Overview - For a number of years Cuba dominated the international baseball circuit. From 1976 to 2005 they won 12 of the 13 baseball world cups. The only reason they did not win in 1982 was because they did not participate. They also dominated the Pan Am games winning 10 straight tournaments from 1971 to 2007. Their dominance stopped after that, when more countries stocked their team with more talented players.
The last three World Cups were won by the United States (2007, 2009), Netherlands (2011) and then the replacement for the World Cup the Premier 12 was won by South Korea. Cuba finished second in the three latest World Cups they did not win and in the Premier 12 they advanced past the first round but lost their first game of a single elimination round to eventual champion South Korea.
When the World Baseball Classic was first put together in 2006 everyone was curious how the Cubans would compete in a tournament filled with major leaguers. Many felt they would finally be put in their place when facing major league players some argued were far more talented than whatever this tiny island nation can provide.
Cuba was put in a division with Puerto Rico, Netherlands and Panama and did quite well, finishing second in their pool, good enough to advance to the second round. The only team they lost to was Puerto Rico, who crushed them 12-2. The second round they were in a more competitive pool with Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. They defeated Venezuela, which was considered a surprise, lost to Dominican Republic and then needing a win over Puerto Rico to advance to the medal rounds they got their revenge with a 4-3 win. The United States was eliminated from the second round after an embarrassing loss to a winless team from Mexico.
Cuba advanced to the final four and the United States didn’t. There were videos showing Cubans celebrating the accomplishments of their baseball heroes. The celebrations became even greater when Cuba upset the Dominican Republic 3-1 to enter the gold medal game with Japan. Japan has been a thorn in the Cubans side in these WBCs and that thorn began in 2006 with a 10-6 win. Cubans were happy to finish in second place in a tournament many did not think they would survive past the second round.
Take a look at the Cuban roster and you will find the seeds of defection were planted after that torunament. There was Yunesky Maya, Leslie Anderson, Yuliesky Gurriel and Alexei Ramirez on that roster who eventually defected. Only Ramirez departed from this team prior to the 2009 WBC but the trickle would become an avalanche after the the next WBC games in 2009 and 2013.
In 2009 Cuba did not fare so well in the WBC. They rolled through the first round in a double elimination format, beating teams from South Africa, Australia and Mexico. In the second round in a double elimination format they were shutout by their nemesis Japan, and then after beating Mexico they were eliminated after a second shutout by Japan. That eliminated Cuba from appearing in the final four.
After that tournament is when the departures began. Aroldis Chapman, Yunesky Maya, Yuliesky Gurriel, Hector Olivera, Leslie Anderson, Yoenis Cespedes and Leonys Martin are now major leaguers, though Gurriel and Olivera left after the 2013 WBC.
The 2013 WBC the Cubans went undefeated in the first round beating Japan, China and Brazil. The game against Japan was not that critical since both teams were guaranteed of advancing despite the result. In a second round match up double elimination Japan knocked Cuba to the losers bracket with a 16-4 thrashing. Still stinging from that loss the Netherlands upset Cuba 7-6, scoring a run in the bottom of the ninth on a sacrifice fly from Kalian Sams to win the game, eliminating Cuba from advancing to the final four for the second season in a row.
Gone from that team after signing major league contracts are Odrisamer Despaigne, Raciel Iglesias, Jose Abreu, Erisbel Arruebarruena, Jose Fernandez, Yuliesky Gurriel, Andy Ibanez, Alexei Bell, Guillermo Heredia and Yasmany Tomas.
The Cubans would like to show these defections are having a minimal impact on the qualify of baseball in Cuba. The team is young. They are talented. The fans are confident they will do well in the 2017 WBC.
Current Baseball Ranking - Cuba was number one for the beginning of these baseball rankings, but they have now dropped to five based on their performances in previous WBC events. They are still quite competitive in the international youth tournaments. They are in the same bracket as the number one team Japan, the number ten team Australia and number 18 China.
Pitchers - Freddy Alvarez (DPP), Vladimir Banos, Lazaro Blanco, Noelvis Entenza, Jose Angel Garcia, Vladimir Garcia, Miguel Lahera, Leandro Martinez (DPP), Raidel Martinez, Livan Moinelo, Alain Sanchez, Yosvani Torres, Yoanni Yera,
Designated Pitchers Pool - Erlis Casanova, Yoalkis Cruz, Dachel Duquesne, Leomil Gonzalez, Yasmany Hernandez, Jonder Martinez, Frank Medina, Jose Rodriguez
Catchers - Yosvani Alarcon, Frank Morejon, Osvaldo Vazquez
Infielders - Guillermo Aviles, Alexander Ayala, Carlos Benitez, Jeferson Delgado, Alfredo Despaigne, Yurisbel Gracial, Yordan Manduley, William Saavedra
Outfielders - Frederich Cepeda, Yoelkys Cespedes, Victor Mesa, Roel Santos
Strengths - They do have some veteran starting pitchers in Freddy Alvarez and Vladimir Banos that will probably start the first two games. Yoanni Yera is a good third starter who will give any teams fits. They also like to use the diminutive Livan Moinello in a set up role. He throws a lot of innings in middle relief. The closer is Miguel Lahera. Though he is listed as an infielder Alfredo Despaigne is their big slugger and usually plays the outfield. There are not a lot of players who have the power of Despaigne. The outfield is talented and fast with Yoelkis Cespedes, the younger brother of Yoenis, Victor Mesa and Roel Santos patrolling the green leaving Despaigne to get most of his playing time in the DH spot.
Weakness - Don’t know how much Frederich Cepeda has left. There is also not a lot of room for him in the lineup. The pitching after the starters and Moinelo and Lahera could be a little dicey. The catching is focused more on their defense than their offense and the infield has been decimated by defections of talented players. The hitters have also had trouble making contact against pitchers who can throw the slider since that pitch is not in the repertoire of most pitchers in Cuba.
Prospects to Watch - Victor Mesa will show he can cover a lot of ground in centerfield. He also can be a terror on the bases, though Cuba does not traditionally believe in stealing a lot of bases. He does not have a lot of power but he gets on base. Despite his small stature Moinelo is a lefty that gets hitters out. He doesn’t throw hard but he has a wide array of pitches with good command of those pitches. Yera and Alvarez are two pitchers who are relatively young at 28 but would fit right now in a major league rotation. Guillermo Aviles stock is down now that he has been moved from the outfield to play first base. Myworld does not think he has the power to fit the position. Roel Santos is another small in stature player that can impact the game with his speed.
Predicted Finish - They should finish in second place in this pool to advance to the second round. Their biggest obstacle will be Australia. Fans will not be pleased with any finish other than first.