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What would a Cuban WBC team look like if everyone could play?

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Cespedes is my all-Cuba cleanup hitter. Photo via Business Insider

Cespedes is my all-Cuba cleanup hitter. Photo via Business Insider

I saw a little throw-away post at USAtoday.com before the start of the 2016 baseball season: there were no less than 23 Cuban-born players on MLB rosters on 2016 opening day.  And even more defected or were signed in the 2016 calendar year.

How awesome is that?  I think its great that we have a huge contingent of Cubans playing in the league again and I wish that a generation hadn’t been lost due to politics.  A good percentage of the teams in the majors now have at least one Cuban on their 40-man roster somewhere, and many have multiple IFA Cuban signees scattered in their lower minors.  Not the Nats though; we got kinda burned by Yunesky Maya and then blew our IFA budget last year on some D.R. players; perhaps they’ll go after some of the rising talent next July 2 window.

I’ve long hoped for a unification of the Cuban National team to compete in the WBC; I think they’d take so much pride in their team it would really add to the event.  However it looks as if the Cuban government will continue to hold a grudge and prevent any defectors from representing their country in the 2017 WBC.  The WBC rosters were announced recently, and we’ll see some of these names in the analysis below for reasons that will become apparent soon.

So, since we won’t get a full-strength Cuban WBC team, I thought I’d take a stab at what could have been.   I did a similar post in March of 2013 but with all the recent defections the roster looks much improved.

 


 

Manager: Fredi Gonzalez of the Atlanta Braves.  The only Cuban-born hall of Famer Tony Perez can be the bench coach.  They can bring out the likes of Tony Oliva and Camilo Pascual to be his assistants; they’re the most decorated Cuban ex-pros still living.

Pitching Coaches: Livan Hernandez and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez: the brothers re-unite to teach the staff how to throw junk balls and make starts despite being hooked on Marlboro Reds.

Hitting Coaches:  Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro.  These two can double as “Strength coaches.”  :-)

Positional Players:

  • C: Yasmani Grandal, starting catcher for the Dodgers, 2015 All-Star.
  • 1B: Jose Abreu, 91 homers in his first three years in the MLB, Rookie of the Year in 2014, when he also made the All-Star team and won the Silver Slugger.
  • 2B: Aledmys Diaz: debut in 2016 and made the All-Star team; prodution fell off so he “only” finished 5th in 2016 Rookie of the Year voting.
  • 3B: Adonis Garcia: a solid bat for Atlanta at the corner despite debuting at age 30.
  • SS: Jose Iglesias: 2015 All-Star for Detroit after finishing 2nd in RoY voting in 2013.
  • LF:  Jorge Soler: Flipped to Kansas City this off-season, escaping a log-jam in Chicago.  Huge power, yet to reach his potential.
  • CF: Yoenis Cespedes: just signed the largest contract of the off-season; not really a CF but played there nonetheless.  2-time All-Star and Home Run derby winner 
  • RF: Yasiel Puig: despite his demotion in 2016 has the potential to be one of the elite players in the game, which he in-arguably was his first two years in the league.  2015 all-Star.

That’s a pretty solid starting lineup; 6 of the 8 players here have already made a MLB all-star team.  Lots of power; you’d probably have a slugger like Soler batting 7th.  I think you line these guys up Iglesias, Diaz, Pug, Cespedes, Abreu, Grandal, Soler, Garcia, Pitcher.

Reserves:

  • Catcher: Brayan Peña
  • Corner Inf/PH: Yonder Alonso , Kendrys MoralesYulieski Gurriel, Yoan Moncada
  • Middle Infield: Yunel Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarria,  Alexei Ramirez,  Alex Guerrero
  • OF: Rusney CastilloHector OliveraYasmany Tomas, Leonys Martin, Alfredo Despaigne, Yoelkys Céspedes, Victor Mesa

The reserves include a number of solid veteran guys like Alonso and Morales, middle infield cover from the likes of  Hechavarria and Ramires, and plenty of OF coverage from players like Tomas and Olivera.  And one of the top prospects in all of baseball (Yoan Moncada, the centerpiece of the Chris Sale trade this past off-season) can’t even crack this lineup; he may be your starting 3B before long.  Perhaps Gurriel, a decade-long star in the Cuban series, should be starting at third over Garcia; we’ll see how he fares once he gets more time in Houston.  Despaigne is the biggest player on this list who still hasn’t come to the MLB: he opted to take up the Cuban government’s relaxing of rules and has been playing in Japan recently.  Yoelkys Cespedes is indeed Yoenis’ younger brother and is getting some attention for his abilities already.

Starting Pitchers

  • Oridismar Despaignehe’s been knocked to the bullpen in the Majors, but someone has to start for the Cuban team.  Career 4.89 ERA.
  • Raisel Iglesias: posted a 2.53 ERA in 2016 as he transitioned from the rotation to closer.  He’s gotta start for this team though.
  • Roenis Elias: 4th starter for Seattle in 2014-15, struggled/got hurt for Boston in 2016.
  • Ariel Miranda : 10 starts for Seattle last year with a 3.54 era; he may not make their rotation in 2017 but he’ll get time.

So, we’re a little light on starters.  We may be reaching out to some domestic-based pitchers.  Starter Lazaro Blanco just pitched two masterpieces in the Caribbean Series, shutting out the Dominican Republic team for 6 innings then giving up just one run in seven innings in the semis against Mexico.  Their #2 and #3 starters (Vladimir Banos and Vladimir Garcia) weren’t half bad either.  Freddy Alvarez got pummeled in his only series start but is on the WBC roster as a returning veteran and should see time.  Perhaps we should also look at promising 18-yr old Cuban prospect Osvaldo Hernandez, who was just declared a FA and may sign a multi-million dollar deal soon.

Relievers

  • Aroldis Chapman (2009 WBC team member): the most dominant reliever in the game, 4-time All-star
  • Dalier Hinojosa: setup guy with Philly, decent numbers, like a 6th/7th inning guy.
  • Raudel Lazo: lefty reliever with Miami’s farm system; closed for their AAA squad and posted a 1.78 ERA in 2016 in New Orleans.
  • Yaisel Sierra: struggled in AA for the Dodgers, demoted to bullpen.
  • Armando Rivero, RP for Atlanta
  • Yadier Alvarez: LA’s #1 remaining prospect; only in high-A but well regarded.

Past Chapman and Hinojosa, there’s not much depth here either, so again we dip into the domestic-based players.  Cuba depended on three late-innings relievers in the Caribbean series: Livan Moinelo, Miguel Lahera and Jose Garcia.  All three are named to the official WBC roster.

 


In summary, the Consoildated all-Cuban team can bash the heck out of the ball … but will struggle on the mound until the 8th or 9th inning when Chapman can take over.  But it’d be a fun team to watch play!

Did I miss anyone?  Maybe; its impossible to keep track of the dozens of Cuban signings done over the last couple of years.  Pipe up if you see someone mising.

Some references used to make this:

And Peter Gammons just posted his own version of this the day before I published (but weeks after I wrote this).  Compare and contrast his team; i did not cross check to see if I missed anyone.

ALDS Game 5 thoughts

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Wainwright shows why he's an "Ace."  Photo: talksportsphilly.com

Wainwright shows why he’s an “Ace.” Photo: talksportsphilly.com

As much as it pained me and most sentimental baseball fans, I called St. Louis’ NLDS game five victory last night.  Gerrit Cole pitched well, but nothing beats a complete game shutdown performance from an Ace like Adam Wainwright.    The Cards continue to get clutch hitting when they need it and remain a difficult out.  I honestly wanted the Cardinals to lose as penance for putting Shelby Miller in the bullpen, so that I could use the same line that others have used against the Nats for an entire year.  But the Cards gutted out wins in two straight elimination games and now get LA in the NLCS.

With last night’s correct prediction, I’m now 14 for 18 now in per-game predictions this post-season.  Lets put it on the line for another pretty tough game to predict.

ALDS Game 5: Detroit at Oakland.  Verlander versus Gray.   A rematch of game 2’s starters.

Verlander just destroyed Oakland in Game 2; 7 innings, 4 hits, 11 K’s.  No real reason not to think that may happen again.  His big problem was pitch count; he was at 117 pitches through 7 because Oakland sees a ton of pitches.  Billy Beane in action, Oakland walks at the 3rd highest rate in the game.   But, Gray was better; going 8 shutout innings and allowing just 5 baserunners.  Gray was more efficient and probably could have gone another inning; instead Bob Melvin brought on his closer in a tie game late and was rewarded with a bottom of the 9th walk-off win….

Quick Tangent: see Fredi Gonzalez; isn’t it nice when you use your best reliever to help win games, instead of managing to the stupid save category and watching a lesser reliever give up the game-winning bomb while Kimbrel sits in the bullpen with his hands on his hips??  You deserved to lose that game, and its karmic that the Braves are now out after all the whining, the showmanship, and the beanball wars they brought on the league this year.

Anyway.  On tonight’s game something tells me the A’s are going to get to Verlander slightly more than the Tigers get to Gray.   Oakland’s bullpen is in tatters, but Detroit’s isn’t much better.  If Gray can hand the ball directly to Balfour again, and if Oakland can squeeze Verlander out of the game after 7 innings again … I think Oakland hangs on for the win.

 

Written by Todd Boss

October 10th, 2013 at 8:51 am

What could a full Team-Cuba look like without Politics?

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Team Cuba looks good so far; imagine them with Cespedes and all their other MLB stars. Photo wiki/flickr hj_west

I just finished re-reading The Duke of Havana, a great book about the back story of Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, his rise to the top (and subsequent political fall from grace) in Cuban professional baseball, his escape from his home-land, his rise with the 1998 New York Yankees, and the general politics/life of typical Cubans in the post-USSR era.  Despite the crushing effects of the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba over the last 40 years, the island continues to produce MLB-quality baseball players.  Of course, thanks to the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries, when it comes time for the World Baseball Classic, we can’t see a unified Cuban team.   Cubans who have escaped to play in America can never go back, and (as detailed in the book), often times leave behind wives, children and family who are subsequently pressured politically by Castro’s hacks.

I wondered what could an all-Cuba team really look like, if MLB players and other expatriots were allowed to re-unite with the current set of known Cuban amateur stars?  Using some of the same methods as in my “All Virginia” post, by searching for those born in Cuba along with some well-known Cuban Americans (per the politics link above), here’s a possible WBC roster of maximum strength for Team Cuba:

Manager: Fredi Gonzalez of the Atlanta Braves.  We’d get Cuban hall-of-famer Tony Perez out of semi-retirement (he was coaching at a small college in Georgia recently).

Positional Players:

  • C: Yasmani Grandal or J.P. Arencibia
  • 1B: Kendrys Morales or Gaby Sanchez
  • 2B: Yunel Escobar or Sean Rodriguez
  • 3B: Yonder Alonso
  • SS: Yuniesky Betancourt or Alexei Ramirez (2006 WBC Team Cuba member)
  • LF: Yoenis Cespedes (2009 WBC team member)
  • CF: John Jay (parents born in Cuba, emigrated to US before birth)
  • RF: Leonys Martin (2009 WBC team member) or Dayan Viciedo

Reserves: Yasiel Puig, Jorge Soler, Alberto Castillo, Jose Iglesias, Juan Miranda, Adeiny Hechavarria, Brayan Pena, Eddy Rodriguez

Best Cuban amateurs (aka, the leading defection candidates): Alfredo Despaigne (just named MVP of round 1 of pool play), Alexei Bell, Yulieski Gourriel,  Jose Abreu (the consensus #1 Cuban amateur prospect right now).

Thoughts: There’s some talent in this lineup; Cuba has developed some power hitters over the past few years but seems to specialize more in middle infielders (most of these reserves are middle infield prospects).  But a potential 3-4-5 of Morales-Cespedes-Alonso is nothing to shake a stick at.  I think this team could score some runs and would be excellent defensively.

Starting Pitchers

  • Gio Gonzalez
  • Jose Contreras
  • Livan Hernandez
  • Yunesky Maya (2006 and 2009 WBC team member)
  • Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez we’ll get him out of retirement; i’m sure he can still throw)

Relievers

  • Aroldis Chapman (2009 WBC team member)
  • Francisely Bueno
  • Raul Valdez
  • Danys Baez (retired in 2011)

Thoughts: So, we’re a little light on pitching, it seems.  We make use of Gonzalez’ first generation in USA status to steal him away from Team USA.  But after him the starting pitching gets light (even if you push Chapman into a starting role as Cincinnati is looking to do in 2013).   Contreras is a career 101 ERA+ guy, Livan may not have a job in 2013 and all nats fans can speak to what Maya brings to the table at this point.  I threw in El Duque despite him probably being close to 50 at this point (B-R lists his birthday in 1965); he was always in great shape and probably could throw a few junk balls up there right now.

Miscellany: Here’s links to Cuba’s 2006 WBC roster, their 2009 roster and their 2013 roster.  And here’s as complete a list of Cuban defectors as I can find on the internet.

 

 

 

 

 

Jeffrey Loria; Worst owner in sports?

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Jeffrey Loria, a wanted man in Miami. Photo unknown via si.com

I think in my next life my job title will be “really good buddy of Bud Selig.”  That way I can be assured of running one baseball franchise into the ground (Expos), then having a baseball franchise gift-wrapped for me (Marlins), get to do all sorts of unethical and a-moral things like blatantly deceive politicians to rob taxpayers of hundreds of millions of dollars (to build their new stadium) while continuing to massively profit from my venture (as we discovered when the books of the Marlins were leaked).

This is the life of Jeffrey Loria.

But the news doesn’t get much better for the Marlins fans.  An off-season of spending to prepare for the opening of the new stadium included three major free agents,  none of which really made any sense:

  • Jose Reyes, except you already had an all-star short stop in Hanley Ramirez
  • Mark Buehrle, a career workhorse with a near .500 record but now being paid like an ace
  • Heath Bell, millions of dollars for the most over-rated position on the team (closer).

The team also acquired $19M/year Carlos Zambrano.  The Reyes and Buehrle deals were heavily back-loaded, essentially grenades awaiting the team in a few  year’s time.

Halfway through the season, Ramirez was traded, Bell ineffective and demoted, replaced by a MLB-minimum salary guy in Steve Cishek, Zambrano buried in the bullpen and Buehrle sitting with a .500 record.   The Marlins moved a few other guys (the FA to be Anibel Sanchez, the disappointing Gaby Sanchez, and Edward Mujica namely) at the July deadline in a clear “white flag waving” move just a few months into their supposed “new phase of Marlins baseball.”  The team sits in last place, 22 games under .500 in a season they were supposed to compete.

The news doesn’t get any better for the team or the fans this past week:

Wow: great time to be a Marlins fan!  And there’s really not much hope rising up from the minors; in the past the Marlins could get by with penny pinching and still field a competitive team on the backs of its excellent player development staff (you know, the same player development staff that fueled the Montreal Expos for years and which he ripped out and brought with him to Florida in 2004).   Now the Marlins farm system is considered to be one of the worst in the majors and is relatively devoid of rising talent.

Fun times ahead for Miami.  I hope you enjoy that brand new stadium that nobody will be coming to, Mr Loria.  Hey, at least the Nats can stop getting killed by Miami year after year head to head (Here’s our record against Florida/Miami over the past few years: 9-9 this year, 7-11 last year, 5-13, 6-12 and an amazing 3-14 in 2008).  With the Mets in a long-term rebuilding program and the Marlins cratering, we really only have to worry about two divisional rivals for the foreseeable future.


Wild Card Pitching Strategy

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Kris Medlen is as close to an automatic win as there exists now. Should the Braves use him? Photo unknown via totalprosports.com

I was listening to the excellent Fangraphs.com podcast last week, hosted by Carson Cistulli and featuring excellent writer Dave Cameron, and Cameron (who writes the blog USS Mariner in addition to his Fangraphs work) proposed an interesting theory for handling a pitching staff in the wild card game.

Conventional wisdom states that the Atlanta Braves (who I’m using as an example here because I think they’re the best bet to advance in a wild card game right now) would throw their unbeatable ace Kris Medlen in the play-in game.  Reasoning: you can’t leave your best starter on the bench in a do-or-die game; you have to try to win it.  So you throw your best guy to win that game and then deal with the consequences the next round.

(Tangent: I’m pretty sure MLB assumed that a side effect of adding a second pitcher would result in a weakened wild card winner, which benefits the #1 seeded divisional winner and gives them an advantage going forward.  I certainly talked about this as a benefit when I lauded the 2nd wild card in this space earlier this summer.   But the roster loopholes in the wild card game that can be exploited as explained below and the first two home games on the road for the higher seeded team are both major issues that need to be addressed asap).

But what if the Braves decided to try something unconventional instead of just throwing Medlen??  Because of the scheduling of the playoffs, the wild card game winner will get a day off between Friday 10/5/12 and Sunday 10/7/12, meaning they could empty their bullpen and have every single guy down there throw his typical limit of innings and still have everyone available on Sunday for the first game of the Divisional Series.  So Cameron’s theory is; don’t start your ace; start your bullpen guys, who (especially in Atlanta’s case) are more efficient at getting guys out on a short-term basis.  Then, after a few innings of relievers throwing, you take a look at the game and decide then if your starter needs to go in.

What if Atlanta were to start some bullpen guys instead of Medlen in a play-in game, then suddenly Atlanta jumps out to a 4-0 lead.  You could then put in a different starter (say, the #3 starter, who could throw on 10/5/12 then be ready on normal rest for game 3 of the NLDS on Wednesday 10/10/12) to finish out the game.   You could keep some bullpen guys in reserve to stamp out any fires, but in theory you could manage a game in this fashion and preserve your best starter.  Plus, a major loop-hole in the playoff roster specification rules means that Atlanta could field a far different roster for just this wild card game than for the rest of the playoffs.  They could leave off basically their entire rotation and add in 4 more bullpen arms and continue parading out fresh arms all night like it was a spring training game.

Here’s a look at Atlanta’s top 7 relievers right now (stast as of 9/24/12):

Name W L W-L% ERA G IP H R ER BB SO ERA+ WHIP
Craig Kimbrel 2 1 0.667 1.08 58 58.1 25 7 7 14 106 374 0.669
Cristhian Martinez 5 4 0.556 4.04 51 71.1 79 33 32 17 64 100 1.346
Chad Durbin 4 1 0.8 3.19 73 59.1 51 25 21 28 46 127 1.331
Jonny Venters* 5 4 0.556 3.46 63 54.2 57 23 21 28 65 117 1.555
Eric O’Flaherty* 3 0 1 1.82 61 54.1 46 14 11 19 45 222 1.196
Luis Avilan* 0 0 2.25 27 32 26 9 8 10 28 181 1.125
Cory Gearrin 0 1 0 1.62 19 16.2 15 3 3 4 19 254 1.14

There’s some serious arms in that bullpen.  Kimbrel is obviously a known quantity and his 106 K’s in 58 1/3 innings are ridiculous.  But it also means he’s almost guaranteed to shut down whoever he may be pitching against (heard a great stat about Kimbrel recently; he has not pitched an inning all year where he gave up more than one hit.  That’s as shutdown as it gets).   Venters has had a slightly “off” season after being unhittable last year, but still greater than a K an inning.   O’Flaherty has been fantastic and could give you an inning.  Younger guys like Avilan and Gearrin don’t have a ton of experience but have performed excellently for the Braves.

Why wouldn’t you start off a game with (say) Venters going against the top of St. Louis’ order, then bringing in someone like Avilan for the 2nd and 3rd (he’s a 2-inning guy).  Bring in O’Flaherty when the big hitters roll around again in the 4th inning, then go with someone like Durbin for the next two innings.  You bring in Gearrin for the 7th and 8th, and then you’ve saved Kimbrel for perhaps 4 or 5 out save in the 8th and 9th.   And by virtue of the one-game roster setting loophole, this is just the first 7 guys out of the bullpen; one could add in 4-5 more arms as need be.

Honestly, I think this is a winning strategy.  Will the Braves (or the Cardinals for that matter) consider employing it?  No way;  Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is well known in the baseball press for being “uber traditional” in the way he handles his pitching staff (lots of complaints about his leaving his best arm out there til it is a “save” situation instead of using him in higher leverage situations).  And the Braves have already manipulated their rotation to put Medlen in line for a wild card start.  Meanwhile St. Louis’ Mike Matheny is a rookie manager and such a strategy as laid out here is basically putting your job on the line for a coin-flip; if it doesn’t work out you’re fired.  Tony LaRussa could have pulled this off; he had enough respect and enough history to be given a pass if he tried something radical and it didn’t work out.  In fact, if LaRussa was still the manager I’d bet this is exactly what he’d do; we are talking afterall about the guy who essentially invented the modern bullpen.

In the end, it’ll be in the #1 seed’s favor if the Braves burned Medlen.  But it’d be great talking fodder if they tried the strategy above.