Cuba Sends Strong Team to Rotterdam

The World Port Tournament begins on June 30th.

by Peter C. Bjarkman*

AragonManagerWPTHAVANA TIMES – On the heels of an unorthodox National Series season featuring a split campaign, two distinct divisions, drafted reinforcement players, and a rather surprising league champion, Cuban baseball now heads into its annual summer international phase with July visits to Holland (World Port Tournament) and North America (renewal of last year’s friendly series with the USA Baseball College All-Stars).

First up is the showcase World Port Tournament in Rotterdam, a four-team event staged on odd-number years since 1985 and a venue where the Cubans have walked off with eight of the previous thirteen titles. This year’s small-field tournament will feature the defending champion Taiwanese (winners over Cuba in a gripping 11-inning “Schiller Rule” title game two summers back), the reigning IBAF World Champion Dutch (gold medal winners over Cuba at the final 2011 IBAF Panama World Cup), a strong Curaçao ball club (featuring a number of talented Dutch League regulars), and a strong Cuban squad that in large part resembles the team sent into action in last the March for a Third Edition of the MLB World Baseball Classic.

Unlike past seasons when Team Cuba rosters have been announced well in advance of tournament play, a veil of secrecy has clouded the Cuban squads chosen for this year’s Rotterdam event and also for the upcoming renewal series in late July with the USA collegians.

Part of the reason has likely been the late finish of this year’s domestic post-season, but it is now apparent that WPT officials also asked the Cuban Federation not to announce details about their squad until after June 25. The Cuban team by agreement would be first revealed to the Dutch media during a special June 25 press conference in Rotterdam as part of the kick-off celebration of this year’s event. While this website was aware of the Cuban roster at a slightly earlier date, we agreed not to reveal it in advance of the “official” announcement on Dutch soil. But the roster has now been made public on at least one other European-based website in advance of the official press release.

Cuba will indeed be well represented in Rotterdam with a ball club that largely mirrors the strong contingent send to Japan earlier this spring for WBC III action under the leadership of Victor Mesa. The starting lineup of position players will in fact be identical to the WBC club with the small exceptions of left-fielder Alfredo Despaigne (recently allowed to spend the summer on the roster of the Campeche Mexican League club), DH Freddie Cepeda (currently sidelined for three months with a hand injury), and spare outfielder Alexei Bell (also currently on the injured list and thus also missing for the second half of National Series action).

Ismel Jimenez y Yasmani Tomás

The biggest changes will come on the bench (where rookie manager Yovani Aragón replaces Mesa as manager) and in the pitching corps (where only starters Ismel Jiménez, Odrisamer Despaigne and Wilber Pérez, plus reliever Raciel Iglesias return from the WBC roster). The most notable absences from the normal top Cuba squad (outside of Alfredo Despaigne and Freddie Cepeda) will be ace right-handed pitchers Vladimir García (starter in the final March Tokyo shootout with Holland) and Freddy Asiel Alvarez (fresh off his stunning and record-smashing MVP performance in this year’s National Series playoffs with league champion Villa Clara).

Cuba Team Roster – World Port Tournament 2013

Player Position Age Bats-Throws Cuban League Team
Eriel Sánchez* Catcher 38 (5/17/1975) Right-Right Sancti Spíritus
Frank Camilo Morejón* Catcher 27 (1/25/1986) Right-Right Industriales
Yosvani Peraza* Catcher 33 (9/02/1979) Right-Right Pinar del Río
José Dariel Abreu * First Base 26 (1/29/1987) Right-Right Cienfuegos
Alexander Malleta First Base 36 (2/22/1977) Left-Left Industriales
Andy Ibáñez* Second Base 20 (4/03/1993) Right-Right Isla de la Juventud
Johan Moncada Second Base 18 (5/27/1995) Right-Right Cienfuegos
Yulieski Gourriel* Third Base 29 (6/09/1984) Right-Right Sancti Spíritus
Pavel Quesada Infielder 24 (No Date) Right-Right Cienfuegos
Bárbaro Arruebarruena* Shortstop 23 (3/25/1990) Right-Right Cienfuegos
José Miguel Fernández* Infielder 25 (4/27/1988) Left-Right Matanzas
Yasmani Tómas* Outfielder 22 (11/14/1990) Right-Right Industriales
Stayler Hernández Outfielder 30 (No Date) Left-Left Industriales
Yadiel Hernández Outfielder 26 (No Date) Left-Right Matanzas
Guillermo Heredia* Outfielder 22 (1/31/1991) Both-Right Matanzas
Ismel Jiménez* Pitcher 27 (2/10/1986) RHP Sancti Spíritus
Wilber Pérez* Pitcher 36 (10/24/1976) LHP Isla de la Juventud
Odrisamer Despaigne* Pitcher 26 (4/04/1987) RHP Industriales
Vladimir Baños Pitcher 29 (01/17/1983) RHP Pinar del Río
Noelvis Entenza Pitcher 27 (No Date) RHP Cienfuegos
Jorge Hernández Pitcher 21 (No Date) RHP Cienfuegos
Raciel Iglesias* Pitcher 23 (4/01/1990) RHP Isla de la Juventud
Duniel Ibarra Pitcher 33 (No Date) RHP Cienfuegos
Yovani Aragón Manager (Sancti Spíritus)
Bárbaro Marín Coach (Cienfuegos)
Wilber de Armas Coach (Industriales)
Juan de Dios* Pitching Coach (Sancti Spíritus)
Francisco M. Flores Staff/Security
Ibrahim A. García Staff/Security
Victor Mesa* Head of Delegation (Matanzas)
NOTE: * Indicates players on roster of 2013 Cuba WORLD BASEBALL CLASSIC Team

Cuba’s decision to send such a strong contingent to this year’s World Port event would seem to have a double motivation. First and foremost, the absence of any major world championship events this summer means that top Cuban stars will have to be kept sharp with the Rotterdam and North American tours, as well as with a late-summer excursion on tap for Chinese Taipei. Perhaps equally important, it would seem that the Cuban brain trust is bent on a measure of revenge against the Dutch who have captured the last three important head-to-head meetings: a 2-1 thriller in the finale of Panama’s 2011 IBAF World Cup championships plus the pair of Round II Tokyo WBC victories that propelled the Orangeman into the WBC finals in San Francisco. Cuba’s front-liners did handle their Dutch rivals twice in succession at last summer’s Haarlem Baseball Week, but there was much less luster attached to those wins since the Dutch squad faced last summer boasted little more than a trimmed-down roster version of their more potent IBAF World Cup and MLB World Classic squads.

2013 World Port Tournament Schedule
Sunday June 30
2:00 pm – Cuba vs. Curaçao
7:30 pm – Netherlands vs. Chinese Taipei
Monday July 1
2:00 pm – Chinese Taipei vs. Curaçao
7:30 pm – Cuba vs. Netherlands
Tuesday July 2
7:30 pm – Curaçao vs. Netherlands
Wednesday July 3
2:00 pm – Curaçao vs. Chinese Taipei
7:30 pm – Netherlands vs. Cuba
Thursday July 4
7:30 pm – Chinese Taipei vs. Cuba
Friday July 5
2:00 pm – Chinese Taipei vs. Cuba
7:30 pm – Netherlands vs. Curaçao
Saturday July 6
2:00 pm – Curaçao vs. Cuba
7:30 pm – Chinese Taipei vs. Netherlands
Sunday July 7
2:00 pm Final

A dark horse in this year’s WPT field might be the Taiwanese, who will return the bulk of a squad that won this event last time around (paced by 2011 MVP second baseman Han Lin) and also boast a handful of stars from their own March WBC outfit. Taiwan did capture one March game on home turf from the very Dutch team that eventually moved on to the WBC finale from the Asian bracket. But Cuba thrashed the Taiwanese WBC club 14-0 in their Round II Tokyo meeting and the Asians are now without their best professional hurler, former Yankee and current Blue Jay right-hander Chien-Ming Wang.

The strongest challenge to a hoped-for ninth Cuban WPT title should in the end come from the home-based Dutch squad that will now be without its top pros (Andrelton Simmons, Jonathan Schoop, Wladimir Balentien and Yander Bogaerts, among others) but nonetheless features several experienced pitchers (Rob Cordemans, Diegomar Markwell, Orlando Yntema and Leon Boyd) who have repeatedly been a stiff thorn in the sides of Cuban batters. Perhaps the biggest change for the Dutch (outside the current absence of their top-line major leaguers and minor leaguers) is found with the team management. Talented long-time pitching coach and Belgium native Steve Janssen has now taken over from American Brian Farley (top man at both the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Haarlem Baseball Week) and also from former big leaguer Hensley Meulens (bench boss for the 2013 WBC) as national team skipper. It’s a safe bet that Janssen will have his veteran pitchers more than ready to face the potent Cuban batting order in what has rapidly become one of international baseball’s most entertaining rivalries.
(*) Peter Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team as senior writer for during the past six-plus years and is currently writing a book on the history of Cuba’s post-revolution national team.