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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.

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.