Cuba & the International Baseball Circuit

Peter C. Bjarkman*

Alfredo Despaigne and Yordanis Samon

HAVANA TIMES — A much-delayed announcement of the Cuban roster for an upcoming “friendly” exhibition series with Nicaragua when finally released this past weekend has now provided one of the most intriguing and refreshing Cuban squads of recent memory.

Cuban Sports Institute (INDER) press secretary Antonio Diaz – writing on their official website – has touted the current 24-man squad as representing “un equipo Cuba con sangre joven” (“a Team Cuba with young blood”) but there is indeed plenty of well-seasoned blood represented here as well, and a complete collection of rather familiar faces.

Two of three catchers (Yosvany Alarcón and Yulexis LaRosa), a full trio of infielders (first sackers Alexander Mayeta and Yordanis Samón, plus shortstop prospect Erisbel Arruebarruena), the bulk of the starting outfielders (Alfredo Despaigne, Alexei Bell and Rusney Castillo), and three hurlers destined to front the starting rotation (Freddy Asiel Alvarez, Ismel Jiménez and Dalier Hinojosa) are all recognizable veterans who have appeared regularly on various national squads over the past three or four summertime international seasons.

But this Team Cuba, for all the old guard it contains, is most definitely a squad with a distinctly novel look. Gone from the picture for the moment at least are such dependable stalwarts of the past half-dozen years as Ariel Pestano behind the plate, Yulieski Gourriel and Héctor Olivera in the infield, and Freddie Cepeda manning the designated hitter slot.

The nine-man pitching corps represents the greatest turnover, with such regulars as Yadier Pedroso, Jonder Martínez, Vlad García and Norberto González nowhere to be found here. But perhaps the biggest surprise in the pitching selection is the noteworthy absence of both Vladimir García (Ciego de Avila) and Odrisamer Despaigne (Industriales) – arguably two of the best arms of the just completed National Series and also stellar performers in the action-packed National Series finale between the champion Tigers and runner-up Blue Lions.

Also rather notable for their unexpected absences are Industriales stalwarts Frank Camilo Morejón (backup receiver on last fall’s silver medal Panama World Cup team) and popular infielder Rudy Reyes (a frequent national team utility player now coming off his most productive offensive season ever with a .353 BA – fourth best in the circuit).

But perhaps no absence is less expected and therefore more puzzling than that of slugging Cienfuegos first baseman José Dariel Abreu. Also to be noted is the fact that this team will feature the same weakness that has plagued so many other Cuban squads of recent vintage – a nearly complete absence of both pitching southpaws (Yoannis Yera is the single “portsider”) and left-handed batting (Mayeta alone swings for the left side of the plate).

Cuban Roster for Nicaragua Series

Manager: Roger Machado (Ciego de Avila)

Coaches: José Hernández (Ciego de Avila), Luis Puente (Industriales), Manuel Alvarez (Ciego de Avila), Jesus Manso (Villa Clara)

Delegation Head: Jorge Fuentes (Pinar del Río)

*Selected to 2012 National Series #51 All-Star Team

Player Position Team Age (Seasons) B/T 2012 National Series Stats
Yosvany Alarcón* Catcher Las Tunas 27 (7) R/R .315 BA, 15 HR, 56 RBI
Yulexis LaRosa Catcher Villa Clara 32 (12) R/R .251 BA, 2 HR, 27 RBI
Lednier Ricardo Catcher Camagüey 23 (5) R/R .289 BA, 3 HR, 27 RBI
Alexander Mayeta First Base Industriales 31 (15) L/L .288 BA, 124 HR, 74 RBI
Yordanis Samón First Base Granma 30 (10) R/R .363 BA, 15 HR, 82 RBI
Juan Carlos Torriente Infield Idustriales 27 (8) R/R .327 BA, 2 HR, 28 RBI
Erisbel Arruebarruena Shortstop Cienfuegos 21 (5) R/R .320 BA, 8 HR, 44 RBI
Yordán Manduley* Shortstop Ho;guín 23 (7) R/R .351 BA, 6 HR, 58 RBI
Yurisbel Gracial Infield Matanzas 26 (3) R/R .328 BA, 15 HR, 68 RBI
Raul González Third Base Ciego de Avila 24 (7) R/R .303 BA, 8 HR, 45 RBI
Rusney Castillo* Outfield Ciego de Avila 24 (4) R/R .332 BA, 16 HR, 66 RBI
Alexei Bell Outfield Santiago de Cuba 28 (11) R/R .327 BA, 18 HR, 69 RBI
Alfredo Despaigne* Outfield Granma 25 (8) R/R .326, 36 HR, 105 RBI
Yadiel Hernández Outfield Matanzas 25 (3) R/R .330 , 8 HR, 67 RBI
Guillermo Heredia* Outfield Matanzas 20 (3) R/R .343 BA, 10 HR, 52 RBI
Freddie Asiel Alvarez RHP Villa Clara 22 (8) R/R 7-5, 2.90 ERA
Yander Guevara RHP Ciego de Avila 25 (5) R/R 10-7. 3.97 ERA
Ismel Jiménez RHP Sancti Spíritus 25 (8) R/R 17-5, 2.48 ERA
Pablo Millán Fernández* RHP Holguín 21 (5) R/R 7-4,  1.52 ERA, 18 Saves
Dalier Hinojosa RHP Guantánamo 25 (7) R/R 9-7. 3.40 ERA
Danni Aguilera RHP Isla de la Juventud 28 (10) R/R 3-4, 2.17 ERA, 27 Saves
Yoannis Yera LHP Matanzas 22 (4) L/L 10-3, 3.50 ERA
Jorge Alberto Martínez RHP Matanzas 28 (7) R/R 11-5, 2.94 ERA
Erlis Casanova RHP Pinar del Río 26 (7) R/R 10-7, 2.50 ERA

This is obviously not the squad that will face the USA collegiate all-stars in Havana in early July (July 5-9 in Latin American Stadium) and then move on to Haarlem Baseball Week tournament action in Europe (July 13-22). Last March the Cuba Federation formally agreed to a series with the Americans that would feature essentially university teams – which for Cuba would mean players of no more than 26 years of age.

Obviously a significantly large number of players from the Nicaragua-bound squad do not meet the age qualification and would thus not be expected to face off with the Americans in either Havana or Holland. It is not clear at this point whether another entire pre-selection roster will be sent into training during the next two weeks, or if instead only token adjustments will be made to the currently assembled squad. LaRosa, Mayeta, Samón and Bell clearly must be replaced if the Cubans are to stick to their earlier agreement to field the equivalent of a collegiate all-star squad for the Haarlem games.

Collegiate all-stars manning the Cuban roster would obviously not mean the absence of a strong contingent of National Series all-stars. The powerhouse Cuban squad that walked off with gold during the most recent World University Games in Tokyo (August 2010) was a solid team that boasted such sluggers as Abreu, Despaigne and the now-departed Yoennis Céspedes, plus such noteworthy Team Cuba hurlers as Miguel Alfredo González, Vlad García and Yadier Pedroso – plus Hinojosa and Ismel Jiménez from the present Nicaragua-bound roster.

The Cubans won the event – their last face-off with a USA collegiate squad – on the strength of Despaigne’s dramatic walk-off “Schiller Rule” extra-inning home run. A squad similar to the one sent to Tokyo two years back can be expected for the renewal of hostilities with the Americans, and Abreu, García and Pedroso are all most likely additions to the Cuban arsenal for the July festivities.

Meanwhile, the upcoming set of exhibition games with Team Nicaragua will begin this coming weekend and stretch over nine calendar days. The “friendly”-style series has been arranged primarily to help the Nicaraguans prepare for an upcoming World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament date later this fall. Team Nicaragua will square off at Panama City in mid-November with Colombia, Brazil and host Panama – all vying for a single Western Hemisphere WBC 2013 at-large berth.

Yet if these early summer exhibitions hold little at stake for the Cuban contingent other than an element of pride, they will in fact provide a test-by-fire for a number of potential future Cuban stars now getting their first taste of international overseas action. Such emerging national team candidates as outfielder Guillermo Heredia, shortstop Yordán Mandulay, third baseman Raúl González and hurlers Yoanni Yera and Yander Guevara – among others – will all be under the microscope in what might be their single opportunity to remain in the running for a cherished slot in the 2013 Cuban WBC lineup.

Schedule for Nicaragua Exhibition Series

Game Dates Stadiums (Cities) Stadium Capacity Times
Saturday June 16 Dennis Martínez (Managua) 31,100 6:00 PM (Local Time)
Sunday June 17 Chali Solis (Matagalpa) 4,500 6:00 PM (Local Time)
Wednesday June 20 Yamil Ríos Ugarte (Rivas) 5,000 6:00 PM (Local Time)
Saturday June 23 Rufo Marín (Estelf) 4,500 6:00 PM (Local Time)
Sunday June 24 Heroes y Martires (León) 8,000 6:00 PM (Local Time)

 (*) Peter C. Bjarkman’s columns can be read at