous surprises, noteworthy historic changes, and even potential new celebrated landmarks for the island’s ingrained national pastime. While it might seem something of a tall order to match last winter’s National Series #47 season that witnessed dozens of milestone individual récords (Yulieski González’s 15-0 unblemished ledger and Alexei Bell’s 31 round trippers top the list), this year’s fare promises numerous exciting climaxes of its own. For one thing there is a new two-division pennant race format to be showcased, along with a regular-season schedule totally revamped to accommodate international baseball’s newest showcase event—the restaging of a celebrated World Baseball Classic looming on the horizon in early March.
This will definitely be a Cuban season with its own special historic overtones. The format and schedule for league play has been drastically revamped, for starters, and for the first time since 1991-1992 (National Series #31) the Cuban League will boast two regional divisions (Zona Occidental and Zona Oriental) as replacements for the four four-team groups that have defined the last sixteen campaigns. The hold-over momentum of last winter’s historic NS#47 season, filled with so many récord achievements by a teeming host of fresh faces (Bell, Despaigne, Yosvany Peraza, Leonys Martin) as well as holdover stars (Lazo, Yulieski González, Jonder Martínez), also promises its share of potentially enticing encore performances. Will Alexei Bell continue his récord-pace slugging? Will the Habana Province trio of González, Martínez and Yadir Pedroso continue mesmering an entire league’s slugging corps? How far will Lazo stretch his récord career victory string? Can Carlos Yanes remain on the hill in Isla forever? And smack in the middle of the campaign the excitement of domestic action will pause for the second installment of Major League Baseball’s World Baseball Classic, providing an opportunity for the Cuban national team (still reeling from its disappointing gold medal loss in Beijing) to prove once and for all that its 2006 run to the inaugural WBC finals was anything but a fluke.
The most noteworthy changes in league structure adopted for upcoming National Series #48 involve, first and foremost, partitioning of the campaign into three distinct sections or “etapas”—with breaks in the action coming at the end of December and throughout late February and the full month of March. A companion innovation is the simultaneous staging of the Developmental League and National Series seasons. The Cuban minor league season (“Liga de Desarollo”) with its “back-up” teams representing the thirteen provinces, plus Isla and the two Havana City squads, has normally been scheduled for late spring or early fall, either preceding or following the “major league” action. Under the revamped format each league team will now boast a 45-man roster, with 25 players assigned to the main squad (say Industriales) and an additional 20 serving the lower Developmental League lineup (the Constructores in the case of Industriales, or the Capitalinos for the Metros). It is a system designed to parallel the structure of North American organized professional baseball, with reserve ballplayers in mid-season form available to be “called up” or “sent down” by the top squad in cases of injury or poor performance. The first experiment—the one involving lengthy schedule breaks between December 24 and January 14 (allowing for year-end celebrations surrounding the historic fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution), and then again between All-Star weekend in mid-February and the end of March—is an obvious fallout from the World Baseball Classic schedule and the vital need to prepare a Cuban national team primed to meet the challenges of big-league pro competition. A Cuban WBC final roster will be announced February 17 (on the heels of All-Star weekend) and the select squad will depart almost immediately for Mexico City to train for the Pool A March 8 opening round. What effect these rather “unnatural” schedule breaks will have on the National Series pennant races and on fan enthusiasms across the island remains very much an open question at present. Will rooters be as thoroughly gripped by an ongoing dog fight between Industriales and Pinar or Sancti Spíritus—or by the annual blood-letting feud between Santiago and Villa Clara—once they are asked to cool there passions mid-season for weeks at a time? Will so much focus on the WBC scene strip away local passions for the provincial teams? This may be the most interesting question of all surrounding what promises to be the most unorthodox season in a near half-century of revolutionary baseball.
Also adding spice to these administrative changes are a number of personnel shifts that will also give Cuban baseball a radically “new look” as the current campaign unfolds. Seven new managers will be on the scene, with the most significant changes taking place at the helms of island fan-favorite Industriales (Germán Mesa replaces Rey Anglada), 2008 runner-up Pinar del Río (Luis G. Casanova takes over for Jorge Fuentes), and perennial Oriente challenger Villa Clara (controversial Victor Mesa is out and Eduardo Martín is the replacement). Most notably absent from the league scene this year is the colorful Victor Mesa, who will coach in Mexico with a “minor league” Vera Cruz league club. Also missing in action will be a pair of former national team managers—Rey Anglada (now reportedly on loan to Panama for coaching and instructional duties) and Jorge Fuentes (who has stepped aside due to apparent health concerns). Filling out the remaining managerial musical chairs are Wilfredo Menéndez (Matanzas), Iday Abreu (Cienfuegos), Osvaldo Arias (replacing 25-season veteran Carlos Martí in Granma), and former national team outfield stalwart Luis Ulacia (with Camagüey).
The arrival of Germán Mesa and departure of Victor Mesa have grabbed the tallest pre-season headlines, yet in the long run Ulacia in Camagüey and Luis Casanova in Pinar may be destined to have the greatest impact on teams they inherit. During my own recent visit to Pinar several members of the Tsunami Verde roster raved to me in private about the upsurge in team moral under former slugging star Casanova; and the fiery Ulacia may be just what is needed to light a renewed spark under a lackluster contingent representing the usually colorless Tinajones. On the non-managerial front the loudest retirement news has been a departure of long-time Team Cuba southpaw ace Adiel Palma, who has finally hung up his glove after 21 seasons on the hill with perennial also-ran Cienfuegos.
The “new look” league promises to provide far more exciting pennant races than those enjoyed over the past quarter-century, and no longer will the four eternal powerhouses—Pinar (Group A), Industriales (Group B), Villa Clara (Group C), Santiago (Group D)—romp to easy first-place finishes, as almost always is the island norm. Industriales and Pinar will now lock horns with Sancti Spíritus and Habana Province in a 90-game pitched battle for supremacy in the western sector. At the same time the island’s two strongest teams over the past several seasons—Santiago and Villa Clara—must now slug it out head-to-head for true eastern domination. Heading into post-season play this coming May there will be only two legitimate clear-cut pennant winners (along with six additional wild card selections) instead of the traditional and rather excessive four mini-champions.
Opening festivities in Guillermón Moncada Stadium this past Saturday evening provided a potential early clue to just how exciting the current season might well prove to be. In a stellar rematch of last year’s finalists, Pinar’s current edition under new skipper Luis Casanova delivered clear notice that the balance of power may well be ready to again tilt westward. Third baseman Donald Duarte provided the big hammer in a lopsided 13-2 Tsunami victory, blasting a two-run homer and scoring five times in a perfect three-for-three night (with two walks). Yunieski Maya hurled 5.2 effective innings to pick up the inaugural win against less-masterful Santiago ace Norge Vera. Reserve catcher William Otaño, substituting for injured slugger Yosvany Peraza, also stroked an impressive homer in this lopsided affair. While one game “does not a season make” (as an old proverb has it), nonetheless the eye-catching debut did suggest that if Santiago is odds-on favorite to repeat as champions, Pacheco’s abundantly talented crew in certainly far from invincible.
In a season so laced with change and so packed with talent-rich teams, it is perhaps more difficult this year than at any time in recent memory to get a clear line on what lies in store for fans between December and May . But the opening of a new campaign is always a time for wild speculations, and this writer is no more capable than any other to resist the temptation to gaze into his own murky crystal ball. As I see it, four teams boast a tight stranglehold on available playoff slots in the Occidente region. And while the field is a bit more balanced in the east, no one should challenge either Santiago or Villa Clara for supremacy in the Oriente. On the individual scene, Pedro Lazo will make more headlines as he extends his career récord victories total toward 250-plus. Alexei Bell and Alfredo Despaigne should continue their slugging dominance in the east. And look for big years from pair of Pinar bashers, Yosvany Pereza and Donald Duarte. Spurred on by his elimination from the Olympic team last summer, Pinar’s Yunieski Maya seems ready to finally enjoy a breakout year as potentially the league’s top pitching talent. And there are rumors of a sensational rookie outfielder from Cienfuegos in the person of former junior national team star Yasel Puig. This year’s top manager may well be Pinar rookie skipper Luis Casanova. What follows, then, is a deeper gaze into my own imperfect crystal ball.
Peter Bjarkman predicts an MVP season for Pinar’s Donald Duarte.
ZONA OCCIDENTE (Western Region)
1- Pinar del Río (Vegueros or “Tobacco Growers”)
Last Season: 45-45 (1st in Group A); Sub-Champions (swept by Santiago in finals)
Overview: Pinar’s sprint toward the championship finals last spring caught everyone off guard, especially after a mediocre regular season campaign that saw them slump during the second half under long-time manager Jorge Fuentes and barely edge out Isla de la Juventud down the stretch for the top slot in Group A. But with a motivated Peraza and a healthy Duarte this winter, plus a return to form by rising pitching star Yunieski Maya, Pinar del Río looks like the true class of the Occidente. This will also be Pedro Lazo’s swan song season and it could well conclude with a rousing final victory lap for Cuba’s all-time winningest mound star.
Manager: Luis G. Casanova. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Pedro Luis Lazo (10-4, 2.75 ERA; career victories leader with 238), Yunieski Maya (6-8, 3.30, 8 saves), Vladimir Baños (6-6, 5.69). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Yosvany Peraza (.336, 25 HR, 77 RBI), Donald Duarte (.336, 5 HR), Jorge Padrón (.333, 117 H).
2- Sancti Spíritus (Gallos or “Roosters”)
Last Season: 48-40 (3rd in Group B); reached semifinals (lost to Pinar in 7 games)
Overview: Sancti Spíritus (like Pinar) disappointed during the regular season last year under first-year skipper Juan Castro, limping home third in powerful Group B. But a strong post-season run, combined with the slugging talents of national team stars Yulieski Gourriel, Freddie Cepeda and Eriel Sánchez (perhaps the best one-two-three punch in the league) suggest that this is once again one of the most dangerous clubs in the circuit. Any slight improvement in Castro’s pitching corps and Sancti Spíritus should keep pace with Pinar (also outdistancing Industriales and Habana) for most of the winter, if not also at play-off time. Look for Yulieski Gourriel to rebound with a monster year on the heels of last summer’s ninth-inning Olympic gold medal meltdown.
Manager: Juan Castro. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Ismael Jiménez (12-6, 4.73 ERA), Angel Peña (6-5, 3.99), Yoen Socarras (8 saves). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Frederich Cepeda (.333, 16 HR, 59 RBI), Yulieski Gourriel (.302, 22 HR, 71 RBI), Yunier Medoza (.363, 9th in league), Eriel Sánchez (.353, 15 HR).
3- Habana Province (Vaqueros or “Cowboys”)
Last Season: 61-29 (1st in Group B and matched Santiago for best overall regular-season récord); collapsed in quarterfinals, however (lost to Sancti Spíritus in 4 games)
Overview: The crack trio of Jonder Martínez, Yulieski González (enjoying one of the best seasons in league annals at a perfect 15-0) and Yadier Pedroso, plus a strong bullpen corps fronted by Miguel Lahera, led the Cowboys to the top of the regular season heap a year ago; but very little offensive punch spelled disaster during the intense pressures of post-season play. Habana still has the league’s best mound staff, but it is highly likely that Martínez and González will not quite match last winter’s near-invincible status.
Manager: Esteban Lombillo. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Jonder Martínez (13-2, 1.55, ERA champion), Yulieski González (15-0, 2.25), Yadier Pedroso (8-3, 2.73), Miguel Lahera (6-3, 2.72, 7 saves), José Angel Garcia (8 saves). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Juan Carlos Linares (.308, 14 HR, 66 RBI), José Iglesias (.322 with 0 HR).
4- Industriales (Leones or “Lions”)
Last Season: 53-35 (2nd in Group B); swept three straight by Pinar in the quarterfinals
Overview: Industriales struggled to keep pace with Habana Province last winter before collapsing in the opening playoff round versus eventual sub-champion Pinar del Río. The club will present a new look this season with Germán Mesa at the helm and past legends Omar Linares and Lázaro Valle filling out the coaching staff. The loss of fleet fly chaser Yasser Gómez (the league’s third best hitter last season) and ace hurler Yadil Martí to year-long disciplinary suspension is a severe blow, however. This club will likely also struggle at the outset while adjusting to the tighter disciplinary control brought by new manager Germán Mesa.
Manager: Germán Mesa. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Ian Rendón (10-2, 2.37 ERA), Arleys Sánchez (6-4, 4.91), Frank Montieth (6-2, 4.21). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Yoandry Urgellés (.374, 17 HR, 74 RBI), Alex Malleta (.365, 17 HR, 67 RBI), Rudy Reyes (.290, 116 total bases).
5- Metropolitanos (Guerreros or “Warriors”)
Last Season: 28-61 (4th in Group A, worst league récord); did not qualify for playoffs
Overview: There has never been much consistency or improvement for the lowly Metros, as promising young stars (Urgellés, Malleta, Yasser Gómez, Enríque Díaz, Yadel Martí) are regularly moved to the popular Industriales squad at the first sign of maturing talent. Yet in recent seasons the Metros under Jorge Millán have held a surprising edge over their city rivals in head-to-head competitions, and the young squad also flashed surprising enthusiasm and potency while capturing this fall’s pre-season Antillana de Acero tournament. If the young arms and bats hold up, Millán’s club (led by veteran infielder Enríque Díaz, who returns from Industriales for his final season) could indeed provide a few long nights along the way for the division’s four playoff-bound frontrunners.
Manager: Jorge Millán. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Darwin Beltrán (3-6, 5.97), Raidel Borges (3-2, 21 appearances), Alexei Chorot (2-7, 63.1 innings). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Stayler Hernández (.297, as the only batter on the club with 100-plus hits), Enríque Díaz (league-récord 687 stolen bases over 21 career seasons), Irait Chirino (.314, 7 HR).
6- Matanzas (Rojos or “Reds”)
Last Season: 34-56 (3rd in Group A); did not qualify for playoffs
Overview: One of the worst Cuban League teams for most of the past decade-plus, the Matanzas Reds did generate a bit of offensive excitement last season in the form of Yoandry Garlobo (league batting champion, by an eyelash over Leonys Martin of Villa Clara), Arleys Sánchez (tops in the circuit with 12 triples), and promising youngster Yadil Mujica (a late cut from the Beijing Olympic squad). But new manager Wilfredo Menéndez has only one reliable starter (Yoannis Negrín) and will have to find some additional arms if his team is going to climb very far out of the division cellar.
Manager: Wilfredo Menéndez. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Yoannis Negrín (11-5, 3.37), Yosvany Fonseca (3-11, with 21 starts). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Yoandy Garlobo (.398, league batting champion), Yadil Mujica (.358, 19 doubles), Ariel Sánchez (.343, league triples leader with 12).
7- Isla de la Juventud (Pineros or “Pine Cutters”)
Last Season: 40-50 (2nd in Group A); did not qualify for playoffs
Overview: Buoyed by the mid-season return of all-star third baseman Michel Enríquez (after more than a year of disciplinary suspension) the Pineros did make a late-season run at Pinar last February in perennially weak Group A. Enríquez (third best lifetime BA in Cuban annals) remains one of the island’s top hitting stars, and ageless hurler Carlos Yanes (lifetime leader in starts, appearances, innings hurled and losses) is back for a remarkable 26th season. But there is little else to lift the spirits in Nueva Gerona, where hurricane damage to Cristóbal Labra Stadium will limit games to daylight hours only. Absence of lights and night baseball won’t cause any sleepless night for league officials, however, since post-season play on Isla remains an idle dream for yet another year.
Manager: Armando Johnson. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Sergio Espinosa (5-6, 14 saves), Carlos Yanes (222-222 lifetime), Raimundo Vazquez (8-8, 3.84), Alieski Perera (6-2, 3.50). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Michel Enríquez (.407 in only 41 games), Rolexis Molina (.315, 112 hits).
8- Cienfuegos (Elefantes or “Elephants”)
Last Season: 33-57 (4th in Group B); did not qualify for playoffs
Overview: If things weren’t already bleak enough for a team that finished 28 full games behind Habana Province in 2008, Cienfuegos must face a new season without longtime ace and national team standby southpaw Adiel Palma (139-165 for 21 seasons). Palma’s retirement means that versatile lefty Norberto González remains the only mound talent on the coastal scene, not good news for a team sporting mediocre offense to boot. The only bright spot along Cuba’s southern coastline is likely to be highly touted rookie outfielder Yadiel Puig, the universally acknowledged star of last summer’s national junior team.
Manager: Iday Abreu. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Norberto González (9-9, 2 saves), Duniel Ibarra (2-2, 3.82, 2 saves). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Alexander Martínez (.330, 88 hits), Yusniel Ibañez (.328, 7 triples), José Abreu (.318, 13 HR, 22 doubles).
Post-Season: Pinar del Río and Sancti Spíritus will advance to the semifinals, with Pinar the eventual survivor of a full-term seven-game shootout (an exact repeat of last season).
ZONA ORIENTE (Eastern Region)
1- Santiago de Cuba (Avispas or “Wasps”)
Last Season: 61-29 (1st in Group D, tied with Habana Province for best league récord); Champions (swept Pinar del Río four straight in one-sided finals)
Overview: Only three things might possibly block a third straight championship for the potent Wasps: injuries, or an exceptional post-season run by either upstart Pinar del Río or underachieving Villa Clara. With the rapid development of young Héctor Olivera as the league’s most versatile superstar, and the announced return to top form by former ace Dany Betancourt (after a two-year injury-induced hiatus), Pacheco’s crew may well be stronger than ever. But Bell and Olivera and José Julio Ruiz must all stay healthy.
Manager: Antonio Pacheco. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Norge Vera (139-55 lifetime, for the league’s second best career winning percentage), Dany Betancourt (61-37 lifetime récord), Alberto Bicet (11-3, 4 saves). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Alexei Bell (CL MVP and first in league history with 30-plus HRs and 100-plus RBIs), Héctor Olivera (.353, 91 runs, second best total in league), José Julio Ruiz (league base hits leader with 126).
2- Villa Clara (Naranjas or “Orangemen”)
Last Season: 55-33 (1st in Group C); reached semifinals (lost to Santiago in 6 games)
Overview: Villa Clara owns the league’s second-best personnel (behind Oriente rival Santiago), fronted by national team stalwarts Eduardo Paret and Ariel Pestano, along with slugging outfielder Andy Zamora and promising hit-wizard Leonys Martin. This may be the campaign that will prove once and for all whether past post-season failures for the Orangemen can be attributed (as so many have contended) mainly to the unorthodox managerial style of the now-departed Victor Mesa. Leonys Martin will continue to hit.
Manager: Eduardo Martín. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Yosvani Pérez (11-3, ERA runner-up at 2.01), Yolexis Ulacia (3.22, 13 saves, league runner-up in saves and games pitched), Luis Borroto (4-2, 3.25). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Leonys Martin (.393, league’s second-best batsman), Andy Zamora (.350, 137 total bases), Eduardo Paret (.328, 10 HR), Ariel Pestano (.305, 17 doubles).
3- Las Tunas (Magos or “Wizards”)
Last Season: 49-41 (3rd in Group C); swept three straight by Santiago in quarterfinals
Overview: Improved pitching performances from Yoelkis Cruz and Ubisney Bermúdez propped up the annual slugging from Osmani Urrutia and Joan Carlos Pedroso and thus assured a winning season and a second-straight post-season appearance, despite a third-place finish is balanced Group C. Urrutia and Pedroso should have enough support this time around to spur the third post-season ticket in club history. The team’s overall .309 BA last season trailed only Santiago in this vital department.
Manager: Ermidelio Urrutia. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Yoelkis Cruz (13-1, 3.52 ERA), Ubisney Bermúdez (8-8, with 19 starts). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Osmani Urrutia (greatest hitter in CL history with a .370 BA over 14 seasons), Joan Carlos Pedroso (.342, 22 HR), Danel Castro (.287, 8 HR), Henry Urrutia (.314, 11 HR).
4- Ciego de Avila (Tigres or “Tigers”)
Last Season: 53-37 (2nd in Group C); lost in quarterfinals (to Villa Clara in 5 games)
Overview: The often hard-luck Tigers boast one of the league’s most promising young managers, as well as a corps of solid batsmen (Charles, Martínez, Fis, etc.) and one of the league’s best defensive catchers (Lisdey Díaz, the league’s best at throwing out potential base stealers). But they are also unfortunately stuck in the same division with Santiago, Villa Clara, heavy-hitting Las Tunas, and rapidly improving Guantánamo. Fifty victories is not an unreasonable expectation, but that lofty number is likely also the minimum requirement for another run at the post-season party.
Manager: Róger Machado. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Vladimir García (7-5, 3.07 ERA, 10 saves), Michel Folich (9-8, 3.80), Yander Guevara (8-3, 3.00). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Yoelvis Fis (.350, 22 HR, 64 RBI, 208 total bases for third best in league), Isaac Martínez (.355, 12 HR), Adonis García (.355, 18 HR, 61 RBI), Yorelvis Charles (.304, 12 HR).
5- Granma (Alazanes or “Stallions”)
Last Season: 36-54 (4th in Group D); did not qualify for playoffs
Overview: Last winter, in the final season for long-time skipper Carlos Martí, Granma was the league’s biggest disappointment (this writer picked them to challenge Santiago in the Oriente region post-season fray). The best long-ball tandem in the league—Alfredo Despaigne (fourth in HRs with 24 and first in doubles with 33) and Yoennis Céspedes (26 homers, trailing only Alexei Bell)—along with veteran ace Ciro Silvino Licea (ERA champ a year earlier) was not enough to hide shoddy defense (third worst in the league with 128 team errors) and little offensive or defensive depth. There is also little reason to believe that rookie manager Osvaldo Aviles will have much to cheer about this time around, beyond the continued slugging exploits of Despaigne and Céspedes.
Manager: Osvaldo Aviles. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Ciro Silvino Licea (2-8, 3.89 ERA), Leandro Martinez (3-5, 5 saves). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Alfredo Despaigne (.364, 24 HR, 78 RBI), Yoennis Céspedes (.284, 26 HR, 78 RBI), Yordanis Samón (.351, 80 H), Marcos Naranjo (.286, 15 HR, 50 RBI).
6- Guantánamo (Indios or “Indians”)
Last Season: 44-45 (2nd in Group D); did not qualify for playoffs
Overview: The eastern-most province showcases talented national team centerfielder and leadoff hitter Giorvis Duvergel and can also boast one of the league’s most promising newcomers in infielder Yoilan Cerce. Kenen Bailly also contributed mightily to some unexpected offensive displays, and the club fell only a game short of the break-even mark, even while they dropped 16.5 games behind runaway Group D champ Santiago and trailed three Group C squads for a spot in the Oriente playoff derby. Had Agustín Lescaille’s outfit been housed on the other end of the island they would have missed a first-place finish in Group A by only a single game. Duvergel, Bailly and Cerce can be counted on for more offensive fireworks this time around, but there is not enough Indians pitching (beyond Alexander Rodríguez) to extend the season into the month of May.
Manager: Agustín Lescaille. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Alexander Rodríguez (10-2, 3.42 ERA, 7 saves), Yandri Lestapier (7-5 in 18 starts), Leyan Lores (5-7 with 22 appearances). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Giorvis Duvergel (.338, 12 HR, 14 doubles), Kenen Bailly (.367, 14 HR, 19 doubles), Yoilan Cerce (.337, 12 HR).
7- Holguín (Perros or “Dogs”)
Last Season:41-49 (3rd in Group D); did not qualify for playoffs
Overview: It has been all downhill since 2001 (when they walked off with a surprise championship) for veteran manager Héctor Hernández’s lackluster Dogs. The only real bright spot a year ago was the talented arm of new national team pitching prospect Luis Miguel Rodríguez, who replaced once-promising southpaw flamethrower Aroldis Chapman as the showcase ball club superstar. Even a potential return to form by Chapman and a likely repeat performance by Rodríguez doesn’t seem to hold much prospect for a climb out of the mine-filled trenches of the loaded Eastern Division.
Manager: Héctor Hernández. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Luis Miguel Rodríguez (10-7, 2.76 ERA), Aroldis Chapman (6-7, 3.89, 79 Ks). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Maikel Caceres (.318, 87 H), Yunier Paumier (.313, 16 doubles), Jeison Pacheco (.311, 102 H).
8- Camagüey (Tinajones or “Potters”)
Last Season: 35-55 (4th in Group C); did not qualify for playoffs
Overview: More than half a decade after his curtain call as a star national team outfielder, rookie manager Luis Ulacia is still probably the second or third most reliable hitter in the understaffed Camagüey camp. Despite another solid .300-plus season, speedy outfield Leslie Anderson still seems on the decline after his brief tour with the national team a few seasons back. Adalberto Ibarra represents the only other solid lumber in camp and his output last winter (despite hitting .363) offered little in the power department (8 homers and 42 RBI). A pair of solid Team Cuba pitchers—Vicyohandri Odelín and Elier Sánchez (who failed to win more than 10 games between them)—won’t enjoy much consistent success with so little offensive support in the island’s driest diamond wasteland.
Manager: Luis Ulacia. Top Pitchers (SN#47 récords): Vicyohandri Odelín (6-6, 3.92 ERA), Ricardo Estevez (3-7, 3.42), Elier Sánchez (34-26, 3.89 for five seasons). Top Batters (SN#47 stats): Adalberto Ibarra (.363, 114 H), Leslie Anderson (.336, 63 RBI).
Post-Season: Santiago and Villa Clara once more square off in the semifinals series with the Wasps once more reaching the championship series (thus no surprises here either).
For all the other upheavals and surprises of this historic season, the odds are good that the same two team will be left standing at year’s end—Pinar (the upstart Tsunami Verde) out west and power-packed Santiago over in the east. No one is betting against the big four of Pinar, Sancti Spíritus, Industriales and Habana Province reaching post-season play in the Occidente; Santiago and Villa Clara will also continue dominating the Oriente, with only Guantánamo and Granma having an outside shot at unseating Las Tunas and Ciego de Avila for the two remaining post-season slots. The excitement will thus all be fittingly reserved for post-season matches, especially when Santiago and Villa Clara square off and three equal challengers attempt to unseat Pinar out west. The surprise, if any, will likely come when Pinar del Río ultimately tips the balance away from both Santiago and Industriales (the only winners since 2002) and emerges as a new Cuban League kingpin.
If I have not already gone far enough out on the proverbial limb with my speculations about the fall of Industriales to fourth slot in Zona Occidente, or my prediction of Pinar del Río as the ordained new Cuban League champion, how about these added guesses regarding individual landmark performance and achievements during the coming league season. Put these crystal ball images in your pocket and check back with me by mid-May.
Yenier Bello, now with Sancti Spíritus, is Bjarkman’s choice as “surprise player of the year” for National Series # 48.
Batting Champion: Donald Duarte (Pinar del Río)
Base Hits Leader: Héctor Olivera (Santiago de Cuba)
Home Run Champion: Alfredo Despaigne (Granma)
RBI Champion: Donald Duarte (Pinar del Río)
Most Pitching Wins: Luis Miguel Rodríguez (Holguín)
Most Pitching Losses: Carlos Yanes (Isla de la Juventud)
Most Strikeouts: Yadier Pedroso (Habana Province)
ERA Champion: Ian Rendón (Industriales)
Manager of the Year: Luis Giraldo Casanova (Pinar del Río)
Player of the Year: Donald Duarte (Pinar del Río)
Most Improved Player of the Year: Yenier Bello (Sancti Spíritus)
Pedro Lazo’s Final Career Victory Total: 252
Biggest Story of the Season: Cuba’s reappearance in the WBC finals!
WORLD BASEBALL CLASSIC
What would predictions be for this upcoming season without some speculation here about the second renewal of the MLB “Classico” which lies at the very heart of this year’s Cuban baseball festivities? Three years ago I bucked the crowd by early-on predicting a significant surprise from the Cuban forces. I see no reason not to do it once again. Cuba, after all, enjoys a huge advantage in the pairings this time around, facing Mexico, Australia and South Africa in opening round Pool A competitions. Assuming that the Cubans and Mexicans end up in San Diego for Round Two, the most likely survivors among the Asian entries penciled in for the same locale are Japan and Korea. In brief, to reach the semifinals in Los Angeles, Cuba’s merely has to climb over Mexico and either one of the two Asian kingpins. This is not an easy road to traverse by any means, but it is a path with far fewer landmines than the one faced by participants in Pools C and D.
The Round Two competition in Miami will most likely consist of Team USA, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. Neither the Americans nor Dominicans will thus have a very easy route to travel toward Dodger Stadium My own “long shot” selection would be a Final Four consisting of Cuba, Japan, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. And if it does play out exactly that way, then look for a Cuba-Dominican championship match-up that likely would loom as the biggest single event of Cuba’s lengthy and lustrous baseball history. And while we are at it, one final prediction is perhaps in order here. I have it on good authority that the manager of Cuba’s entry in the WBC this time around will again be current league commissioner Higinio Vélez.
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.