Joan Carlos Pedroso
Now that the issue of Cuba’s World Baseball Classic manager has been resolved with Friday’s announcement that Higinio Vélez will return to the post he manned in 2006, the issue of settling on a final 28-man playing roster has now also been somewhat clarified. The Cuban Baseball Federation today released a 43-man selection that will begin training tomorrow in Havana’s Latin American Stadium, where four exhibition games will also be played later this week and next against a visiting Mexican League squad from Puebla. On February 20 the entire Cuban contingent of 43 ballplayers, plus coaches and trainers, will relocate to Mexican soil in Puebla, where training will continue until the opening Pool B games in Mexico City’s Foro Sol Stadium on Sunday, March 8. All WBC rosters must be trimmed to a final squad size of 28 by March 3 (two days before the tournament opens in Tokyo).
Having announced an original roster list of 48 “eligibles” on January 9 (which was analyzed extensively on http://www.baseballdecuba.com last month), Cuban officials have subsequently added six players to the original contingent without revealing any cuts, bulging the number of candidates to fifty-one. Those added to the mix in recent weeks were first basemen Joan Carlos Pedroso (Las Tunas) and Ariel Borrero (Villa Clara); plus pitchers Ciro Silvino Licea (Granma), Dany Betancourt (Santiago), Valdimir Baños (Pinar del Río), and Elier Sánchez (Camagüey). Pedroso and Borrero were both members of the earlier WBC entry in 2006 and their late inclusion in the “eligibles” mix was seen by some fans in Cuba as a strong signal that recent national team first baseman and cleanup hitter Alex Malleta might indeed be in true danger of not making this year’s squad. Pedroso had seemingly been well established as the Team Cuba first baseman only a few seasons back (he is still only 29 and he held the single-season league home run mark until it was smashed by Alexei Bell last winter); but his abject failure to hit in several big international tournaments (especially the 2005 World Cup in Holland and the 2006 WBC) eventually opened the door for Malleta. The 31-year-old left-handed-swinging Industriales first sacker has also been an offensive bust since inheriting the national team cleanup slot in late 2006. Malleta hit only an anemic .167 with a single homer in Beijing before being finally replaced by utility standout Héctor Olivera for the Olympic Games gold medal match.
But the first base slot and other aspects of the WBC roster have now fallen into somewhat clearer perspective with this morning’s announcement of the 43-man team training roster. First off, eight ballplayers cut outright from any further WBC consideration: catcher Eriel Sánchez (Sancti Spíritus); outfielders Yoandry Urgellés (Industriales) and Osmani Urrutia (Las Tunas); pitchers Dany Betancourt, Vladimir Baños, Eriel Sánchez, and Wilber Pérez (Isla de la Juventud); and infielder Donald Duarte (Pinar del Río). Furthermore, the 43 remaining athletes were designated in two categories. Twenty-two players have now been confirmed–according to today’s accounts in both Juventud Rebelde and Prensa Latina–as almost-certain roster qualifiers. The remaining 21 have been indicated as “additional players” who will remain with the squad until March 3 and compete for possible late inclusion on the final team. The rosters as they now stand are as follows:
Players Chosen for Cuba’s World Baseball Classic Roster (22)
(*WBC 2006 Veterans)
Catchers (4): Ariel Pestano* (Villa Clara), Yosvany Pereza (Pinar del Río), Rolando Meriño (Santiago), and Yenier Bello (Sancti Spíritus).
Infielders (6): Yulieski Gourriel* (Sancti Spíritus), Michel Enríquez* (Isla de la Juventud), Héctor Olivera (Santiago), Yorelvis Charles (Ciego de Avila), Eduardo Paret* (Villa Clara), and Joan Carlos Pedroso* (Las Tunas).
Outfielders (5): Frederich Cepeda* (Sancti Spíritus), Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), Leslie Anderson* (Camagüey), Giorvis Duvergel (Guantánamo), and Yoennis Céspedes (Granma).
Pitchers (7): Pedro Luis Lazo* (Pinar del Río), Yunieski Maya* (Pinar del Río), Norge Luis Vera (Santiago), Aroldis Chapman# (Holguín), Luis Miguel Rodríguez (Holguín), Norberto González*# (Cienfuegos), and Vladimir García (Ciego de Avila).
Comments: If this roster stands and none of these players lose their slots in the final three weeks of training, the starting first baseman would now appear to be Pedroso, the remainder of the infield would have Enríquez at third, Paret at short, and Gourriel at second, and Héctor Olivera would be there ready to fill in almost anywhere. The outfield corps would appear to be Despaige in left, Duvergel in center, and Céspedes replacing Beijing hero and 2008 superstar Alexei Bell in right. Cepeda would be the regular switch-hitting DH. Bell has flopped most of the current season after having been struck in the face by a Yunieski Maya fastball on opening day. Céspedes has been knocking on the door for several years (he is still only 22) and was one of the last cuts from the 2006 WBC squad and 2008 Olympic roster. Osmani Urrutia has finally faded from the national team scene since, while he can still hit, his versatility is more than limited both as a defender and base runner. The “more-or-less certain” pitching choices suggest that righties Maya and Vera, and southpaws Chapman and Norberto González, may be the expected starting rotation. If none of these position players lose their apparent secure starts, all six additions needed to fill a 28-man roster will have to be pitchers, since 13 pitchers will be required of each team in the tournament.
Players Still Competing for Cuban WBC Roster Slots (21)
(*WBC 2006 Veterans)
Catchers: There are no additional catchers
Infielders (6): Alex Malleta (Industriales), Yoandy Garlobo* (Matanzas), Ariel Borrero* (Villa Clara), Rudy Reyes* (Industriales), Yadil Mújica (Matanzas), and Luis Miguel Navas (Santiago).
Outfielders (4): Leonys Martin (Villa Clara), Alexei Bell (Santiago), Yoelvis Fiss (Ciego de Avila), and José Dariel Abreu (Cienfuegos).
Pitchers (11): Ismel Jiménez (Sancti Spíritus), Yolexis Ulacia (Villa Clara), Jonder Martínez* (Habana Province), Yuliesky González*# (Habana Province), Yadier Pedroso* (Habana Province), Miguel Lahera (Habana Province), Maikel Folich*# (Villa Clara), Yaumier Sánchez (Santiago), Reinier Roibal (Santiago),Ciro Silvino Licea (Granma), and Vicyohandri Odelín* (Camagüey).
Comments: With seven additional pitchers being needed to reach the mandatory 13, it would seem that a trio of Habana Province hurlers–Jonder Martínez (last year’s National Series ERA champ), Yadier Pedroso (this year’s leader in that category), and Yulieski González (a southpaw with considerable international experience)–are the top contenders from this supplementary list of candidates. The same can probably be said of southpaw Maikel Folich and righty Vicyohandri Odelín, both of whom saw action in the first WBC. Among position players, Bell seems to be the only additional outfielder who might have a shot at breaking through. If an extra infielder is carried in the end, than Navas has the inside track as the most versatile utility man among the spare group of candidates.
It might seem strange that 22 players would already have been singled out at this point for having roster slots virtually assured, while the other half of the lot would be called into the final weeks of training and exhibitions labeled as “additional players competing for team slots” (that is, as candidates on the chopping block). But those who know how the Cuban baseball brain trust operates will likely not find this so odd after all. With the possible debate about a first baseman left aside, the rest of the Top 22 seem like uncontroversial choices. Taking 21 other competitors along for the ride, however, keeps constant pressure on the front runners to continue to perform at peak intensity right up until the opening pitch in Mexico City three weeks from next Sunday. Cuba’s teams succeed time after time in top international tournaments precisely because of mental preparation and the uncanny ability of their players to response to just such psychological pressures. And if Bell or Malleta are going to fight their way back on to the roster then they have been already been given notice that the pressure is indeed on. The same is true for veteran hurlers like Jonder Martínez, Yulieski González, Vicyohandri Odelín and Yadier Pedroso who now know that their spots in the Cuban bullpen or starting rotation are anything but a sure thing. For much of the Cuban squad the three weeks leading up to the tournament inaugural will likely be as psychologically and emotionally challenging as almost anything they might experience when confronting their superstar and cash-rich big-league rivals.
Today’s Team Cuba roster announcements also included the naming of the following off-field personalities. Manager Higinio’s bench coaching staff will consist of Benito Camacho (longtime national team general manager), Estéban Lombillo (Habana Province manager), Eduardo Martín (Villa Clara manager), Antonio Pacheco (Santiago skipper and Beijing Olympic manager), Jorge Fuentes (Atlanta Olympic manager), Juan Castro (Sancti Spíritus manager), Héctor Hernández (Holguín manager), and Francisco Escaurido. Additional training camp coaches will include: Carlos Cepero, Luis Jova, José Elósegui, Pedro Pérez, Javier Gálvez, Lourdes Gourriel (former Sancti Spíritus manager), Omar Linares (Industriales bench coach), Germán Mesa (Industriales manager), Orestes Kindelán (Santiago bench coach), Humberto Arrieta, and Roger Machado (Ciego de Avila manager and 2006 WBC bullpen catcher).