Top-Ranked Cuba Looking for First World Title Since 2006
Despite being the most dominant nation in international baseball history, Cuba will begin the third World Baseball Classic still looking for its first title. They finished second in 2006, but failed to make the semifinals three years later. The island country can still claim the top spot in the world rankings, but another subpar showing would put that rating in jeopardy. They will face Brazil, China, and Japan in their quest for their 39th world championship.
A Brief Cuban Baseball History
Cuba has a baseball tradition longer than almost any other nation. The sport was introduced from America in the 1860s by both Cuban college students who had studied in the U.S. and American sailors. At this point, the island nation was still controlled by Spain, and baseball grew in protest to traditional Spanish pastimes. The sport became synonymous with freedom, especially after it was outlawed in 1869.
The Cuban League was formed in 1878 and became professional by the end of the century. The level of play was quite high and, after all-star teams began touring in the United States in 1899, capable of beating American clubs.
By the 1940s, baseball was well entrenched in Cuban society, and there were a wide variety of amateur clubs developing talent as well as the Cuban League. The league was the first to be racially integrated (in 1900, nonetheless) and had a working reputation with MLB after World War II.
After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the government abolished professional baseball. Though this might seem like an attack on the sport (as during the Cultural Revolution in China), it was because the revolutionaries believed so strongly in the sport that it was necessary to remove the desire for profit. This would, in turn, allow baseball to be a source of nationalist pride and reflective of socialist ideals of equality.
The successful revolution was celebrated by baseball games involving the guerrilla leaders, who formed the Institute for Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER) in 1961. The Institute served several purposes.
First was to prepare the nation to excel in international sporting events to increase nationalist pride. Children with athletic promise are sent to academies for extensive training. The second was to give legitimacy to the revolution by showing the world the best of Cuba.
Additionally, it was hoped that it would allow Cuba to lead developing countries. Finally, it encouraged the populace to play games as a means of integration into the new egalitarian culture. Those that contribute to sporting successes are considered to have fulfilled their obligation to promote Cuba, and the sporting activity would increase the citizens’ health.
After the Cuban League was ended, the longstanding amateur leagues were elevated in status, and the Cuban National Series (CNS) became the chief circuit. Players compete in a five month winter season, including the playoffs, and it is considered their job. The regular season is 90 games. The CNS recently expanded to 17 teams that correspond to the provinces of Cuba.
During the summer, the Super Series of 28 games is played between five teams representative of regions in Cuba. The national team is chosen from players in the Super Series.
Much of the historical information in this section was culled from Roberto González’s The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball.
Cuba in International Tournaments
Cuba, consistently ranked No. 1 in the world by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), is the most successful country ever in global baseball tournaments. Of the four competitions considered by IBAF to confer a world title, Cuba has appeared 55 times and won the championship 38 times. The country has only failed to produce a medal in seven tournaments. Between 1984 and 2005, Cuba won every Baseball World Cup, and had a span between 1983 and 1996 where they won every single world title in all competitions, 14 in total.
Cuba’s most high profile failure, though, has been at the World Baseball Classic, where the competitions include many more big leaguers that previous championships. In 2006, the team advanced out of the opening pool by defeating the Netherlands and Panamá, though they lost 12-2 to Puerto Rico. They avenged the loss in the second round, eliminating Puerto Rico in a 4-3 victory and defeating Venezuela. Despite a loss to the Dominican Republic, they advanced to the semifinals.
Once more, they retaliated for the previous round’s loss by putting the Dominican Republic out of the tourney, and earned the right to play Japan for the title. Cuba had historically dominated Japan, but the Samurai were ready for them. Despite an eighth inning home run by star Frederich Cepeda, his second of the WBC, Japan jumped on their suspect pitching for a 10-6 victory.
After the second place finish in 2006, the Cubans were expected to show no mercy in the second Classic. Indeed, they swept through the first round with wins over South Africa, Australia, and Mexico to earn a spot in the second round. Cuba was placed in a bracket with Japan, Mexico, and Korea.
Japan defeated them in the first matchup, 6-0, before Cuba topped Mexico, 7-4. This gave Cuba a chance to earn their first win against Japan, but were shutout once more, 5-0. The losses were particularly disappointing for a team that hit 11 home runs in the first two rounds, including three by Cepeda and two by Yuliesky Gourriel, who also had a pair in 2006. The second loss eliminated the team and gave them a sixth-place finish, one of their worst-ever performances. It was the first time in 58 years that Cuba failed to make the final.
Their showing in 2009 inaugurated an ongoing period in which they have failed to win a single tournament. Even their dominance of Japan has come to an end, most recently in an exhibition series in the Sapporo Dome in November where they lost 3-1 and 2-0 to the Samurai.
“Our country does not know what it means to lose. We were not ready in November, but we will take this to the US,” stated manager Víctor Mesa. “If that does not happen, it will be a very bad situation.”
Though the standard of play in Cuba is no longer at the level of the major leagues as it was a century ago, the nation produces a number of fine athletes, but since the Cuban Revolution, emigration has been prohibited. Cubans, therefore, have been prevented from playing professionally in other countries as they are expected to contribute to national glory.
This has resulted in these nominal amateurs undergoing a process known as ‘defection’, in which they leave Cuba, usually while playing abroad in tournaments, and establish residency in another country. Provided they do not move to the United States or Japan before becoming legal residents, it allows them to sign lucrative free agent contracts, usually with MLB or the Japanese leagues (Nippon Professional Baseball, or NPB). Several defectors have inadvertently become US residents first and were thus eligible for the draft.
Defection was common immediately after the revolution, but became rare until 1991, when René Arocha left the team while it was playing in the United States. The Commissioner ruled that he would be allowed to sign following a secret bidding process administered by his office. Cuban defectors had been granted the right to work in American since the revolution, but the rule had never been applied to a star athlete.
The process received a lot of attention from Hispanic media in the Americas, and a number of high-profile defectors since have had successful big league careers. They include half-brothers Orlando and Livan Hernandez, Kendrys Morales, and quite recently, Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes.
Orlando Hernandez was 90-65 with a 4.13 ERA in nine MLB seasons, earning a reputation as a big game pitcher. The right-hander earned four World Series rings and had a 2.20 ERA and 11.3 K/9. In all postseason games, he was 9-3 with a 2.55 ERA and 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9).
The Yankee hurler’s younger half-brother, Liván, has had fewer flashes of dominance but has developed a reputation as a workhorse. Still active after 17 seasons, Hernández is 178-177 with a 4.44 ERA and 50 complete games. He is 7-3 with a 3.97 ERA in the postseason, winning four games as a 22-year old in the 1997 Florida Marlins’ run to a World Series title.
To this point, Morales is the best Cuban hitter to play in MLB, though a number of young stars may eventually challenge him. In six seasons, he has a .281 average and a .491 slugging percentage, with 79 home runs.
Chapman and Céspedes represent the next generation of Cuban players. Chapman signed a six-year contract in January 2010. Only 24, he throws one of the fastest pitches by any left-hander in major league history. Regularly timed in the low-100s (160s kmh), he has an incredible 212 strikeouts and a 2.33 ERA in 135 innings. In 2012, he served as the Cincinnati Reds’ closer, saving 38 with a 1.51 ERA and 15.3 K/9, one of the best marks in history.
Céspedes is the most recent star defector, inking a four year, $36 million contract with the Oakland Athletics in February 2012. In his last season, he joined José Dariel Abreu in setting the National Series record with 33 home runs (in 90 games). The centerfielder also made headlines for his international exploits.
Céspedes had a stellar rookie year for the A’s, finishing second in the Rookie of the Year balloting and receiving MVP votes. He hit .292/.356/.505, knocking 23 home runs and stealing 16 bases, gaining a reputation as a strong defensive outfielder as well.
Despite the absence of Céspedes, Chapman, and others, Cuba has an experienced lineup that has strong chemistry from its many tournaments together. Because of the country’s policy on emigration, the 28-man roster all plays in the National Series as well. Unlike two of the other teams in Pool A, their lineup consists mostly of veterans, with only three players younger than 26.
Cuba’s three most recognisable stars occupy the heart of the order: Frederich Cepeda, Yuliesky Gourriel, and Alfredo Despaigne. José Dariel Abreu and Alexei Bell are also well-known for their hitting ability.
Cepeda is a career .340/.489/.583 hitter in the Cuban National Series, with 190 career home runs. The outfielder has produced at a similar level in international events and has been in peak form during WBC play. He is 22-for-50 (.440) with five doubles and five home runs (.840 slugging percentage). Cepeda is the all-time RBI leader in the Classic, with 18.
Gourriel has almost matched Cepeda’s numbers, recording a .335/.416/.597 line through 11 seasons. He has 215 four-baggers in 927 games. In international play, he has hit over .300 with 20 home runs since joining the national team in 2002. In the 2006 and 2009 Classics, the Gold Glove third baseman hit .298 with a .561 slugging percentage.
Despaigne, only 26, has already established himself as a premier slugger in Cuba and on the world stage. The leftfielder has prodigious power, ripping 202 home runs in eight seasons to go with a .347/.439/.653 mark. His past five seasons are truly eye-popping: a .365 average with a .729 slugging percentage. In 2012, he set the CNS season home run record with 36, needing only 87 to enter the record books.
Despaigne’s performance in 2009 Baseball World Cup was one of the greatest in history. He stroked a .436/.500/1.109 mark with 11 home runs, a Cup record. The next highest total is nine. Despaigne had one of his few poor performances in Cuba’s underwhelming 2009 Classic appearance, going 4-for-17 with a homer, striking out four times.
If anyone could upstage Despaigne’s recent campaigns in the Cuban circuit, it is Abreu. He is a career .341/.453/.623 hitter and held for one season the season record for home runs (33) before Despaigne reclaimed his old record. His record-breaking season truly was one for the books, as he hit .453, setting records with a .597 on-base percentage and .986 slugging percentage. Between 2010-2012, the first baseman hit .411 with an .877 slugging mark. Abreu comes into his first Classic leading the league in home runs (13) and slugging (.735) and second in average (.382).
Bell also held the single season record for home runs for one season and has 120 over 11 seasons. He is a career .322/.416/.555 hitter. Bell missed the 2009 Classic with injury, a blow for Cuba after a 2008 Olympic performance that included three doubles, four triples, two four-baggers, and 10 RBI in nine games.
Cuba clearly has power throughout the lineup, and is known for its aggressive approach, perhaps inspired recently by Fidel Castro’s scathing rebuke of their patience in 2009. Nikkan Sports reported that they spent a lot of time after their arrival in Japan working on contact hitting over power production. They do not offer much in the way of speed, though most of the hitters are at least average. Manager Víctor Mesa will align his lineup, which hit .296 in the first two Classics, as follows:
Guillermo Herédia – CF
Alexei Bell – RF
Yuliesky Gourriel – 3B
Frederich Cepeda – DH
José Dariel Abreu – 1B
Alfredo Despaigne – LF
José Fernández – 2B
Eriel Sánchez – C
Erisbel Arruebarruena – SS
The Pitching Staff
Though Cuba’s lineup is one of the best in the world, they will need a few solid pitching performances if they intend to challenge for their first world title since 2006. In WBC play, the nation has a 3.99 ERA to go with its 9-5 ERA.
Its ace is Ismel Jiménez, while Norberto González and Yadier Pedroso may also be in line for starts. Freddy Álvarez, Danny Betancourt, and Vladimir García will be available for key outs in the early through late innings.
Jiménez is 102-38 in his National Series career and is already off to a 9-0 start in the 2012-13 season thanks to a 1.06 ERA. His .728 winning percentage is the best all-time in Cuba, and he became one of only three pitchers to record 19 wins in 2011-12. He was 1-0 with a 3.68 ERA in the 2009 WBC, earning a win against Australia in relief after coming on with the bases loaded.
González has 119 wins, 88 losses, and 20 saves in 12 seasons, accumulating a 3.89 ERA. That mark has been much lower over the past three campaigns, as he is 37-14 with a 2.95 run mark. The southpaw first donned the red-and-blue in 2003 and has had a number of clutch performances. González will be appearing in his third Classic, where he has a 3.24 ERA in seven games.
Pedroso is 67-35 with a 2.89 in the CNS, striking out eight K/9. In 2011-12, he led the league in strikeouts with 128 in 129 1/3 frames, and was 10-6 with a 2.64 ERA. He has a 3.83 ERA in seven tournaments for Cuba.
Álvarez is 36-31 with a 3.37 ERA in Cuba, but is 15-9 with a 2.37 ERA in the past two campaigns. In his only tournament for the senior national team, he was 1-0 with a 3.65 ERA.
Betancourt is 85-55 with a 3.87 ERA in 12 season. He is currently having his best season since 2005-2006. The right-hander has turned in a number of strong performances while wearing the red-and-blue. In three tournaments spanning 29 innings, he is 3-0 with three saves and a 2.48 ERA, striking out 39. At the 2005 World Cup, he pitched the gold medal game against Korea, hurling 7 1/3 shutout frames.
Along with Betancourt, Vladimir García could serve as closer for Cuba. The right-hander has performed a variety of roles in the CNS, tallying a 51-33 record and 62 saves over seven campaigns. He has a career 2.91 ERA, though he mustered a 1.71 mark in 2011-12 and has a 2.02 ERA in the current campaign. In two tourneys for Cuba, he has a 2.35 ERA, striking out 10.6 batters per nine innings.
“We do have confidence in, and rely on, our pitchers,” Mesa explained. “No matter what the situation is, they can pitch. That’s our strong point. We are very optimistic.”
Cuba and the 2013 WBC
Cuba played a demanding spate of exhibition games to tune up for the World Baseball Classic. After leaving Cuba in mid-February, the team played four games against other WBC clubs in Taiwan, splitting the series. Taiwan beat them 6-5 in the first game on Feb. 18, with Cuba defeating Australia a day later, 5-3. The squad blasted Taiwan 22-11 behind three home runs from Despaigne on Feb. 22, but was shut out on the 25th by the Netherlands, 5-0.
Cuba then continued on to Japan, where in the days leading up to the Pool A opener, it took a pair of wins from NPB teams. It topped the Hanshin Tigers 3-2 on Feb. 27 and finished with a 10-8 victory over the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on Mar. 1, both in Tokyo Dome.
The six practice games made it clear that Cuba has one of the best offences in the world, but may have to out-slug some of its better opponents. In the four games against national teams, they scored 32, but allowed 25. They also committed five errors and failed to field sacrifice bunts cleanly on several occasions, which might cause problems against the other three nations.
They will first test Brazil, their fellow COPABE (Confederaciòn Panamericana de Béisbol, the governing body of baseball in the Americas) members. The two nations first met in 1951 at the Pan American Games, and Cuba has never dropped a decision in their 12 meetings. Andre Rienzo, a top Chicago White Sox prospect, will start for 20th-ranked Brazil. Cuba will counter with Jiménez in the 3:30 a.m. Mar. 3 matchup.
Cuba will move on to face China, ranked at No. 18 by IBAF. Like Brazil, the red-and-gold are not considered much of a threat, though Cuba will take them seriously. Since their first meeting in 1998, Cuba is 7-0, scoring an average of 11 runs while allowing only 2. Game time is 7:30 a.m. GMT on Mar. 4.
The final game of Pool A will likely be one of the most exciting in the tournament, as it pits Cuba against Japan. Cuba holds a 50-12 advantage in the all-time series, and Japan only won a single time between 1972 and 1997. The average result of 6-3 is far more indicative of how tense the rivalry is.
Cuba will also be looking for revenge as the Samurai swept the two-game series in November and have eliminated the Cuban team in both previous World Baseball Classics. The two arch-rivals will be pitted against each other in the final first round game at the Tokyo Dome on Mar. 6 at 10 a.m. GMT.
“Our main goal is to go to the [semifinals in the] U.S.,” Mesa told MLB.com. “I have no doubt we can go to America. We have confidence.”
Stay tuned for more previews, reviews, and analysis.
Gabriel has been a sports journalist for nearly a decade now. He got hist start writing for the Lee University Sports Information Department as an undergraduate student and worked his way up from there. He is a huge Red Sox fan, but his love of travel and baseball have intersected with his love of writing about international baseball.