Yankees May Be Among a Cuban Defector’s Suitors


NYtimes: Once pitcher Aroldis Chapman defected from the Cuban national team in the Netherlands on Thursday, speculation instantly began over which major league club would sign him and how much money he would command.

The Yankees, who have been at the forefront of signing international pitchers, will have discussions about whether they should pursue the left-handed Chapman. He fires a fastball that exceeds 100 miles per hour and is widely considered the premier pitching prospect in Cuba. His age was reported Thursday as 21, but reports in March at the World Baseball Classic said he was 26.

Bart Hernandez, an agent who is hoping to represent Chapman, said Chapman threw 100 and 101 m.p.h. “If he polishes up his changeup and tightens up his slider, he can be a young Randy Johnson,” Hernandez said.

Chapman had a 5.68 earned run average over six and a third innings while pitching for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic in March. He was in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, with the Cubans for a tournament but left the team’s hoteland defected. Chapman’s defection was first reported by cubaencuentro.com.

Hernandez theorized that Chapman could seek a four-year deal worth between $30 million and $60 million, which would limit the teams that pursue him. “You have to look at the big-market teams,” Hernandez said.

Because the Yankees do not know how much Chapman will seek, General Manager Brian Cashman declined comment. But the Yankees are known for flexing their monetary might to add free-agent international pitchers like Chapman.

The last time the Yankees dipped into the international pitching market, they signed Kei Igawa to a four-year, $20 million deal in December 2006. He was ineffective at the major league level and has been marooned at Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season.

After Jose Contreras defected from the Cuban team in 2002, the Yankees beat out the Boston Red Sox and signed him to a four-year, $32 million contract. Contreras faltered and was shipped to the Chicago White Sox in 2004. Despite what happened with Contreras and Igawa, the Yankees will most likely take a long look at Chapman. Orlando Hernandez, another Cuban defector, was a valuable player when the Yankees won World Series titles in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

Roberto González Echevarría, the author of “The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball” and a professor of Hispanic and comparative literature at Yale University, called Chapman “the most promising young pitcher” to leave Cuba since Fidel Castro took over in 1959.

“He throws at a 100 miles per hour, he is more polished than most young pitchers at his age,” González Echevarría said. “He struggled a little bit in the World Baseball Classic, he got a little rattled.”

González Echevarría added that Chapman “is a really hot property, and it will be interesting to see how much teams pay to sign him.”

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Report: Top prospect defects from Cuba


AP:

A top Cuban pitching prospect with a 100 mph fastball has defected from the national team while playing in a tournament in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

ESPN The Magazine reports that several unidentified sources confirmed that Aroldis Chapman walked out of his hotel room and did not return.

Champman’s defection was first reported on the Spanish-language Web site cubaencuentro.com. He told the site that he was in Europe, but refused to reveal his location.

A source told ESPN that Chapman was scheduled to fly to Miami on Thursday.

The 21-year-old Chapman is considered by many scouts to be the No. 1 left-handed prospect in the world. He would be the most prominent Cuban baseball defector since Jose Contreras left during a tournament in Mexico in 2002.

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Cuba Has New Home Run Mark


HAVANA TIMES, May 4 – When Alexei Bell smashed 31 homers and knocked in 111 runs in National Series #47 (2007-2008) he obliterated two long-standing Cuban League slugging records. But one of Bell’s new marks didn’t hold up for long.

Twenty-three year old Granma phenom Alfredo Despaigne has feasted on weak league pitching throughout the current campaign and roared down the stretch run following the World Baseball Classic recess to quickly erase Bell’s short-lived home run standard.

The new record came in dramatic fashion on one of the most dramatic final days (and final weekends) of Cuban National Series history. On Friday evening (May 1) Cuba’s lifetime batting average leader Osmani Urrutia announced his surprise early retirement from the game after but 16 seasons; Urrutia, who will not turn 33 until mid-June, now walks away from the sport with an unmatched .369 lifetime hitting mark.

But Urrutia’s premature departure was buried by the on-the-field drama of the campaign’s final tense hours. On Sunday afternoon (May 3) Michel Enríquez (Isla) and Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus) entered the last day of league action in a virtual dead heat for this season’s coveted individual batting title. And the biggest piece of drama was provided by Despaigne, who had been sitting on 31 homers all week long since matching Bell’s 2008 output eight days earlier.

Batting in the unusual leadoff spot on Sunday (in an effort to increase his possible at-bat opportunities) Despaigne was zero for one (plus one walk) entering the fifth frame when he finally exploded for his landmark homer with two aboard, as part of an 11-run Granma uprising versus four Villa Clara hurlers. Six RBIs in the contest also left the slugger only three short of becoming the second Cuban league to reach 100-plus in a national Series campaign (Bell became the first last season).

The historic homer not only established a new single-season standard but also left the rising national team star as the first Cuban slugger to reach the century mark for round trippers during his first five national series seasons. The closest to achieving that distinction were Yulieski Gourriel with 99 and Despaigne’s Granma teammate Yoennis Céspedes, who had recorded 96 by the close of his own fifth campaign during the 2007-2008 season.

Despaigne has also now teamed with Céspedes (who has blasted 24 this winter) to write a new standard for a single-team slugging tandem. Last winter Despaigne (24) and Céspedes (26) became the first pair of teammates to reach the combined figure of fifty round trippers in a National Series campaign. They have now extended last year’s achievement by a half-dozen, thus rubber-stamping their ranking as the greatest single one-two home run punch in the nearly half-century annals of Cuba’s revolutionary baseball.

Bell, for his part, last winter became the first National Series batsman to reach the 30-homer plateau when he overhauled the previous record of 28 clubbed by Joan Carlos Pedroso in 2002-2003. Orestes Kindelán (Cuba’s career leader with 487 before his retirement in 2001) had originally reached the 30-homer plateau during 1986 Selective Series play (the now-discontinued “second season” which at the time was 63 games in length). Bell’s breakout 2008 campaign also featured the only 100-plus RBI season, a mark which Despaigne has now missed equaling by the narrowest of margins.

Previous Top Cuban League Home Run Seasons

32 Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), 2009 National Series #48 (90-game season)

31 Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba), 2008 National Series #47 (90-game season)

30 Orestes Kindelán (Serranos), 1986 Selective Series #12 (63-game season)

28 Orestes Kindelán (Serranos), 1988 Selective Series #14 (63-game season)

28 Joan Carlos Pedroso (Las Tunas), 2003 National Series #42 (90-game season)

27 Joan Carlos Pedrsos (Las Tunas), 2005 National Series #44 (90-game season)

27 Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus), 2006 National Series #45 (90-game season)

27 Lázaro Junco (Matanzas), 1993 National Series #32 (65-game season)

Cuban League home run records (unlike the tainted productions of a recent generation of major leaguers) are assuredly not the product of any chemical assistance, as one can easily gather by looking at photos of the undersized Despaigne and Bell, or the muscular yet slender Gourriel. Nor are they ever accompanied by (or diminished by) a qualifying footnote like the infamous Roger Maris asterisk.

Since both the current National Series and now defunct Selective Series (Cuba’s “second season” from the mid-1970s to mid-1990s) have regularly varied in length-of-season over recent decades, the number of games played to achieve record production has never been a point of serious discussion.

Looking at that factor of games played (such a preoccupation of number-crunching MLB fans), Kindelán’s two top seasons in the Selective Series would appear to stand as the more legitimate Cuban League record, challenged most closely by Junco’s output in 1993 (NS #32). But there is a mitigating factor here and that is the non-level playing field produced by the usage of aluminum bats. The dividing line between metal “rocket launchers” and legitimate baseball lumber is 1999 (National Series #38) and only Bell Despaigne, Pedroso and Yulieski Gourriel have posted record or near-record numbers for long balls in the more recent “wooden bat” epoch.

Despaigne’s 2008-09 Home Run Log

#32 (May 3, 2009) vs Villa Clara (Augusto César Sandino Stadium, Villa Clara) Game #90

#31 (April 25, 2009) vs Isla de La Juventud (Cauto Cristo Stadium, Granma) Game #83

#30 (April 22, 2009) vs Pinar del Río (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #80

#29 (April 17, 2009) vs Villa Clara (Mátires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #76

#28 (April 17, 2009) vs Villa Clara (Mártres de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #76

#27 (April 15, 2009) vs Ciego de Avila (Mártires de Bardados Stadium, Granma) Game #74

#26 (April 14, 2009) vs Ciego de Avila (Mátires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #73

#25 (April 12, 2009) vs Pinar del Río (Capitan San Luis Stadium, Pinar del Río) Game #72

#24 (April 8, 2009) vs Isla de la Juventud (Cristobal Labra Stadium, Nueva Gerona) Game #68

#23 (April 5, 2009) vs Sancti Spíritus (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #66

#22 (April 3, 2009) vs Sancti Spíritus (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #64

#21 (March 31, 2009) vs Cienfuegos (Wilfredo Páges Stadium, Manzanillo) Game #61

#20 (March 29, 2009) vs Holguín (Calixto García Stadium, Holguín) Game #60

#19 (March 28, 2009) vs Holguín (Báguanos Stadium, Holguín) Game #59

#18 (March 28, 2009) vs Holguín (Báguanos Stadium, Holguín) Game #59

#17 (March 27, 2009) vs Holguín (Calixto García Stadium, Holguín) #58

Six-Week Break for World Baseball Classic

#16 (February 8, 2009) vs Santiago de Cuba (Guillermón Moncada Stadium, SCU) Game #57

#15 (February 8, 2009) vs Santiago de Cuba (Guillermón Moncada Stadium, SCU) Game #57

#14 (February 7, 2009) vs Santiago de Cuba (Guillermón Moncada Stadium) Game #56

#13 (February 5, 2009) vs Guantánamo (Nguyen Van Troi Stadium, Guantánamo) Game #54

#12 (January 30, 2009)) vs Camagüey (Wilfredo Páges Stadium, Manzanillo) Game #49

#11 (January 20, 2009) vs Habana Province (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #40

#10 (January 18, 2009) vs Metros (Latinoamericano Stadium, Havana) Game #39

#9 (January 17, 2009) vs Metros (Latinoamericano Stadium, Havana) Game #38

#8 (January 16, 2009) vs Metros (Latinoamericano Stadium, Havana) Game #37

#7 (January 15, 2009) vs Matanzas (Victoria de Girón Stadium, Matanzas) Game #36

#6 (December 28, 2008) vs Holguín (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #24

#5 (December 23, 2008) vs Guantánamo (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #19

#4 (December 16, 2008) vs Las Tunas (Julio Antonio Mella Stadium, Las Tunas) Game #13

#3 (December 7, 2008) vs Cienfuegos (5 de Septiembre Stadium, Cienfuegos) Game #6

#2 (December 4, 2008) vs Sancti Spíritus (José A. Huelga Stadium, SSP) Game #4

#1 (December 4, 2008) vs Sancti Spíritus (José A. Huelga Stadium, SSP) Game #4

Several noteworthy facts about Despaigne’s lengthy string of long balls might also be recorded here. Foremost is the fact that the Granma slugger has bunched his homers in a number of clusters throughout the season, including one string of five straight games in January, a second of six consecutive home run games overlapping the World Baseball Classic recess, and then a third cluster of four games out of five (with five total homers in those five contests) in mid-April.

Half of his total (16) was achieved in the 57 games before the WBC hiatus and an equal number (16) in the mere 33 games that followed the shutdown. Thirteen of the homers have come in home ball parks with 19 stroked on the road. Despaigne’s favorite park as expected was Granma’s main venue at Mártires de Barbados Stadium in the provincial capital of Bayamo, where he bashed ten NS #48 dingers, but he also whaled three in both Guillermón Moncada (Santiago de Cuba) and Latinoamericano (all versus Metros, with surprisingly none against shaky Industriales pitching).

Despaigne’s longest homer-less string was 11 games during the first two weeks of January, followed by the eight just before season’s end. His favorite victims have been Holguín (5) and Sancti Spíritus (4), but he also had three each versus the Metros, Villa Clara, Ciego de Avila and Santiago clubs, and has thus homered against every team in the circuit except Havana’s proud Industriales (with a pair each against Pinar del Río, Guantánamo, and Isla de La Juventud, plus single homers off of Matanzas, Las Tunas, Habana, and Camagüey).

But unlike Alexei Bell a year earlier, Despaigne’s slugging will not carry over as a main storyline during the upcoming Cuban post-season, as his last-place Granma ball club trailed the entire eight-team pack in the Eastern Division, barely edging out Havana’s Metropolitans (tail ender in the Western Division) to avoid an ignoble distinction of owning this winter’s worst overall league record.

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Japan-Korea in final WBC


HAVANA TIMES, March 23 — Japan and Korea have done with baseball what they did over decades with industry, go from being marked lesser quality to the top of the line. Tonight at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles the Asian rivals will face off in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic having left behind such American continent powerhouses as Team USA, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

Hard work, lots of study and the best of strategies have led to a string of important victories: Japan in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, Korea in the Beijing Olympics and now one of them in Classic Two. In their semifinal match-up Korea manhandled Venezuela 10-2 in a game that was decided in the first inning. In the case of Japan, it was the fourth inning on Sunday night when they built an insurmountable 6-2 lead over MLB star studded Team USA, en route to a 9-4 final.

The US had a fleeting 2-1 lead after three innings including a game opening solo homer by second baseman Brian Roberts off Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka. But the roof caved in on starter Roy Oswalt in the bottom of the fourth when Japan put together a five-run rally that soured the hopes of the home team. A two-run double by first baseman Mark De Rosa off reliever Takahiro Mahara gave Team USA a moment of fleeting hope in the eighth to bring the score to 6-4, but that didn’t last long as Japan added three more in the ninth to finish off the scoring. Matsuzaka was the winning pitcher and Yu Darvish, the last of four relievers, pitched the scoreless ninth. Oswalt took the loss for the USA. Short stop Hiroyuki Nakajima and catcher Kenji Jojima had two RBIs each for Japan. DH Asunori Inaba and third baseman Munenori Kawasaki scored two runs each. So now it’s the defending WBC champions against the Beijing Olympic champions in the final game of the tournament. Game time is 9:00 p.m. ET.

All World Baseball Classic games have been broadcast nationally on Cuban television and radio.

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Cuba’s Baseball Team Back in Havana


HAVANA TIMES, March 20 — President Raul Castro welcomed home the Cuban baseball team at the foot of the plane on Thursday night at the Jose Marti International Airport in the capital.

If they had made it to the World Baseball Classic finals there would have been a ticker tape reception instead it was a solemn one.

While fans throughout the country continue debating the reasons why the Cubans were unable to make it to the semifinals, Vice President Esteban Lazo received them “with the pride and emotion of a father, of a brother, of a friend, of the people that embrace their sons returning from a tough battle.”

Cuba finished with a 4-2 record in the 2nd World Baseball Classic but was unable to advance to the semifinals in Los Angeles because of two losses to Japan 6-0 and 5-0 in second round games in San Diego.

On Saturday, Venezuela meets Korea —which lost 6-2 to Japan on Thursday night— in the first semifinal match up. The other contest pits Team USA against Japan on Sunday. The winning two teams will meet in the final on Monday.

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Cuba Perforates Mexico’s Pitching


HAVANA TIMES, March 13 — Mexico is going to have to improve greatly if it wants to play with the big boys. After a 16-4 thrashing from Cuba on Thursday night, the team that had scored 37 runs in its first three games of the 2nd World Baseball Classic was held to five hits.

When Mexico took a 2-1 lead in the third and then 3-2 in the fourth, it looked like the game would be much closer and the home crowd was more than enthusiastic. However, the roof caved in the bottom of the fourth when Cuba scored five. The islanders then busted out with nine more in the seventh to end the game on the mercy rule.

Once again the long ball was present in the thin air of the 7,200 ft. high Foro Sol Stadium in Mexico City. Mexico had three homers, including back to back solo shots by Freddie Sandoval and Oscar Robles in the third against Luis Miguel Rodriguez, and another by Karim Garcia in the fifth of Yunieski Maya.

The Cubans were sparked by a two-run blast by Yulieski Gourriel in the third and three-run homers by both Ariel Pestano and Frederich Cepeda in the seventh. Michel Enriquez and Yoennis Cespedes both had three hits, Enriquez driving in three runs and Cespedes scoring three.

In all Cuba had 17 hits and used six pitchers as manager Higinio Velez wanted everyone who hadn’t thrown in the Classic to get some action. Yulieski Gonzalez picked up the win going two innings allow one run, on one hit with two walks and three strikeouts. The Cuban pitchers had some control problems allowing seven walks to match their seven strikeouts.

Cuba now faces Japan —a rematch of the 2006 1st World Baseball Classic championship game— on Sunday afternoon (4:00 ET) at Petco Park in San Diego, California. Mexico plays Korea at the same venue (11:00 ET).

The other group has Venezuela playing The Netherlands at 1:00 ET and the United States against Puerto Rico at 8:00 ET, both games on Saturday in Miami, Florida.

Like the first round of the WBC, the second is double elimination. The top two teams of each group will then move on to Los Angeles for the Semifinal games.

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Italy Surprises, Puerto Rico Sweats in WBC


HAVANA TIMES, March 10 — Italy and the Netherlands showed on Monday that the quality of baseball being played by European teams is on the rise. The Italians upset Canada 6-2 to stay alive in Pool C of the World Baseball Classic, sending the North Americans home after two losses and elimination.

Italy (1-1) now plays Venezuela (1-1) on Tuesday afternoon with the winning team joining the USA as the group’s qualifiers for the second round.

The Netherlands (1-1) were ahead 1-0 over powerhouse Puerto Rico (2-0) in Pool D play until the eighth inning, trying to repeat their major surprise 3-2 victory over the Dominican Republic. In the end they lost 3-1 but still have a chance to qualify for round two in a rematch game with the Dominicans (1-1) on Tuesday.

In other games on Monday, Korea (3-1) defeated rival Japan (2-1) 1-0 to finish first in Group A with Japan, the defending WBC champs, qualifying in second place. The Asian group had begun play a couple days earlier than the other three groups and will have extra rest before round two beings March 15 in San Diego.

Cuba (1-0) plays Australia (1-0) in Group B on Tuesday night. On Monday, Mexico (1-1) eliminated South Africa (0-2) with a 14-3 pounding.

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Cuba Plays Australia in Game Two


HAVANA TIMES, March 9 — Mexico’s relief pitching fell apart at home on Sunday night giving up 10 runs in the final three innings to lose 17-7 to Australia in World Baseball Classic play. The upset gives Cuba an unexpected rival, the Aussies, in its second Pool B game on Tuesday.

To get a second shot at qualifying for round two of the WBC, Mexico must now defeat South Africa on Monday and then on Wednesday beat the loser of the Cuba-Australia game.

Australia had four home runs in its win over Mexico while Cuba had six in defeating South Africa 8-1.

In other action on Sunday, Team USA won a ticket to San Diego in Pool C by defeating Venezuela 12-5. The South Americans must now play a do-or-die game Tuesday against the winner of the Italy-Canada game on Monday.

In Pool D, the Dominican Republic rebounded off their surprise first game loss to The Netherlands and eliminated Panama with a 9-0 shutout. The Dominicans will still have to beat the loser of the game between The Netherlands and Puerto Rico to qualify for the second round.

The Pool A qualifiers, Korea and Japan, were decided early on the weekend and the two teams locked horns in a pitching duel on Monday to see which would head the group into San Diego for round two. Korea won the game on a 1-0 shutout before a packed house in Tokyo.

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Cuba Wins Game One on Homers


HAVANA TIMES, March 8 — Cuba opened its play in the World Baseball Classic II with a 8-1 win over South Africa on Sunday afternoon in the Foro Sol Stadium in Mexico City.

The outcome was highly predictable; the only question was the final score. Cuba had six home runs; two by Cepeda and one each from Despaigne, Cespedes, Gourriel and Olivera.

Norge Luis Vera went 6 innings allowing two hits. He was followed on the mound by Norberto Gonzalez, Ismel Jimenez and Vladimir Garcia who gave up the South Africans only run in the ninth inning. Cuba had 13 hits to South Africa’s four.

The score might have been even more lopsided if it hadn’t been that South Africa managed three double plays and picked off two fast Cuban base runners, Olivera and Paret off first base.

Mexico plays Australia in the other Group B game on Sunday evening. The winner will play against Cuba on Tuesday night.

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Cuba First to Issue WBC Roster


By PETER C. BJARKMAN*

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 19 – The last team to announce its field manager (when league commissioner Higinio Vélez was finally tabbed one week ago) has now become the first to finalize its 28-man lineup for the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

The Cuban Baseball Federation formally unveiled its star-studded “official” roster Wednesday evening, on the heels of two impressive offense-rich inter-squad exhibition matches in Havana’s Latin American Stadium on Sunday and Tuesday evenings.

The announcement came only hours before the team’s early-Thursday departure for final training sessions and a series of tune-up exhibitions in Puebla, Mexico.

The final roster is headed by eleven returnees from a 2006 WBC club that reached the title game with Japan, but this year’s edition is also noteworthy for some surprising new faces and also some missing headliners from recent highly successful Cuban National teams. The announced roster is as follows.

Catchers: Ariel Pestano* (Villa Clara), Rolando Meriño (Santiago de Cuba), Yosvany Peraza (Pinar del Río)

Outfielders: Frederich Cepeda* (Sancti Spíritus), Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), Yoennis Céspedes (Granma), Leonys Martin (Villa Clara), Leslie Anderson* (Camagüey)

Infielders: Joan Carlos Pedroso* (Las Tunas), Alexander Mayeta (Industriales), Yulieski Gourriel* (Sancti Spíritus), Eduardo Paret* (Villa Clara), Michel Enríquez* (Isla de la Juventud), Héctor Olivera (Santiago de Cuba), Luis Miguel Navas (Santiago de Cuba)

Pitchers: Right-Handers: Pedro Luis Lazo* (Pinar del Río), Norge Luis Vera (Santiago de Cuba), Yuniesky Maya* (Pinar del Río), Luis Miguel Rodríguez (Holguín), Miguel Lahera (Habana Province), Vladimir García (Ciego de Avila), Ismel Jiménez (Sancti Spíritus), Yolexis Ulacia (Villa Clara), Ciro Silvino Licea (Granma), Dany Betancourt (Santiago de Cuba). Left-Handers: Aroldis Chapman (Holguín), Yunieski González* (Habana Province), Norberto González* (Cienfuegos)

Coaches: Higinio Vélez (Manager), Benito Camacho (General Manager), Francisco Escaurido, Carlos Cepero, Lourdes Gourriel, Pedro Pérez, Eduardo Martin, Humberto Arrieta, Jorge Fuentes.
Santiago has five players on WBC team

Santiago has five players on WBC team

Notable returnees to the 2009 “Classic” edition of Team Cuba include veteran outfielder Frederich Cepeda; steady receiver Ariel Pestano; standby showcase infielders Yulieski Gourriel, Eduardo Paret, and Michel Enríquez; and veteran mound aces Pedro Luis Lazo and Norberto González. Cepeda has been Cuba’s most reliable slugger in top-level international tournament play across the past decade and slugged the late-inning homer that put Cuba back in the hunt versus Japan during the 2006 WBC title showdown.

Paret has anchored the Cuban infield since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, while Gourriel was tabbed by Baseball America as one of the top three non-MLB prospects at the inaugural Classic.

Enríquez ranks third in Cuban League history (since 1962) in career batting average with a .363 ledger (that trails only Osmani Urrutia and Omar Linares) entering the current campaign.

Pestano has caught virtually every inning in major tournaments for Team Cuba since his debut at the 1999 Winnipeg Pan American Games. Lazo has been Cuba’s dominant closer for a decade (while at the same time the career victories leader in domestic league play), and the versatile southpaw Norberto González pitched brilliantly in Beijing as the Gold Medal game starter.

Also held over from the original 2006 Cuba WBC roster are first baseman Joan Carlos Pedroso (the first Cuban slugger to reach 200 career homers using wooden bats), outfielder Leslie Anderson (used sparingly in WBC I as a late-inning defensive replacement), and southpaw hurler Yunieski González (who went a perfect 15-0 in last year’s National Series before being a surprise late cut from the Beijing Olympic mound corps).

Both Pedroso and Anderson have resurrected their careers with stellar performances this winter after a number of years of absence from the national team scene.

The notable (and perhaps surprising) absences from this year’s squad are slugger Alexei Bell (who provided the heaviest lumber in Beijing last August, after tearing up the Cuban League in 2008 with a record 31 homers and 111 RBI), and Habana Province pitchers Jonder Martínez (last season’s league ERA champion) and Yadier Pedroso (this season’s league pacesetter in the same department, with a current stellar 1.39 mark).

Bell’s absence is the result of a miserable first half-season in National Series #48 (he has hit only three homers so far and is batting a lame .232); the fall-off is explained in part by a psychologically damaging beaning with a Yunieski Maya fastball in this year’s season opener.

Other notable 2006 WBC members eliminated from this years contingent include seven-time batting champion and all-time league BA pacesetter Osmani Urrutia (also left off the Beijing roster), Camagüey right-hander Vicyohandri Odelín (who closed out the crucial win over Puerto Rico that lifted Cuba to the 2006 semifinals), and top 2006 Cuba WBC hitter Yoandy Garlobo (also the 2008 National Series batting champion).

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this year’s Cuban roster is management’s decision to enter the tournament with a pitching staff manned by only three southpaws among the thirteen hurlers. Cuba is very never short on hitting, but a sometimes shaky bullpen corps proved a major Achilles Heel in tournament loses (Puerto Rico in round one, the Dominicans in round two, and Japan in the finals) against the big league all-stars back in 2006.

This year’s mound corps is nonetheless headed by some of the island’s most battle-tested veterans, including Santiago’s Norge Vera (left off the 2006 club, but a major force in other international tournaments), Ciro Silvino Licea (2007 league ERA champion who is finally getting a crack at a national team slot during a major tournament), and Luis Miguel Rodríguez (35-year-old veteran of 15 seasons who finally made his first international splash in Beijing last August).

The starting assignments will likely be manned by Yunieski Maya (the league’s top winner so far this year with a 9-2 ledger and 1.51 ERA), Vera, Rodríguez, and stellar southpaw flamethrower Aroldis Chapman (who opened eyes as a 20-yea-old phenom in the 2007 Taiwan World Cup, and was also clocked at 102 mph in a game earlier this season).

Lazo will anchor the bullpen corps along with Yunieski González, Norberto González (who might also fill in as a starter), and 20-year-old righty Vladimir García. García has already saved 17 games for Ciego de Avila only halfway through the current 90-game National Series season.

Another notable arm is one-time hot prospect Dany Betancourt (Santiago), starter in both the 2004 Olympic finals and 2005 World Cup Gold medal match. Betancourt has been virtually unheard from the last three seasons after suffering a severe arm injury in early 2006 but now seems fully recovered.

WBC and international fans looking for unknown gems among the Cuban arsenal are likely to be most impressed next month by mammoth slugging backup catcher Yosvany “Gordo” Peraza (who blasted 25 homers in an injury-shortened 2008 season), along with a pair of slugging 22-year-old outfielder teammates from the cellar-dwelling Granma ball club. Alfredo Despaigne and Yoennis Céspedes last season became the first Cuban League players from the same club to smash 50-plus homers between them.

Céspedes is getting his first crack at national team stardom, mainly thanks to the collapse of Alexei Bell; Céspedes was a late cut from both the 2006 WBC team and last summer’s Olympic squad.

Despaigne debuted with a bang in the 2007 World Cup and was considered by many big league scouts to be the most dangerous bat in the Cuban lineup during last summer’s Beijing festivities. Despaigne and Céspedes should lead a Cuban slugging display (along with Peraza, Pedroso, Cepeda and Gourriel) that could carry this team all the way to Los Angeles, if only the pitching holds up even moderately well.

*Peter C. Bjarkman, author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006, will cover the 2009 WBC II for http://www.baseballdecuba.com and Havana Times from Mexico City, San Diego and Los Angeles. His latest books entitled Baseball’s Other Big Red Machine: The History of the Cuban National Team and Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1962-2007 will appear from McFarland & Company Publishers during the coming year.
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