Cuba could once compete in the Caribbean Series simply by sending the team that won the championship of Serie Nacional, its top league. But that was when Cuba was able to keep its top talent on the island.
Ciego de Avila, which won the most recent Serie Nacional title, will (technically, at least) represent Cuba in the 2016 Caribbean Series. The annual tournament, which also includes the Winter League champions from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, will take place Feb. 1-7 at Quisqueya Stadium in Santo Domingo.
But Cuba’s team -- which is the defending champion, having won the 2015 Caribbean Series title with a 3-2 win against Mexico's Tomateros de Culiacan -- will be fortified with top players from around the country, making it more of a national team than the Serie Nacional champion. Just 12 members of the Ciego de Avila squad will make the trip, and 16 reinforcements were added, including several players from the Cuban team that won a bronze medal at the Pan Am Games in Toronto last July.
Last year, Cuba won its first Caribbean Series championship since 1960. This victory marked a return to its winning ways in the series it used to dominate before Cuban stars were barred from playing professionally overseas by the government of Fidel Castro in 1961. The island won seven of the first 12 Caribbean Series titles and, although they weren’t able to participate in the Caribbean Series again until 2014, Serie Nacional powerhouses such as the Villa Clara team of 1993-1995 (known as the “Orange Machine”), the “Steamroller” of Santiago de Cuba (1999-2001) or the Industriales “Lions” (2003-2004) could have held their own in the tournament.
But the exodus of players from Cuba has drained talent from the country. Last year alone, more than 100 of them left the island, according to journalist Francys Romero, an expert on Cuban baseball. Many experts say the talent level of players left on the island (at both the amateur and professional level) is the worst in Cuba’s history.
When asked about the state of baseball in Cuba today, a former Cuban baseball player, who was a star on the island in the late 1970s and ‘80s, said, "We are plowing in the mud.”
As players leave, the Cuban government and Cuban baseball officials are making efforts to ensure that the Serie Nacional remains up and running -- and profitable. They have recently begun to allow Cuban players to participate in other leagues, notably Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) -- but with the understanding that they would return to Cuba for the Serie Nacional season, which runs from September through April. And when Cuban authorities sat at the negotiating table with Major League Baseball, they insisted on the right to form a national team for the Caribbean Series.
When Heriberto Suarez, Cuba’s national baseball commissioner, announced the roster for the Caribbean Series, he explained that this team is the result of a short list of 42 players made before the start of the Serie Nacional who "were monitored ... throughout the season, including [their] participation in international tournaments or other leagues."
Still, with few exceptions, Ciego de Avila's roster does include most of the best players remaining in Cuba, and so the team will be well-represented in the Dominican Republic next week. Twenty-two-year-old Jose Adolis Garcia -- an outfielder who hit .308/.393/.520 for Ciego and is the younger brother of Atlanta Braves third baseman Adonis Garcia -- is one of the country’s top prospects. In fact, after the Pan American Games in Toronto, there were rumors that Japan’s Yomiuri Giants were interested in the younger Garcia.
Infielder Lourdes Gourriel, 22, and outfielder Guillermo Aviles, 23, are two other top prospects who will play for Cuba.
Cuba has two sluggers in outfielder Alfredo Despaigne, a three-time Serie Nacional MVP for Granma who also played two seasons for the Chibe Lotte Mariners in Japan’s demanding Pacific League, and infielder Yulieski Gourriel, a veteran of the first World Baseball Classic in 2006. Gourriel is rumored to likely become the first Cuban to play in the majors with the full approval of the Cuban government.
Cuba’s manager, Roger Machado, says he has not finalized his team’s batting order, but his starters will likely be: C Yosvani Alarcon, 1B Ariel Borrero, 2B Raul Gonzalez, 3B Yulieski Gourriel, SS Yorbis Borroto and outfielders Lourdes Gourriel, Stayler Hernandez and Jose Adolis, with Despaigne as Cuba’s designated hitter.
Cuba's team, with the exceptions of Borrero and Despaigne, is quite fast but lacks offensive punch, a problem that has plagued Cuban teams in recent international competition.
"Games are won by scoring runs, and in recent years, it has been difficult to obtain those runs,” Machado said. “But don’t be surprised to see Borrero, Despaigne or Yulieski [step up]. Almost all of the players are hitting above .290 in the Serie Nacional, and given that versatility, it is difficult to think that we can't score runs” in the Caribbean Series.
Pitching could be a problem for Cuba. Few pitchers in Serie Nacional throw 90 mph or have a strong repertoire. Injuries and the poor performances of Freddy Asiel Alvarez and Yosvani Torres, Cuba's top openers, in recent international tournaments don’t bode well either. Right-hander Vladimir Garcia, 33, is Cuba’s top starter, and the bullpen will include Livan Moinelo, Miguel Lahera and Jose Angel Garcia.
Cuba’s first Caribbean Series game will be against Mexico’s Venados de Mazatlán at 2:30 p.m. ET on February 2. All games will air on ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN.