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National Series Group B Again Boasts Cuba’s Most Competitive Pennant Race

by Peter C. Bjarkman

December 24, 2007

Perhaps the safest bet heading into this year’s National Series #47 is that the tightest and most competitive pennant race will be contested in Group B. Habana Province, with its impressive pitching corps, and Sancti Spíritus, with its fiery new field manager and its entertaining power-packed offense, are both quite capable of putting plenty of roadblocks in the path of another Industriales charge toward the championship playoffs. The proud Spírituanos, under now-departed skipper Lourdes Gourriel, in recent years have offered several serious challenges to Anglada’s wildly popular Blue Lions during regular season action; but Gourriel’s teams mysteriously collapsed during post-season warfare on each and every occasion. Such a disappointing late-season scenario is not likely to be repeated under the guidance of a super-motivator like new Gallos skipper and one-time Pinar catching legend Juan Castro. Habana Province’s solid mound duo of Jonder Martinez, Yadir Pedroso and Yulieski Gonzalez has flashed occasional if not sustained brilliance in the past, and solid campaigns from this trio may indeed be enough to compensate for the San Jose team’s rather weak offense; yet some of the league’s least productive hitting will likely remain a large thorn in the side of the Cowboys and thus a huge problem to overcome by Esteban Lombillo’s rather unbalanced ball club. Anglada’s Blue Lions, for their part, boast an everyday lineup (Tabares, Gómez, Mayeta, and Urgellés, for starters) and a deep pitching staff (headed up by Arleys Sánchez, Yadel Martí, Maicel Díaz, and perhaps a rejuvenated Frank Montieth) and thus appear the cream of the league’s crop—at least on paper. But even in Cuba the games are still won in the stadium turf and never decided in the press room or by all-knowing internet commentators.

Historically, it is this division that has been the least one-sided and thus also the least predictable. While Industriales has indeed won two-thirds of the titles over the last fifteen seasons, this is hardly the kind of solid domination demonstrated by Pinar, Villa Clara or Santiago. In the seven seasons of the new century three clubs have finished first in the group and all four teams have made post-season appearances, something that can not be boasted by any of the three remaining divisions. Sancti Spíritus actually owns as many first-place finishes in the current decade as does Industriales, although in post-season sessions the latter team has claimed three championships while Sancti Spíritus is still searching for its first-ever league crown. Over the past half-dozen seasons, only lowly Cienfuegos has regularly remained shut out of title contention, and even the Elephants rose up with a surprisingly strong single season in National Series #42 (2003). This year the top three challengers of Group B seems more tightly packed than ever, and even also-ran Cienfuegos has just enough pitching in veterans Adiel Palma and Norberto González to occasionally make life uncomfortable for their three heftier division rivals.

It would seem far less than a long shot that Group B will indeed produce three playoff teams by season’s end, and it is even more likely that this will be the only Cuban division capable of achieving such a triple distinction during the current campaign. It is not quite a regular occurrence for a single division to grab three of the four playoff slots in either the Occidental or Oriente region, though this has happened with greater regularity than might be expected. Last season both Group B and Group C (Villa Clara, Camagüey, and Las Tunas, for the first time ever) pulled the trick. Group B has, in fact, had a trio of post-season entries for three seasons running now. The weaknesses displayed by three of the four Group A clubs (all but Pinar) make it most likely that the string will be stretched to four in a row. In the Oriente, expected Group C runner-up Ciego de Avila seems to have an edge over either of the two Group D rear-enders (Holguín and Guantánamo), while it can also be claimed that Granma (the chief challenger to defending champion Santiago in Group D) appears to have a large leg up on Group C’s Las Tunas (for all its hitting) and Camagüey (a talent thin outfit and thus a most-likely also-ran). The likely result of all this speculation seems to be that it is a fairly safe wager to pick Villa Clara, Ciego de Avila, Santiago and Granma as the four title contenders out East. In short, we are looking at an even split (two each) for playoff teams from the two Oriente divisions.

The pennant chase in Group B should be a dandy and should keep fans balanced on the edges of their seats from December through the final days of March. During the opening two weeks of league action, Industriales has already displayed its potency on the mound and in the batter’s box, despite being edged out on the road in the inaugural series by the champions from Santiago. The Lions at 10-4 (December 20) have already enjoyed some solid hurling from Yadel Martí (a 7-inning outing in a recent 2-1 edging of Matanzas) and some impressive offensive punch from Carlos Tabares (12 for 20 with six RBI in the first five games). But even this fast start has not opened much of a gap on the top rivals.

Sancti Spíritus has also started strong while playing out East, trailing by only a game and a half after winning eight of thirteen matches. Freddie Cepeda and Eriel Sánchez are both slugging away at a .354 clip, while Liván Monteagudo paces the club with four round-trippers. Habana has also kept pace at 8-6, and the Cowboys have so far surprisingly been carried more by their reputedly anemic offensive (which has produced 12 homers) than their vaunted hurling (which has posted a shaky 4.71 team ERA through 14 outings). Baring some major injuries (always a distinct possibility in baseball), the prospect of a genuine three-team horse race can be expected to hold up the rest of the way. The season may well come down to four crucial series on tap for late March: Industriales concludes the marathon campaign by hosting the Spírituanos in a three game home set at Estadio Latinoamericano (while Habana entertains Cienfuegos); the Lions then close on the road in Nelson Fernández Stadium versus the Habana Cowboys (while Sancti Spíritus in turn visits Cienfuegos). The tight group standings will likely not be entirely sorted out until the unfolding of those final dozen crucial games.

My Predictions: Sancti Spíritus (55-35), Industriales (53-37), Habana Province (49-41), Cienfuegos (36-54). (Sancti Spíritus will reach the finals against Granma)

Industriales Lions (Leones)

Previous Records (since NS #32): 45-20 (1993), 43-22 (1994), 35-28 (1995), 41-22 (1996), 33-30 (1997), 47-43 (1998), 58-32 (1999), 57-33 (2000), 50-40 (2001), 49-41 (2002), 66-23 (2003), 52-38 (2004), 59-30 (2005), 56-34 (2006), 53-36 (2007)

Manager:Rey Vicente Anglada (highly successful manager of Team Cuba since 2006)

Star Players:Yoandry Urgellés (true triple threat outfielder who hits with power and runs like the wind); Alex Mayeta (monster first baseman who bats cleanup for Team Cuba); and Yadel Martí (the crafty right-handed pitching MVP of the 2006 MLB World Baseball Classic)

Stadium: Estadio Latinoamericano

Roster (32 Players): Alden Mesa (#51 C), Jockel Gil (#53 C), Alejandro Reguiera (#39 C), Frank Morejon (#45 C), Alexander Mayeta (#55 1B), Jesús Orta (#79 1B), Enríque Diaz (#1 2B), Raiko Olivares (#6 2B), Rudy Reyes (#10 IF), Doelsis Linares (#9 3B-OF), Yosmani Guerra (#19 SS), Roberto Ramírez (#13 SS), Yoandry Urgelles (#14 OF), Carlos Tabares (#56 OF), Yasser Gómez (#5 OF), Serguei Pérez (#63 OF-3B), Yasser Ottamendi (#42 OF), Yadel Martí (#90 RHP), Arleys Sánchez (#74 LHP), Deinis Suarez (#4 RHP), Frank Montieth (#28 RHP), Maicel Diaz (#35 LHP), Sandy Ojito (#30 LHP), Odrisamer Despaigne (#43 RHP), Alexei Gil (#99 RHP), Reinier Roll (#31 RHP), Frank del Valle* (#3 LHP), Ebrys Martínez (#46 RHP), Jorge Félix Castillo* (#89 LHP), Yadiel Torres (#64 LHP), Ian Rendón (#49 LHP), Yunier Valencia* (#50 RHP). * = Rookies

Industriales carries on its collective team shoulders both the biggest burden and biggest ally in Cuban baseball—its huge and fanatical Havana fan base. Approximately one third of the island’s most zealous rooters are found within the metropolitan borders of Havana City and they all seem to bleed Industriales blue. Manager Rey Anglada’s club is a team always under immense pressure to win, and this seems especially true on the heels of a disappointing final series defeat last spring by arch-rival Santiago. A pre-season fan poll on Radio COCO’s National Series website shows Industriales selected by 35% of those balloting as odds-on favorite to capture this year’s pennant, with defending 2007 champ Santiago de Cuba ranking as the choice of 29%, with only five other clubs receiving votes (Villa Clara 14%, Sancti Spíritus 9%, Pinar 6%, Habana 4% and Las Tunas 3%). But since personal computers are not staple items in most island households, the likely percentage of those expecting Industriales to win it all is probably far greater (certainly in the capital city) than what might be reflected in any such electronic straw polling.

Anglada certainly has the stallions in both his batting order and his rich mound corps to walk away with yet another championship—which would be his fourth in six brief years. But the favorite adage throughout Cuban baseball has long been that “the field decides the outcome” and Anglada’s team folded badly last year just when its fans least expected a collapse. Frank Montieth (the ineffective starter in an opening knockout loss of the final round), Sandy Ojito (a victim of shaky control in the same disastrous opener), and Deinys Sánchez (also hard hit in the sixth and deciding match) were all rudely dismantled by free-swinging Santiago batters during the six-game championship set, despite two early home field Industriales blankings of the eventual champions (Earned with strong starting efforts from Arley Sánchez and Maicel Díaz). After tying the series at two apiece, the hefty Industriales offense was completely shut down in deciding games five and six by wily veteran Norge Vera (who turned in a strong six inning start when it was most needed in pivotal game five) and newcomer Alberto Bicet (who calmly closed out both of the final two contests).

But this season Industriales seems well armed for a revenge drive. On the offensive side of the game it seems hard to imagine the Industriales hitting going very far south, since the lineup of sluggers is well stacked from top to bottom. Urgellés not only batted .351 a year ago (eighth best in the league) but paced the circuit is stolen bases (27). Slugging national team first sacker Alex Mayeta largely disappointed in 2006-07, with only six homers, 64 RBIs and a .284 BA, yet Mayeta walked (83) almost three times more than he struck out (30). Pesky Yasser Gómez makes a living off of hitting .330 (he hit exactly that much last winter and has maintained a .331 mark over ten full seasons). And the ageless Carlos Tabares (he is now 33) again batted near .300 (.297) and stole 25 bases in his fifteenth season. With Rudy Reyes (.301, with occasional displays of power), Serguei Pérez (.292 and capable of DH or outfield roles), and Yosmani Guerra (a solid .297 hitter and stellar infield defender last season with Metropolitanos) also in the lineup, lumber will not at all be in short supply in the Lions’ well-populated dugout.

Rey V. Anglada
Manager Rey Anglada has the toughest job in the Cuban League, that of meeting the expectations of a couple million fanatical Industriales rooters.
It will again be the solid if frequently underachieving pitching, and the sometimes shaky defense, that will likely make or break the season for the Blue Lions and their numerous faithful. The starting mound group is as good and balanced on paper as any contingent in the entire 16-team circuit. Only Pinar and Santiago (and perhaps Habana Province) have equvilant pitching depth. On the front line are southpaws Arleys Sánchez (10-4, 2.01 ERA) and Maicel Díaz (4-4, 4.28), plus a quartet of righties that includes national team mainstay Yadel Martí (4-6, 2.86), once highly touted Frank Montieth (6-4, 2.27), Deinys Suárez (8-5, 2.32) and Sandy Ojito (6-3, 2.73). Marti should be the staff ace with his 90-plus jumping fastball and effective sinker, yet the diminutive right-hander inexplicably struggled in 2006-07. Montieth flashed brilliance as MVP of the 2006 Pre-Olympic tournament yet has been a major disappointment ever since. Ojito owns a lamentable history of injuries that have slowed his promising career, while Suárez has struggled with control problems that have limited the effectiveness of his wicked 93 mph fastball.

If Martí and Montieth bounce back from their mediocre campaigns of National Series #46, there might be little to slow an inevitable Industriales charge toward the playoffs. Even if one or the other continues his mysterious slump all may not be lost. Suárez (who disappointed last year in the post-season, where his ERA ballooned to 4.22), Ojito (as good as anyone in Anglada’s armada when he is healthy), and Sánchez (who rivals Adiel Palma, Aroldis Chapman and Norberto González as the best current Cuban League southpaw) by themselves represent a trio that would anchor any other National Series club’s front-line starting rotation. Healthy and productive seasons for any three or four of the Industriales starters will be enough to cause headaches everywhere else across the division. Unless, that is, some wheels fall off somewhere else—perhaps an injury to either Urgellés or Mayeta, or a sudden aging by Tabares or Yasser Gómez. But this is a team with enough depth to withstand even occasional injury and some resulting lineup shuffling. The arrival of Yosmani Guerra from Metros will definitely improve the quality of infield play and also free Rudy Reyes to play third on a regular basis. Dioelsis Linares was (surprisingly in light of the presence of Mayeta and Urgellés) the club leader (10) in homers a year ago and is versatile enough to fill the DH role, or spell Reyes at the hot corner. And Serguei Pérez (.292) is also a potential DH or valuable backup to the outfield trio of Gómez, Tabaers and Urgellés should any of the front liners be sidelined or in need of a breather. The picture is indeed bright this winter in Latin American Stadium. But satisfying the Havana faithful is by far the biggest chore in Cuban baseball. If Anglada and his talented club don’t come through in grand style, as widely expected, and easily outdistance a balanced Group B field, there will in all likelihood be loud new calls among the crazed fanatics for a new manager to direct the fortunes of their beloved Azules.

Sancti Spíritus Roosters (Gallos)

Previous Records (since NS #32): 26-39 (1993), 36-29 (1994), 23-41 (1995), 21-44 (1996), 16-49 (1997), 27-63 (1998), 33-57 (1999), 39-51 (2000), 38-52 (2001), 53-37 (2002), 49-41 (2003), 54-35 (2004), 54-36 (2005), 58-32 (2006), 51-38 (2007)

Manager: Juan Castro (as a player, one of Cuba’s all-time greats behind the plate)

Star Players: Frederich Cepeda (this author’s long-standing choice as the best all-around ballplayer on the island); Yulieski Gourriel (heavy-hitting third sacker who still has enough potential to become the next Omar Linares); and Eriel Sánchez (portly veteran backup national team catcher who still hits as well as anyone in the entire league)

Stadium: Estadio José Antonio Huelga

Roster (32 Players): Eriel Sánchez (#5 C), Reinier Yero (#2 C), Yoannys Delgado (#14 C), Yunier Mendoza (#18 1B), Yordanis Rodríguez (#50 1B), Osdelvis Bernal (#25 IF), Ixis Valle (#47 IF), Robersis Ramos* (#11 IF), Eliecer Valera (#53 IF), Reinier Escobar (#8 IF), Yulieski Gourriel (#10 3B), Frederich Cepeda (#24 OF), Liván Monteagudo (#19 OF), Yunieski Gourriel (#51 OF), Adonis Zamora (#56 OF), José Luis Sáez (#15 OF), Yasiel Santoya (#3 OF-1B), Yovani Aragón (#35 RHP), Ifreidi Coss (#26 RHP), Ismel Jiménez (#74 RHP), Angel Peña (#21 RHP), Noelvis Hernández (#34 RHP), Ramón Licor (#22 LHP), Joen Socarrás (#92 RHP), Danny González (#49 RHP), Yaniel Sosa (#1 RHP), Damichel Pérez* (#57 LHP), Lázaro Brunet* (#93 RHP), Jorge Luis Carbonell (#27 RHP), Luisvany García* (#99 RHP), Jorge Luis Pérez (#27 LHP), Pedro Salgueiro* (#54 RHP). * = Rookies

The biggest question regarding the Gallos undoubtedly is the expected impact of new manager Juan Castro. Will the one-time catching great be able to reverse the post-season blues that plagued this ball club during their last few seasons under the tenure of Lourdes Gourriel? Castro has had a long wait in the wings for the chance to again prove himself as a National Series manager; it is now a decade and a half since his one brief and largely unsuccessful run with a thinly equipped Pinar del Río ball club (then called Forestales) in the 1989-1991 seasons. Castro’s selection last summer to replace the departed Lourdes Gourriel came as something of a surprise, considering the rumored candidacies of such figures as Higinio Vélez (Cuba’s WBC manager and now the new league commissioner), Pedro Jova (manager of three national championship with Villa Clara), and Germán Mesa (former national team shortstop great who was also rumored as a potential replacement for Anglada with Industriales). Once Castro was handed the reins of the Blue and Orange, however, a new optimism seemed to predominate throughout the Sancti Spíritus camp.

Castro’s team should be a terror on offense, boasting as it does a three-through-five-slot combination at the heart of the batting order that is second to none on the island. Freddie Cepeda, the island’s top switch-hitter, is one of Cuba’s most disciplined sluggers and is a sure bet to again rank among the league’s leaders in on-base percentage; Cepeda not only batted .337 in 2007 but posted a top league mark of 86 bases on balls. Explosive Yulieski Gourriel paced the circuit in doubles (28) and ranked in the top ten in runs (65), base hits (120), homers (13), total bases (187), and BA (.345). Catcher Eriel Sánchez (.336, 8 HR, 62 RBIs) also paced the circuit in game-winning hits (25). And besides the “Big Three” there are also some other solid bats in the Gallos impressive arsenal. Twenty-nine-year-old right-fielder Liván Monteagudo (one of those rare athletes who throws left but bats right) hit .319 with 44 RBIs (actually more than Cepeda), while center-fielder Yunieski Gourriel (older brother of Yulieski) batted a respectable .307 with 17 extra base hits.

Pitching will be the big issue here and there will have to be some reinforcements found to back up veterans Yovani Aragón and Ifreidi Coss. Aragón is coming off one of his better efforts in several years (10-5, 2.72) and is still the staff ace at age thirty-four. Coss has of late failed to approach his early successes of 2002 and 2003 and sadly slumped to 3-6 last winter, but still throws an impressive 90 mph fastball with plenty of hop. Primary hopes for better pitching depth, however, lie in the arms of Angel Peña—sidearm veteran of a dozen seasons who sports a career 78-64 mark—and Ismel Jiménez—22-year-old lanky righty who owns a three-season .667 (22-11) winning percentage. Jiménez seemingly came of age with a 2.20 ERA in 2007, and his 7-3 récord and 2 saves in 111-plus innings also suggested potential as both starter and reliever. Peña has been inconsistent in the past yet turned in a solid 9-3 ledger in NS #46 that featured the league’s fourth-best ERA at 1.45. There will also likely have to be a considerable turnaround on the part of veteran Noelvis Hernández, who slumped badly last year (5-6, 3.99) after pacing the entire circuit in ERA a season earlier. If this trio can only produced their best efforts simultaneously, Castro may just find the pitching needed to balance his expected arsenal of top batsmen.

The ace in the hole for the Sancti Spíritus forces this time around may just be a new Mizuno 150 baseball that will not only be fodder for their own offense but may also poke a hole or two in the superior pitching of top rival Industriales. Few on the Cuban baseball scene are predicting that the Gallos have the wherewithal—despite the trio of top hitters, some talent prospects like Peña and Jiménez, and their new motivational bench leader—to reach beyond the first round of the post-season party. A first-place slot atop favored Industriales would thus be one of the bigger upsets on the island in recent memory. But like National Series #39 (2000) when wooden bats returned and slugging and fielding immediately went out the window, this year’s jack rabbit ball could take some strange bounces. And no one may benefit more than the hit-happy orange and blue clad Roosters.

Juan Castro
The biggest question of National Series #47 is whether or not new manager Juan Castro can engineer a drastic turnaround for the previous underachieving Sancti Spíritus ball club.
Habana Province Cowboys (Vaqueros)

Previous Records (since NS #32): 31-34 (1993), 35-30 (1994), 46-18 (1995), 37-27 (1996), 30-35 (1997), 54-36 (1998), 51-39 (1999), 35-55 (2000), 50-40 (2001), 45-45 (2002), 51-39 (2003), 38-51 (2004), 54-35 (2005), 51-38 (2006), 46-44 (2007)

Manager: Estéban Lombillo

Star Players:Jonder Martínez (solid right-hander reliever for several recent editions of Team Cuba); Yadier Pedroso (member of the World Baseball Classic pitching corps); and Juan Carlos Linares (reliable in not spectacular young outfield prospect)

Stadium: Estadio Nelson Fernández (San José de las Lajas)

Roster (31 Players): Danger Guerrero (#13 C), Yaniel Cabezas* (#3 C), Alberto Toledo (#5 C), Ernesto Molinet (#7 IF), Roberto Zulueta (#23 IF), José Antonio Iglesias (#10 IF), Liobel Pérez (#20 IF), Michel Rodríguez (#4 IF), Rolando Méndez (#24 IF), Michel González (#77 IF), Misael Noriega (#25 IF), Rafael Orta (#55 OF), Juan Carlos Linares (#51 OF), Juan Carlos Torres (#17 OF), Ruby Silva* (#12 OF), Orlando Lavandera (#16 OF), Pedro William Castillo (#14 OF), Yulieski González (#48 LHP), Yadier Pedroso (#62 RHP), Jonder Martínez (#27 RHP), Richard Aguilera* (#92 RHP), José Angel García (#99 RHP), Israel Sánchez* (#43 RHP), Elián Leyva* (#65 RHP), Gerardeo Miranda (#8 RHP), Armando Rivero (#32 RHP), Ricardo Hernández* (#95 RHP), Miguel Alfredo González (#75 RHP), Miguel Lahera (#42 RHP), Noel Argüelles (#98 LHP), Ariel Miranda* (#89 LHP), Rubén Valdés (#26 RHP). * = Rookies

The Habana Province Cowboys have rung up a string of successful seasons over the past half-decade, winning better than fifty games in three of the past five campaigns, suffering through only one losing winter in the past five years, being shut out from the playoffs only a single time (2004) over this same stretch, and even reaching the championship finale versus Santiago in National Series #44 (2005). But it is indicative of this loaded division that even such a respectable récord (a .537 winning percentage) has not brought the club based in San José de las Lajas much success (beyond the single 2004-05 title chase) in the challenging march toward a national championship banner. Even the most reasonable prognostications would suggest that the upcoming season only offers more of the same, even if this might be one of the best Habana nines in more than a decade.

Given the weaknesses in hitting lately displayed by skipper Estéban Lombillo’s forces, it is perhaps a quite remarkable fact that they were even a plus-.500 ball club during the recent National Series #46. Few teams presented a weaker offensive lineup from top to bottom than did the hapless Cow Punchers. As a unit Habana posted a quiet .261 BA in 2007 (15 points below the league average), placing them thirteenth overall in the circuit. Collectively the club slugged only 34 round-trippers (also ranking them number 13 in the league), only 22 more than the number already bashed in only the first 14 games of 2007-08. Of the 34 homers managed last year, nearly half (16) came off the bat of the team’s single offensive star, Juan Carlos Linares (who ironically somehow led the circuit in slugging at .586, while representing one of the league most impotent lineups). To add to these offensive woes, the Cowboys didn’t display much of a defense either, trailing all 15 rivals in double plays turned (with 93) and posting only the league’s twelfth best fielding average (.969). Given such distinct lack of support, it seems a minor miracle that the club’s pitching corps still rang up the league’s fifth-best collective ERA (of 3.49).

Habana Province clearly owns one of the best starting mound corps in the league (Yadier Pedroso, Jonder Martínez, Yulieski González) and can also boast one of the top closers in José Angel García, now ranked number one on the all-time career saves list. If there is a recognizable weakness in Habana’s pitching it might be found only in the middle relief staff, where hopefully Miguel Lahera (30 appearances and 3 saves) and Rubén Valdés (20 appearances) will log enough effective innings to turn a reasonable number of games over to the dependable right arm of closer García. Among their impressive numbers the Cowboys staff posted the top National Series total in strikeouts (523), were surpassed by only four other clubs in fewest bases on balls allowed, and ranked fourth best in batting averages against at .262 (what opposing lineups hit against Habana pitching). Heading up this illustrious staff is national team bullpen standby Jonder Martínez, who was the top starter for the 2007 Cowboys (10-3, 1.40 ERA); Jonder’s microscopic ERA tied that of Pinar’s Yunieski Maya for second in the league behind Granma’s Ciro Silvino Licea (1.15). Second up in the solid rotation is Yadier Pedroso (7-7, 3.64), also a recent national team reserve. The top Habana Province lefty will again be Yulieski González (7-4, 3.51), who flashed brilliance for Cuba B at the World Port Tournament in August. And the best arm of all may well belong to closer García (7-4 récord), who with a league-best 14 saves took direct part (wins or saves) in a remarkable 21 of his team’s 46 victories (46%). If the Cowboys can only find some way to hit just a bit more this year, this talented pitching battalion might in the end carry them quite a long way, even against the hefty opposing bats offered up by Sancti Spíritus and Industriales.

Cienfuegos Elephants (Elefantes)

Previous Records (since NS #32): 25-40 (1993), 20-45 (1994), 33-31 (1995), 28-37 (1996), 25-40 (1997), 27-63 (1998), 42-48 (1999), 34-56 (2000), 28-62 (2001), 33-57 (2002), 52-38 (2003), 27-62 (2004), 31-59 (2005), 35-54 (2006), 42-48 (2007)

Manager: Dessy Lomba

Star Players: Adiel Palma (long-time reliable southpaw starter for the Cuban national team); Norberto González (another Team Cuba left-handed mainstay working out of the bullpen); and Osvaldo Arias (backup catcher on Cuba’s B-level national team and the Elephants’ single long-ball slugging threat)

Stadium: Estadio Cinco de Septiembre

Roster (32 Players): Osvaldo Arias (#40 C), Camilche Veloz (#75 C), Adir Ferrán (#53 C), Alexander Martínez (#41 1B), Yosvani Lazo (#46 1B), Pavel Quesada (#7 2B), Jorge Robeysi Rodríguez (#9 2B), Yuniel Ditta (#2 SS), ErisbelArruebarruena* (#11 SS), José Dariel Abreu (#23 3B), José Miguel Pérez (#42 3B), Yusniel Ibáñez (#17 OF), Yoelvisi Leyva (#56 OF), Juan Miguel Soriano* (#54 OF), Alexei García (#25 OF), Juan Miguel Vázquez (#54 OF), Lázaro Rodríguez (#54 OF), Adiel Palma (#16 LHP), Norberto González (#32 LHP), Yuniel Vargas* (#97 RHP), Yasiel Morales (#69 LHP), Yasmani Fernández (#71 LHP), Yuniel Leyva (#26 LHP), Dunier Ibarra (#30 RHP), Samuel Ruíz (#62 RHP), Yoisnel Hernández (#22 RHP), Randy Guitiérrez (#28 RHP), Norelvis Entenza (#90 RHP), Yasmani Insua (#27 RHP), Jorge Hernández* (#66 RHP), Yosenel Cuéllar* (#18 LHP), Alien Capote* (#94 RHP). * = Rookies

Perhaps no single team in the entire league has two better left-handed starters than do the Elephants of Cienfuegos, but two pitchers (no matter how good they might be) do not make an entire team. One indicator of this fact is the disparity across the years between Adiel Palma’s less-than-impressive récord as the Cienfuegos staff ace and his more eye-catching ledger as a starter on the Cuban national team. As a stalwart for Team Cuba, Palma has made his mark largely in the past four years, being selected as the starter in such vital games as the 2004 Athens Olympics gold medal showdown with Australia, the 2006 Pre-Olympic Qualifier match in Havana versus Team USA, and the 2007 Pan Am Games finale also versus the Americans. Debuting back in 1987 (NS #27) in National Series action, Palma’s 20-year mark with Cienfuegos (a team with only one playoff appearance over the duration) is a less-than-impressive 136-157 (3.97), a ledger much more attributable to lack of support than lack of talent. The national team labors of Norberto González in the past half-decade (mostly out of the bullpen) have also earned Cienfuegos’s number two southpaw plaudits as one of the best lefties on the island. Yet Norberto’s ten-season mark with his home club (82-80, 4.35 ERA) barely tops the break-even standard. Given the 42-48 finish by last year’s Cienfuegos edition, the winning récords posted by both Palma (9-5, 2.89) and especially González (12-5, 2.76) may have indeed been two of the bigger successes stories of last year’s National Series action.

The remainder of Dessy Lomba’s pitching staff is nothing to do much bragging about and is therefore one of the best windows into his club’s recent dilemmas. Half of the team’s total victories were posted by the duo of Palma and González alone, the remainder of the staff standing a disappointing 21-38. Two young relievers did, however, show some promise: Yuniel Leyva (3-4, 4 saves, 3.76 ERA, 25 appearances) and Randy Gutiérrez (2-0, 2 saves, 2.17 ERA, 20 appearances) both have the youth and the arms to earn rolls this seasons as the club’s number two and three starters, thus leaving the bulk of the bullpen work to Norberto González, whose greatest talents remain those of a long-relief specialist. Lefty Leovel Cardoso has also been tabbed by Lomba for the role of a starter in 2008, but this youngster will surely have to improve drastically on his three victories of a year ago if prospects of a pennant challenge are to brighten any in Fifth of September Stadium. If Cardoso, Leyva and Gutiérrez fail to meet expectations, there is little reason to expect much help from backups Samuel Ruíz (2-5, 3.94) and Yoisnel Hernández (1-5, 4.67), both of whom have failed to distinguish themselves in their earlier trials as starters.

On the offensive side of the ledger, the Elephants may see some light at the end of the tunnel, if last season’s performance was any indication of things to come. Half a dozen respectable bats can be likely counted on to at least put some runs on the board for a team whose mound corps will need plenty of hefty support. Among the promising hitters are first sacker Alex Martínez (.325 BA, 100 hits in 2007), outfielder Yusniel Ibánez (.298), first baseman and DH Yosvany Lazo (.293, 11 HR, 51 RBI), infielder Jorge Rodríguez (.280), third baseman José Abreu (.293, 9 HR), and catcher Osvaldo Arias (club leader in homers with 13). But the real problem, in the end, is that this largely mediocre ball club is simply housed in the wrong division. Put them in Group A (with Isla, Metropolitanos and Matanzas) and they might hold a fighting chance at surfacing with a second place slot, even if the year-end playoffs might still lie far beyond their grasp.

Intense competition in Group B will likely refocus much of Cuba’s fan attention (most especially that part which resides in and around the capital city) on the western half of the island nation—attention that shifted eastward last season during Santiago’s wresting of power from dethroned champion Industriales. If Habana Province can somehow sustain the masterful pitching that many anticipate, the rapidly improving Cowboys might indeed make this a legitimate three team division race, at least until the “dog days” of March set in. All visible signs point to a repeat victory for Industriales. But it won’t come so easy this time around for the popular team that is managed by both Rey Anglada and 2.5 million or so unforgiving and baseball-savvy Habaneros.

Note: For background on the history of Cuban League structure or the division of the current league into four regional groups, see my earlier article devoted to Group A.

Peter C. Bjarkman is author of the award-winning A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) plus the forthcoming Baseball’s Other Big Red Machine: A History of the Cuban National Team (McFarland, 2009). Bjarkman is considered the foremost authority on Cuban baseball history and is also a leading collector of Cuban national team game-worn uniforms. He has made more than 40 visits to Cuba since 1997.