By Peter C. Bjarkman
October 3, 2007
As Major League Baseball prepares to launch its own marathon playoffs, scheduled to stretch into early November and culminating in what has long been inappropriately labeled as the “World” Series, a promising new diamond tournament—one worthy of considerable attention and far more reasonably viewed as something of a true “world” series—simultaneously unfolds on the Latin American baseball scene during the next two weeks. Scheduled for the city of Valencia, Venezuela, and officially designated as the I Liga Latinoamericana y Caribeña (First Latin American and Caribbean League), the new championship series will run for ten days (October 3-12) and will match national squads representing six Latino nations: host Venezuela and world champion Cuba, plus Puerto Rico, Brazil, Colombia and Nicaragua. While Cuba alone has so far announced its 27-man roster for the event, Venezuela will most likely field a squad of former professionals substantially mirroring its strong entrant in last September’s Havana-based IBAF Americas Olympic Qualifier round robin. Nicaragua, in turn, will be represented by the Granada team that won this past winter’s league championship. Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Panama were also invited to Valencia, but all three declined to participate in this year’s inaugural tournament event.
If nothing else, the premier edition of the LLCB will have a somewhat more legitimate claim to the title of “World Series” than the parallel MLB tournament. After all, these Venezuelan games will involve actual national squads competing in an “international atmosphere” and not merely hired guns representing exclusively USA-based corporations (what else are major league ball clubs?). And it will even more certainly stake its claim as replacement for the recently emasculated annual February Caribbean Series winter league playoffs (this year to be staged between the Dominicans, Venezuelans and Mexicans in Santo Domingo) as an authentic Caribbean Basin championship series. For one thing, the entrants in annual playoffs between champions of the MLB-affiliated winter circuits are not true “national teams” since squads representing, say, Puerto Rico or Venezuela or Mexico often include Americans, Canadians and other non-nationals on their rosters. And the tournament that was once the jewel of Caribbean winter baseball has, over the past several decades, steadily diminished in stature, since so few top-level minor league stars or big league veterans any longer take part in the watered-down winter league circuits.
Panama, the fourth Americas region qualifier for the Taipei World Cup (alongside Cuba, Venezuela, and the USA), had earlier accepted a LLCB invitation from Franz Weber, president of the Venezuelan Baseball Federation, yet announced only this weekend that it would withdraw due to lack of preparation for a tournament at this level. Perhaps tired of waiting for a long-rumored but never-forthcoming invitation to join the Latin American Baseball Alliance-sponsored professional winter league event, Cuba signed on earlier this summer as one of the major forces behind the promising new Valencia event, actually the fourth international tournament staged on Venezuelan soil during recent months (others included the second annual ALBA Games last spring, AA-level IBAF-sponsored World Championships, the little-known Simon Bolivar Cup invitational, and finally the IBAF Junior World Championships in August). The new series will also be staged on the heels of a most-disappointing Pan American Games held last July in Río de Janeiro. Río’s disastrous tournament (won not surprisingly by Cuba) was wrecked by numerous postponements due to poor weather and inadequate facilities and ultimately even saw cancellation of its important bronze medal third-place game between Nicaragua and Mexico. This week’s Valencia tournament thus hopes to resurrect the legitimacy and past glories of international competitions staged within the world’s foremost baseball hotbed that comprises the Caribbean Basin.
One notable feature of the new LLCB will be the presence of a somewhat revamped and strengthened world champion Cuban national team that promises to be one of the most potent in many years. This evaluation of the current Team Cuba might indeed be hard to accept, in light of those Cuban juggernauts of the 1990s featuring Omar Linares, Orestes Kindelán, Antonio Pacheco and company, or the more recent powerhouse squads that dominated the Athens Olympics and shocked MLB-fans by reaching the finals of the 2006 World Baseball Classic in San Diego. This past summer, however, two nearly equal versions of “Team Cuba” dominated international competition in both Río de Janeiro (Pan American Games) and Rotterdam (World Port Tournament). What was at the time assumed to be a backup squad sent to Rotterdam under manager Victor Mesa twice easily dispatched the same USA squad (a group of talented university all-stars) that had two weeks earlier given Rey Anglada’s Cuba A ball club a severe test during the Río’s gold medal finale. The performance of Mesa’s Cuba B squad in Rotterdam—with such formidable young stars as Alfredo Despaígne, Donald Duarte and Alexei Bell—caused this author to speculate that perhaps the most competitive World Cup gold medal game this coming November in Taipei would be an imagined contest staged between the two versions of the Cuban national team managed by Anglada and Mesa.
Journalist and Cubaball expert Ray Otero, in a column for www.baseballdecuba.com has already observed that the composite Team Cuba squad now headed for Venezuela’s LLCB may be in truth the best—certainly the most balanced—Cuban squad to take the field in a decade or more. As Otero argues, this version (a composite of the Río and Rotterdam rosters) indisputably has a better balance between righty and lefty pitching, and also between run-producing offense and run-squelching defense, than some other Cuban nines of quite recent vintage (especially the one sent to Río, that was restricted to only six pitchers and unaccountably also did little timely hitting). The potent Cuban club earmarked for Venezuela will feature a half dozen southpaws on the mound corps, and all six have already earned their stripes in tough international competitions. Adiel Palma has been a national team mainstay for much of the decade (and held the Americans at bay in the Río finals in July); Yulieski González produced stellar back-to-back closing efforts (twice working out of bases-loaded threats with the games on the line) against Team USA and Chinese Taipei in Rotterdam.
I myself earlier suggested on the baseballdecuba website that the young Cuban team in Rotterdam might have been the undisputed equal of Anglada’s Cuba A squad that had emerged victorious in Rio, despite any lack of name recognition among emerging players like Yosvani Peraza, Alexei Bell and Donald Duarte. I was most especially impressed firsthand in Rotterdam with the quartet of Vladimir Baños (a hard-throwing Pinar right hander who started both tight first-round victories over eventual finalist Chinese Taipei), Alfredo Despaígne (who is rapidly replacing Yulieski Gourriel as the island’s stellar offensive weapon of the future), Héctor Olivera (whose agility had USA pro scouts in Rotterdam buzzing about his impressive range and foot speed, and who has now made Alexei Ramírez suddenly very dispensable at the vital second base position), and Yosvani Peraza (a defensively unpolished but offensively potent backstop whose long-ball power dominated the Rotterdam field). What we will now see in Valencia is a “dream team” contingent composed of the very best of the two summer 2007 national squads, and also a power-packed roster selected with a clear eye to overall team strength. Team Cuba has already undergone nearly a forty percent overhaul (three of eight starters plus almost half of the pitching and a majority of the key reserves) from the WBC squad of March 2006.
The complete Cuba LLCB roster is as follows. Catchers are veterans Ariel Pestano (Villa Clara) and Eriel Sánchez (Sancti Spíritus), plus promising newcomer Yosvani Peraza (Pinar del Río)—MVP of the August Rotterdam World Port Tournament. Infielders include Alex Mayeta (Industriales), Héctor Olivera (Santiago de Cuba), Rudy Reyes (Industriales), Luis Miguel Navas (Santiago de Cuba), Eduardo Paret (Villa Clara), and Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus). Olivera proved a “can’t-miss” prospect in Rotterdam and now adequately replaces the departed Alexei Ramírez at second base, whereas team captain Paret and versatile slugger Gourriel have been mainstays of the Cuban infield in recent years. Outfielders number Freddie Cepeda (Sancti Spíritus), Osmani Urrutia (Las Tunas), Giorvis Duvergel (Guantánamo), Yoandry Urgellés (Industriales)—these were the four rotating starting outfielders in Río—along with promising newcomers Yoennis Céspedes (Granma) and Alfredo Despaígne (Granma). The latter youngsters are the most promising prospects on Cuba’s horizon in perhaps a full decade. Right-handed pitching features Pedro Luis Lazo (Pinar del Río), Vladimir Baños (Pinar del Río), Yunieski Maya (Pinar del Río), Jonder Martínez (Habana Province), Yadel Martí (Industriales) and national team rookie reliever José Angel García (Habana Province). The left-handed mound corps consists of Arleys Sánchez (Habana Province), Aroldis Chapman (Holguín), Norberto González (Cienfuegos), Adiel Palma (Cienfuegos), Elier Sánchez (Camagüey), and Yulieski González (Habana Province). The mound staff, like the overall roster, is an ideal blend of seasoned veterans (Lazo, Martí, Maya, Norberto and Yulieski González) and promising young arms (Baños, Chapman, García, Arleys and Elier Sánchez). The manager will again be Industriales skipper Rey Vicente Anglada, assisted by coaches Arturo Hechevarría (Pinar del Río), Orestes Kindelán (Santiago de Cuba), Luis Danilo Lardute (Santiago de Cuba), Rolando Verde (Habana Province), José Elosegui (veteran Habana Province pitching coach), Omar Carrero (Habana Province), and former national team manager Jorge Fuentes (once again the skipper at Pinar del Río). An additional eight national team prospects will not make the trip to Venezuela but will remain in training in Havana as possible replacements for the Taiwan World Cup in November. This number includes catcher Osdanis Montero (Las Tunas); utility infielder Donald Duarte (Pinar del Río); power-hitting first sacker José Julio Ruiz (Santiago de Cuba); outfielders Carlos Tabares (Industriales) and Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba); and veteran pitchers Norge Luis Vera (Santiago), Vicyohandri Odelín (Camagüey) and Alberto Bicet (Santiago).
Cuba would seem the overwhelming favorite in Valencia, but there promises to be healthy competition from the host Venezuelans, if only enough to make the two-week round robin shootout somewhat entertaining. The event should be an intriguing preview of Latin America’s prospects for the upcoming Taipei World Cup 37 now looming on the near horizon, as well as a stern test for promising future Cuban stars like Despaígne, Peraza and Baños. An especially intriguing aspect of the first LLCB is, of course, the presence of a national squad from Puerto Rico, the one-time Caribbean mainstay recently forced to cancel its upcoming Winter League season due to diminished fan interest. What level of team the Puerto Rican Federation will muster in Valencia is not at all clear, since no rosters have yet been provided. But with Puerto Rico as well as Venezuela and Cuba on board, this tournament will arguably have a much greater legitimacy than the stale pro winter league playoffs targeted for Santo Domingo in early February and now stripped down to only three countries after the unfortunate collapse of the historic Puerto Rican circuit. Last year’s Caribbean Series was played to meager crowds in San Juan’s Roberto Clemente Walker Stadium, and this year’s Dominican-based event holds little promise for improvement, especially if rookie league circuits in Colombia and Nicaragua are invited to fill out the field. The freshly designed LLCB tournament is thus perfectly poised to seize attention among Caribbean fanatics and winter league watchers, and even to emerge as a truly legitimate Caribbean or Latin American championship—of the kind only briefly glimpsed 18 months ago in San Juan during the second round of March 2006 World Baseball Classic showdowns between Cuba and the major leaguers representing Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
What remains unclear on the eve of the much-anticipated event is the exact format for the Valencia-based competition. It has been widely rumored (and reasonably supposed) that the event will consist of an opening round with “everybody facing everybody” and then a final championship match between the first and second place finishers. But Venezuelan Federation officials have unfortunately not made this scenario transparent in advance; such uncertainty is perhaps only part of the growing pains that will have to be ironed out if the LLCB is to indeed become a respected annual event. But it seems hard to image that—with the presence of an obviously big-league-level Cuban squad—this will not be a far more entertaining spectacle—whatever the format—than the low-level competitions offered by last February’s Alianza Latina winter league finale in San Juan, one featuring games between a smattering of AA league pro prospects and a handful of already-past-their-prime journeymen big leaguers.
Report provided by author Peter C. Bjarkman, who can also be found at www.bjarkmanlatinobaseball.mlblogs.com.