Long break until after the World Baseball Classic III
by Peter C. Bjarkman*
HAVANA TIMES — Against a backdrop of preparation and anticipation for the upcoming March MLB World Baseball Classic, the Cuban League has now wrapped up a “qualification” 45-game first stage in its newly structured National Series XLII season.
For the third time (following 2006 and 2009) the Cuban Federation has been forced to suspend play midway through the winter in order to accommodate training for and participation in the MLB “Classic” event. But unlike those past two occasions, this time around the Cuban Federation has actually restructured its domestic league season into two phases – a preliminary round designed to eliminate half of the island’s 16 ball clubs from any further championship aspirations, and a post-Classic title round set to commence in early April.
While reactions to the new format have been largely mixed across the island, the first two-month stage (begun at the end of November) provided an engaging and tense pennant race that found three teams still fighting off second-half elimination on the final day of competition.
Pito Abreu (Left) chases the batting Triple Crown and Ismel Jimenez (Right) cashes the pitching Triple Crown.
One obvious motivation for the new league structure was precisely the necessity of again suspending play in the middle of a winter pennant race in order to accommodate Team Cuba’s participation in the MLB-sponsored event.
If nothing else, a clearly demarcated two-stage campaign provides a more natural breaking point than simply suspending traditional pennant races in mid-stream.
But still another underlying motive was the apparent need (not universally acknowledged across Cuba) to give up on a traditional island-wide 16-team circuit in favor of a more competitive eight-squad structure.
The downside of improving Cuban League quality by shrinking the league size of course is apparent in the abandonment of a system that has for decades provided every island province with its hometown ball club and thus its usually fanatical local rooting interests.
The complicated current effort at meeting both goals simultaneously within the same lengthy season (maintaining island-wide participation but also achieving tighter league competition) seems already to be providing just as many problems as solutions.
For those who are not long-time followers of Cuban baseball, perhaps a brief explanation of the new league format is necessity here. Unlike the past two decades that featured 16 league squads divided into either two eight-team leagues (Oriental and Occidental) – or earlier still, four four-team groups divided between the island’s eastern and western sectors – this year’s structure has collapsed all 16 clubs into a single circuit playing a 45-game December and January pre-WBC round robin.
Only eight clubs would qualify for the season’s second round, a 42-game affair in which surviving ball clubs play each of the opposing seven squads in home and away three-game sets. That second championship round will not begin until April 2, well after the two-month recess devoted to pre-Classic national team training and then the WBC event itself.
Phase two will last until June 1 and then be followed by semifinal and final playoff rounds extending all the way to June 27 (if all playoff series reach the maximum seven games) – the latest finishing date for a National Series in a number of decades.
The island will not be entirely without domestic baseball play during the WBC resting period, as the eight eliminated provincial squads (minus players drafted by the qualifying clubs as reinforcements, and of course also minus any national team players involved in the Classic) will engage in a Division II short season competition that runs through most of March and wraps up on April 15. Each Division II squad will play 21 games (a single three-game set versus each of the other seven clubs); semifinals will match first and fourth and second and third-place finishers, with a five-game final series scheduled to determine the Division II champion.
When the regular National Series season resumes, the surviving eight squads will have already dropped five ballplayers from their current rosters and replaced them with a quintet of superior athletes drafted from the eight eliminated teams. One available “star” player will be chosen from the pool by each team drafting in the reverse order (the eighth-place team, Pinar del Río, will own the first selection and the first-place team, Sancti Spíritus, will choose last).
This drafting of reinforcement players will be staged as a national television event on Sunday, February 10, and is already generating plenty of buzz among fans speculating about which teams will pluck such big-name star sluggers as Alfredo Despaigne, Alexei Bell and Joan Carlos Pedroso.
In reality of course, it will be pitching and not hitting that will be coveted by such top contenders as Sancti Spíritus, Cienfuegos and Matanzas, and if any of the leaders can bag even one among the trio of Artemisa aces (Yulieski González, Miguel Lahera or Yadier Pedroso) their championship prospects will obviously be greatly enhanced. The remaining four replacements on each squad will not be selected openly but rather assigned by a blind draw conducted by the central league office.
One odd feature of the new championship structure is that it no longer requires a final clash between western division (Oriental League) and eastern division (Occidental League) winners.
Since Villa Clara and Ciego de Avila were the only eastern sector teams to make it through the first round, and since both are currently buried near the bottom of the standings, an all-western region title shootout is now a very real possibility. But the prospect of an all-western finale is only one among several uncomfortable wrinkles in the new system.
One special boast of Cuban baseball has always been that the long-standing structure featuring teams in all fourteen provinces (plus Isla and the city of Havana) meant that a strong rooting interest was sustained in all corners of the island.
Baseball in Cuba has until now always been a truly national enterprise. But suddenly the season’s second half will find eight provinces (including traditional hotbed Santiago) with no team and thus without local top-level baseball. (The short 27-game Division II season ending as early as April 15 that now features clubs like Santiago and La Tunas – both already stripped on their top stars and only battling other tail enders is not likely to inspire much widespread fan interest.)
And another long-standing boasting point of Cuba’s national pastime will now also fall by the wayside. Previously players remained with the local provincial club (with only a few odd exceptions) for an entire career. Now suddenly there will be 40 ballplayers appearing with two different squads during a single campaign – something unheard of in Cuba’s unique alternative baseball universe.
Most of the headlines of the final week here have been devoted to the thrilling race between five clubs to avoid second-half elimination. Isla and Villa Clara finally backed into the second round this past weekend although they both did so while losing rather than winning several key matches.
Isla dropped a three-game set in Cienfuegos while Villa Clara struggled with visiting Santiago; but none of the trailing squads (with the exception of Pinar, who climbed out of the second division down the final stretch) could win consistently enough to make up ground.
Pinar’s charge to the wire under rookie manager Giraldo González stretched to the final day and peaked with a Thursday morning clinching 11-1 romp in Mayabeque. Most of the heroics for the Green Tsunami club were provided by bulky DH Yosvani Peraza who hit safely in 11 of 23 plate appearances during the final two weeks, slugged four of his nine round-trippers in the same stretch, and took over the league RBI lead with 42. Peraza (a memorable game-saving hero versus Australia in WBC 2006) not only rescued the season for his surging team but also may well have earned a last-minute elevation onto the current WBC roster.
In the end, then, it came down to a three-team struggle that stretched beyond the eleventh hour. Entering Thursday’s final morning and afternoon clashes, Las Tunas, Pinar del Río, and defending champion Ciego de Avila were all still staring at potential elimination.
Pinar’s victory in Mayabeque was decisive because it meant that Las Tunas would finish with one less victory than the Vegueros, despite their own rain-delayed 7-5 afternoon triumph versus Isla. It then all came down to the final televised Thursday night affair between Granma and defending champion Ciego (with ace Vladimir García on the hill) and the result was a 10-0 cakewalk for the Tigers that quickly sent Las Tunas packing.
Far and away the single standout individual star of the season’s first half has been Sancti Spíritus ace Ismel Jiménez; the clever right-hander has cruised to an unblemished 9-0 mark (on the heels of last season’s league-best 18-5 ledger) and now stands of the verge of a possible rare pitching triple crown achievement – as league leader in wins, ERA and strikeouts.
The Triple Crown feat has been achieved on four previous occasions in the Cuban National Series (a slightly smaller percentage than in the major leagues) with the first to turn the trick being Modesto Verdura (1963 NS#2). Subsequent Triple Crown winners were Omar Carrero (1976 NS#15), José Ibar (1998 NS#37) and Maels Rodríguez (2001 NS#40). Ismel rang up his ninth victory with a rare relief appearance on the final day, after authoring two brilliant 9-inning efforts (allowing only a single run in his 18 frames) over the previous ten days that both ended in no-decisions. This year’s surge has upped Ismel Jiménez’s career record to a brilliant 102-38 which has currently bumped his lifetime winning percentage (.729) a notch above that of El Duque Hernández as the best in league annals. And at 9-0 Jiménez now is also in potential striking range of Yulieski González’s 2008 15-0 ledger which is also an unmatched league standard.
Ismel Jiménez is not alone in his Triple Crown hunt this winter. Cienfuegos slugger Piti Abreu is now also (for the third straight season) threatening to achieve an even rarer feat among Cuban League batsmen. There has never been a National Series offensive Triple Crown winner, although Abreu missed by only a single RBI (being topped by Yoennis Céspedes) only two seasons back. Last year Piti also remained in the hunt all the way to the season’s final weekend. At the halfway point this season Abreu is the current home run pacesetter (now two ahead of Despaigne), stands second in batting average (his .382 mark is within easy striking distance of the .393 posted by José M. Fernández), and is a mere half dozen RBIs in arrears of Yosvani Peraza (after posting 8 with pair of double-homer games in the closing series versus Industriales). The Triple Crown fortunes of both Abreu and Ismel Jiménez during the season’s second half may actually prove as engaging as the league pennant race itself.
(*) Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past five years and is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.