Could Cuba win the Caribbean Series again?
Could Cuba win the Caribbean Series again?
From the edge of a bench at Old Havana’s Central Park, where he sits everyday so as to talk about baseball with his friends, “after work”, Radames, an enthusiast that says to be 51 years old although he doesn’t look his age, doesn’t think twice before stating that the Cuban team to participate in the 58th edition of the Caribbean Series, in the Dominican Republic, is the great favorite to win the title of a tournament that gathers champions from the main Latin American leagues.
“Ciego de Avila is presently the best team in Cuba, with the finest baseball players we have in the country, so if the pitching process works fairly well, they’ll win the championship,” Radames explains, an opinion that is loudly backed up by most of the fans that come together at the most famous baseball circle in the country; while just a few of them skeptically move their head, demand a less-partial criteria and they don’t even think that the Cuban team will make to the final.
Cuba was the utmost supporter of the creation, 68 years ago, of the Caribbean Series. Through 1959 the Cuban teams had played the leading role in what people describe as the first stage of the Series, since they won seven titles between 1949 and 1961. When Fidel Castro took office, the professional sport was no longer practiced on the Island, so Cuba stop participating in these events. The isolation lasted for over five decades and the Cuban team returned to the event in 2014, when it took place on Isla Margarita, Venezuela.
The Cuban authorities decided that the country would be represented by the champion of the National Series —that has been the league’s name since 1962— and, in 2014, that title was held by Villa Clara. The result was disastrous, since the team barely won a game and finished fifth and last. A year later, Pinar del Rio Vegueros attended the tournament organized in San Juan. This time round, the executives decided to hold the main players of the westernmost team and completed the list with the best baseball players of the country, four of which had played in the 2014 season of the Japanese professional League: Alfredo Despaigne, Yuliesky Gourriel, Frederich Zepeda and Hector Mendoza. This team didn’t begin with the right foot, but it later gained momentum and, in the semifinal, it defeated the favorite to the title, Anzoátegui Caribes and, in the final, the Cuban players left Mexican Culiacan Tomateros behind, 3-2. This was the eighth title collected by a Cuban team and the first one since the coronation of Cienfuegos Elefantes, back in 1960.
Ciego de Avila in the 2016 Series
The manager of Ciego de Avila, Roger Machado — the man that led the national team to the third position in Toronto Pan-American Games — will be guiding a team that stands out in offensive terms, but the group of starters seems to be the weakest element. Machado could make good use of the players that helped him win the past season of the National Series, such as shortstop Yorbis Borroto, catcher Osvaldo Vazquez, first base Ariel Borrero, second base Raul Gonzalez and fielder Jose Adolis Garcia — brother of Adonis Garcia, third base of the Atlanta Braves, who will be playing in the Series with the Aragua Tigers—; on the other hand, reinforcements Yuliesky Gourriel, Lourdes Gourriel, Alfredo Despaigne and Stayler Hernandez will be making up a well-balanced line-up, where Despaigne’s physical condition is the main question.
This player hasn’t participated in a single game of the ongoing National Series and his participation in this tournament was only confirmed after receiving the green light given by Chiba Lotte Marines, where he will be playing the second year of a contract signed for 4.1 million dollars. The pre-season hasn’t started in Japan, so we’ll see how Despaigne performs, since he is supposed to have the fourth offensive position in the line-up.
This year round, the Cuban offensive power is lower than the one shown back in 2015; however, it’s still capable of scoring runs, although home runs will be missed. Machado’s main headache would be related to starting pitchers. Only Vladimir Garcia seems to have the potential to intimidate rival batters with his speed, since the other pitchers (Vladimir Baños, Dachel Duquesne, Yoanni Yera) depend on other resources in order to prevail. Therefore, relief pitcher are going to play an important role, led by southpaw Livan Moinelo, whose performance was excellent in the previous edition of the Caribbean Series, as well as in the Pan-Am Games and the Premier 12 tournament. With these characteristics, the team can be described as one of the favorites to conquer the title. Perhaps the team is not unbeaten in the first stage, but due to the changes established in the Caribbean Series since 2014, which include the celebration of semifinal and final, everything will be decided in two sudden death games and this scenario favors the aspirations of the Cuban team.
None of the five teams that are going to play in the Caribbean Series 2016 participated in the previous edition of the tournament. The Santurce Cangrejeros, Puerto Rico, is the team with the largest history in the Series, with five titles, the last one was obtained in 2000; while Leones del Escogido has won four titles and Venados de Mazatlan and Tigres de Aragua hold one crown.
The Cangrejeros was victorious in the 2015-2016 season of Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League, by defeating the Indios de Mayagüez. The Leones prevailed over the Tigres de Licey in the game for the title of the Dominican League and, since they are going to play in their home field, at Quisqueya Juan Marichal Stadium, they are undoubtedly included in the list of favorites. Venezuela will be represented by Tigres de Aragua, which let Navegantes de Magallanes on the field, after having begun 0-2 in the final playoff. Mexico is going to have its Venados de Mazatlan, which defeated the Aguilas de Mexicali in the Pacific League.
The enthusiasts at the Central Park don’t seem to have much information on the teams to be faced by Ciego de Avila, but they do know that all of them count on Cuban baseball players. “We’re proud of them, because Adonis Garcia is a star in Venezuela and Jorge Martinez is a leading pitcher with Cangrejeros. What’s going to happen when they play against their former teammates? I don’t know, but they are professionals, so they’ll do their best, but it should be odd,” Radames pointed out, although his friends were already talking about another topic on their “agenda”, is Yuliesky Gourriel ever going to play in Major League?