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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.

My 2013 End-of-Season award Predictions

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Clayton Kershaw may be the sole unanimous major award winner in 2013.  Photo via wiki.

Clayton Kershaw may be the sole unanimous major award winner in 2013. Photo via wiki.

This post is months in the making.  In WordPress I looked up the first revision and it was dated May 4th.  Its on at least its 50th revision.  Its crazy.  But its a fun piece to do, to kind of keep track of these awards throughout the season.  But with yesterday’s release of the top-3 candidates for each BBWAA award, I thought it was finally time to publish.  The top-3 announcement didn’t have too many surprises in it, but was eye opening for some of the also-rans in each category.

I like seeing how well I can predict these awards by reading the tea leaves of the various opinions that flow into my RSS feed (here’s 2012’s version of the same post with links to prior years).  The goal is to go 8-for-8 predicting the major awards, with an even loftier goal of going 12-for-12 adding in the unofficial Sporting News awards.  I succeeded in 8-for-8 in 2010 and 2011, but missed out last year by over-thinking the Manager of the Year award in the AL.   This year is going to be tougher; the NL Rookie award and the AL Manager of the Year award are going to be coin-flips.

Here’s links for the MLB Players of the Month, to include Player, Pitcher and Rookies of the month, though frankly these monthly awards don’t amount to much.  But they’re fun to go see who was hot and how they ended up (think Evan Gattis).

Here’s links to some mid-season award prediction columns from Tom Verducci, Matthew Pouliot and Jayson Stark.  Here’s an 8/27/13 post from Keith Law, a 9/5/13 post from Cliff Corcoran, and a 9/25/13 prediction piece from USA Today’s Frank Nightengale that may be very telling about the Cabrera/Trout debate.   Lastly a few end of season pieces from Stark, Passan, Pouliot NL and AL, Gammons, Keri, Olney, Heyman.

Lastly here’s a great Joe Posnanski piece complaining about the faults the typical BBWAA voter has in their methodology.  He touches on some themes I mention below.  Remember this is a prediction piece, not who I necessarily think should actually win.

Without further ado, here’s my predictions and thoughts on the awards (predicted winners in Blue).

  • AL MVP:  Miguel Cabrera (May’s AL player of the month) and was leading the league in nearly every offensive category through a big chunk of the season before injuries cost him a lot of September.  There’s talk of another Cabrera-Mike Trout competition for the MVP in 2013, but I think the same results will hold as in 2012.  It comes down to the simple question; how can you be the “MVP” of a last place team?  That vastly over-simplifies the debate of course, but it is what it is.  I continue to be impatient with holier-than-thou writers who ignore the BBWAA definition of the award and who think this MVP should just be a ranking of the seasonal WAR table.  This award is not (yet) the “Best Player” award, and if it was then Trout would be the easy winner.  Of the also-rans:  Chris Davis tied the AL-record for pre-All Star break homers and finished with 53, but he’s likely #3 in this race.   Rounding out my top 5 would be Josh Donaldson and  Manny Machado.  Names briefly under consideration here earlier in the season (and possible top 10 candidates) include Joe Mauer and Evan Longoria.
  • AL Cy Young: Max Scherzer started the season 13-0 and finished 21-3.  This will propel him to the award despite not being as quite as good overall as his top competition.  Yu Darvish was on pace for nearly 300 strikeouts for a while before finishing with 277 and is likely finishing #2.   Despite a losing record pitching for one of the worst teams in the league, Chris Sale pitched to a 140 ERA+ for the second season in a row and should be rewarded with a top-5 finish.  Hisashi Iwakuma has fantastic numbers in the anonymity and depression of Seattle and will also get top-5 votes.  Rounding out the top 5 could be one of many:  Clay Buchholz was unhittable in April and weathered  accusations of doctoring the baseball from the Toronto broadcast team (Jack Morris and Dirk Hayhurst specifically), but then got hurt and may fall out of the voting.   Felix Hernandez put up his typical good numbers early despite a ton of kvetching about his velocity loss early in the season, but tailed off badly in August to drop him from the race.  Anibal Sanchez‘s 17-strikeout game has him some buzz, and he led the league in both ERA and ERA+.    Matt Moore became the first young lefty to start 8-0 since Babe Ruth and somewhat quietly finished 17-4 for the game-163 winning Rays.  Lots of contenders here.  Predicted finish: Scherzer, Darvish, Iwakuma, Sale, Sanchez.
  • AL Rookie of the Year: Wil Myers may be the winner by default.  Nobody else really stands out, and the biggest off-season narrative involved Myers and the big trade, meaning that nearly every baseball fan and writer knows of Myers’ pre-MLB exploits.  Jose Iglesias put up good numbers in the Boston infield before being flipped to Detroit, and is a great candidate but most of his value resides in his defense, meaning old-school writers won’t vote for him over Myers.   Past that, the candidates are slim.  Justin Grimm‘s fill-in starts for Texas were more than adequate.  Nick Tepesch is also holding his own in Texas’ rotation.  Coner Gillaspie and Yan Gomes are in the mix.  Texas’ Martin Perez put himself in the race with a solid year and got some last-minute exposure pitching in the game-163 tie-breaker.  Leonys Martin is another Texas rookie that has quietly put up good numbers.  Myers’ Tampa Bay teammate Chris Archer could get some votes.  Predicted finish: Myers, Iglesias, Perez, Archer and Martin.
  • AL MgrJohn Ferrell in Boston for going worst to first may be the best managerial job, but Terry Franconia in Cleveland deserves a ton of credit for what he’s done with significantly less resources in Cleveland and should win the award.  Its hard to underestimate what Joe Girardi has done in New York with injuries and the media circus this year, but this award usually goes to a playoff bound team.  I’ll go Franconia, Ferrell, Girardi.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL GM: Initially I was thinking Ben Cherington, Boston.  He traded away all those bad contracts, brought in several guys under the radar, leading to a 30 game swing in its W/L record.  Though, I agree with David Schoenfield; with Oakland’s 2nd straight AL West title it’s hard not to give this to Billy Beane.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL Comeback Player of the Year: Nate McLouth has come back from the absolute dead for Baltimore, though technically he was decent last year too.  Josh Donaldson has come out of nowhere for Oakland, but really had nowhere to come “back” from.  John Lackey and Scott Kazmir both rebounded excellently from injury plagued seasons.  I think the winner has to be Kazmir by virtue of his slightly better record over Lackey.  Editor’s update: this award was already given and I got it wrong: Mariano Rivera won for his great 2013 comeback; I completely forgot about him.  We’ll cover the results versus my predictions in a future post.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL Fireman of the YearGreg Holland, despite some sympathetic desire to give it to Mariano Rivera on his way out.  Joe Nathan is also in the AL discussion.  Jim Johnson is not; despite leading the league in saves for the 2nd year in a row he blew another 9 opportunities.  I hope the voters see past that.

Now for the National League:

  • NL MVP:  Andrew McCutchen is the shoe-in to win, both as a sentimental favorite for the Pirates first winning/playoff season in a generation and as the best player on a playoff team.  Clayton Kershaw‘s unbelievable season won’t net him a double, but I’m guessing he comes in 2nd in the MVP voting.  Paul Goldschmidt has become a legitimate stud this year and likely finishes 3rd behind McCutchen and Kershaw.  Rounding out the top 5 probably are two from Yadier Molina, Freddie Freeman and possibly Joey Votto as leaders from their respective playoff teams.  Also-rans who looked great for short bursts this season include the following:  Jayson Werth (who is having a career-year and making some people re-think his albatros contract),  Carlos Gomez (who leads the NL in bWAR, won the Gold glove and led the NL in DRS for centerfielders but isn’t being mentioned at all for the NL MVP: isn’t that odd considering the overwhelming Mike Trout debate??  I’ve made this case in this space to little fanfare in the past; if you are pro-Trout and are not pro-Gomez, then you’re falling victim to the same “MVP Narrative” that you are already arguing against), and maybe even Matt Carpenter (St. Louis’ real offensive leader these days).
  • NL Cy Young:  Clayton Kershaw put together his typical dominant season and won’t lose out to any of his darling competitors.  He may be the only unanimous vote of the major awards.  Marlins rookie phenom Jose Fernandez probably finishes #2 behind Kershaw before squeaking out the RoY award.   Matt Harvey was the All-Star game starter and looked like he could have unseated Kershaw, but a later season swoon and a torn UCL in late August ended his season and his chances early.  He still likely finishes #3.   Others who will get votes here and there: Jordan Zimmermann (who nearly got to 20 wins),  Adam Wainwright (who is back to Ace-form after his surgery and is put together a great season), St. Louis teammate Shelby Miller,  Patrick Corbin (Pitcher of the Month in May), Cliff Lee (who has been great for the mediocre Phillies), and perhaps even Zack Greinke (who finished 15-4; did you know he was 15-4?).  Predicted finish: Kershaw, Fernandez, Harvey, Wainwright, Corbin.
  • NL Rookie of the Year: Seems like its coming down to one of 5 candidates: Fernandez, Puig, Miller, Ryu and Teheran.  I’d probably vote them in that order.  Shelby Miller has stayed the course filling in St. Louis’ rotation and may also get Cy Young votes and seemed like the leading candidate by mid June.  Evan Gattis, the great feel-good story from the Atlanta Braves, started out white-hot but settled down in to relative mediocracy.  Tony Cingrani continued his amazing K/9 pace from the minors at the MLB level, filling in quite ably for Red’s ace Johnny Cueto but was demoted once Cueto returned and struggled with injuries down the stretch.   Didi Gregorious, more famous for being the “other” guy in the Trevor Bauer trade, has performed well.  Meanwhile don’t forget about Hyun-Jin Ryu, the South Korean sensation that has given Los Angeles a relatively fearsome frontline set of starters.  Yasiel Puig took the league by storm and hit 4 homers his first week on the job.  Jose Fernandez has made the jump from A-Ball to the Marlins rotation and has been excellent.  Julio Teheran has finally figured it out after two call-ups in the last two years and has a full season of excellent work in Atlanta’s rotation.  The question is; will narrative (Puig) win out over real performance (Fernandez)?  Tough call.
  • NL MgrClint Hurdle, Pittsburgh.  No real competition here.  Some may say Don Mattingly for going from near firing in May to a 90 win season … but can you really be manager of the year with a 250M payroll?
  • (Unofficial award) NL GMNeal Huntington, Pittsburgh.  It really has to be Huntington for pulling off the low-profile moves that have paid off with Pittsburgh’s first winning season in 20 years.  Ned Colletti‘s moves may have resulted in the best team in the league, but he has the benefit of a ridiculously large checkbook and I hope he doesn’t win as a result.
  • (Unofficial “award”): NL Comeback Player of the Year: I’d love to give this to Evan Gattis for his back story but that’s not the point of this award.  I’m thinking Carlos Gomez with Milwaukee for his massive out-of-nowhere season.  But honestly the award has to go to Francisco Liriano.  Editor’s update: this award was already given and I got it right: Liriano indeed won.
  • (Unofficial “award”): NL Fireman of the YearCraig Kimbrel, who looks to finish the year with a sub 1.00 ERA for the second year running.   Edward Mujica and Aroldis Chapman in the discussion but not really close.

 

Cuban players free to sign elsewhere

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Will we be seeing many more Yasiel Puigs in the majors soon?  photo mlb.com

Will we be seeing many more Yasiel Puigs in the majors soon? photo mlb.com

Big news last week (that I’m just posting today because I forgot to over the weekend :-).  Reversing literally decades of draconian socialist policy, Cuba announced on 9/27/13 that its residents will be allowed to compete in foreign leagues.  Players would be allowed to play in professional leagues outside of Cuba as long as they paid taxes on their income and returned home to play in the Cuban (winter) national league.  It seems like a more than reasonable policy that should end the “under cover of darkness” defection policy that Cuba’s best players have been adopting (and mostly risking their lives in the process) in order to pursue their dreams at salaries more commensurate with their skills on the international market.

My favorite side-effect of this policy may very well be the future effect on the World Baseball Classic Cuban team.  I surmised what a “politics-free” version of the Cuban team may have looked like for this year’s WBC, a post I wish I could re-visit now that we’ve seen just how amazing guys like Yasiel Puig, Jose Fernandez, Alberto Despaigne and Jose Iglesias really are.  Nonetheless you have to think a consolidated Cuban team (if they can find some pitching…they are thin on the mound) would be an early favorite for the next incarnation of the event.

One of my favorite baseball novels is The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream by two newspaper writers Steve Fainaru and Ray Sanchez.  They covered Orlando Hernandez, Cuban baseball, his amazing defection and eventual Yankees career in this 2001 novel (which was a partial compilation of a number of their newspaper articles over the years).  They show the effects of the ruthlessly cruel Cuban government on the nationalistic Hernandez, watch his general fall from grace, and hear the story of his near-death defection.  After reading this book you’re struck by a few obvious points:

  • Life in Cuba under the socialistic government is awful.
  • The fall of the USSR (and their billions of subsidies) really, really has destroyed what’s left of the Cuban economy.
  • The efforts Cuban baseball players must go through just to pursue their dreams is beyond amazing.

You would have to think that this policy change is being done in reaction to a series of recent high profile defections.  Certainly guys like Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig have had immediate and huge impact on the majors in the very immediate past, but the quick-fire defections of Cuban stars Alexander Guerrero, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez and especially long-time cuban slugger Jose Abreu in just the last couple of months has to have been unsettling (click here for a full list of Cuban defectees on wikipedia).  The Cuban government faces a set increasingly less-desirous options: ban its stars from playing at all and damaging its national sport, or stop traveling internationally and losing its fiercely held national pride in competing and winning these international tournaments.   This policy seemingly would benefit both parties; Cuba would retain some taxable income from the players’ efforts and the players would get to vastly increase their earnings while competing in higher level leagues.

Me personally, I think the Cuban embargo has long since run its course.  Yes I understand why it still exists, and I understand why those in the Cuban exile community still harbor significant resentment towards the Castro regime.  But at this point, with Fidel Castro nearly dead, his country in shambles and its people badly suffering, wouldn’t a change in policy help everyone out here?  Havana used to be a global tourist attraction, and US hotel companies have to be chomping at the bit at the opportunity to regain entry to the Cuban market.  The dependence on tourism as an industry was initially rejected as part of the nationalistic movement under Castro, but the influx of money and jobs would seem like a welcome change to Cuba’s starving and struggling citizens now.  We’ll see what happens from here; the US government has already stated its intended roadblocks from Cuban nationals sending taxes back to Cuba.  But somehow I think we can find a way around such a policy if it so benefits all involved.

A few other online stories/reactions if you’re interested in reading more analysis: BaseballMusings, AP via The Washington Post and HardballTalk.

Post-posting update: excellent analysis in The Economist as pointed out by Hardballtalk’s Craig Calcaterra that indicates the MLB impact may be very minimal thanks to the ongoing trade embargo.  I must admit I did not really consider this the impediment that it likely will be.  In the comments section of the Hardball article are some spirited debate with options: the best sounds like Cuban players signing one-year deals in other foreign leagues then defecting while they are out of the country.  That sounds like it could work…