Next week, the 2017 edition of the World Baseball Classic will begin with pool play. The tournament starts March 6 and the championship game will be played March 22, at Dodger Stadium.and .
Once upon a time Cuba dominated international baseball competition -- they’ve won three of the five Olympic gold medals in baseball -- though they have yet to win a WBC. They finished second in the 2006 tournament before failing to get out of the second round in both 2009 and 2013. This year will be their fourth attempt at a WBC title.
Cuba’s roster is filled with players currently playing in Cuba. Expatriates who defected to play Major League Baseball, like Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes, are not allowed to represent their country in international play. At least one big leaguer thinks there should be a Cuban-American team in the WBC:
Eric Hosmer thinks there should be a Cuban-American team in the WBC. Totally agree. Start with Hosmer and Nolan Arenado at the corners— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) February 27, 2017
That’s a fine idea, though I would argue a team of Cuban expatriates would be really interesting. That is, a team of MLB ballplayers who were born in Cuba, then defected to come stateside. With that in mind, let’s put together a hypothetical Cuban expatriate team for the WBC, shall we? Here’s the 25-man roster.
Our Cuban expatriate team is fairly deep offensively. The starting lineup is strong and several quality players had to be left off our roster entirely. Here are our 13 position players, all of whom were born in Cuba before defecting and playing in MLB:
Catcher: Yasmani Grandal, Dodgers
First Base: Jose Abreu, White Sox
Second Base: Yunel Escobar, Angels
Shortstop: Jose Iglesias, Tigers
Third Base: Yulieski Gurriel, Astros
Left Field: Yoenis Cespedes, Mets
Center Field: Leonys Martin, Mariners
Right Field: Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
Designated Hitter: Kendrys Morales, Blue Jays
Escobar has some second base experience, so I’m shifting him over in order to play Gurriel at third base, his regular position. (He’s slated to play first for the Astros.) Gurriel’s debut with Houston was brief last season, though he’s been the most dominant hitter in Cuba over the last decade or so. His numbers in Cuba were on par or better than what Abreu and Cespedes did before defecting.
Aside from the Escobar/Gurriel situation, the starting lineup is fairly straight forward. I focused on utility over name value on the bench. Pena, whose nickname earlier in his career was “The Cuban Ichiro” because of his bat-to-ball skills, is an obvious choice at backup catcher. Diaz is the backup infielder and Soler the backup outfielder, and Garcia’s ability to play both the infield and outfield makes him a better bench option that some bigger names. Here’s my batting order:
- 2B Yunel Escobar
- 3B Yulieski Gurriel
- LF Yoenis Cespedes
- 1B Jose Abreu
- DH Kendrys Morales
- C Yasmani Grandal
- RF Yasiel Puig
- CF Leonys Martin
- SS Jose Iglesias
Right-handed heavy -- Morales and Grandal are switch-hitters and Martin is a lefty, everyone else is a right-handed hitter -- but not a big deal, as far as I’m concerned. Among those who didn’t make the cut are Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, Diamondbacks outfielder Yasmany Tomas, White Sox wunderkind Yoan Moncada, Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo, Mariners outfielder Guillermo Heredia, and free agent infielder Alexei Ramirez.
By far, the most successful Cuban born starting pitcher in baseball over the last few years has been late Marlins ace Jose Fernandez. He finally escaped the island at age 15, after being thrown in jail several times following failed defection attempts. Fernandez went to high school in Florida and was a first round draft pick in 2011. He was tragically killed in a boating accident last September.
Aside from Fernandez, the recent group of Cuban born starting pitchers have not enjoyed nearly as much success as others throughout history, specifically guys like Luis Tiant, Mike Cuellar, Orlando and Livan Hernandez, and Jose Contreras. Here is our four-man rotation for the WBC (WBC teams generally stick with four starters thanks to off-days):
- LHP Roenis Elias, Red Sox
- LHP Ariel Miranda, Mariners
- RHP Odrisamer Despaigne, Marlins
- RHP Yadier Alvarez, Dodgers
Not the most intimidating rotation, but what can you do? Elias, Miranda, and Despaigne all have big league experience, and the first two guys have had some success in small samples. Alvarez is the most talented player of the bunch, though he’s a 20-year-old kid who has only nine Single-A starts under his belt. He’s a great prospect, and that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s ready to dominate in a high profile tournament like the WBC. The Cuban expatriate team’s rotation is quite thin.
Given the lack of rotation depth, the bullpen would be of paramount importance to our hypothetical team in the WBC. Fortunately, our expatriates club would have one heck of a late-inning relief crew. Here’s the bullpen:
Closer: LHP Aroldis Chapman, Yankees
Setup Man: RHP Raisel Iglesias, Reds; LHP Raudel Lazo, Marlins
Middle: LHP Gerardo Concepcion, Cubs; RHP Vladimir Gutierrez, Reds; RHP Dalier Hinojosa, Phillies
Long: RHP Yaisel Sierra, Dodgers
Got a lead after seven innings? You’d feel pretty good handing the ball off the Iglesias and Chapman. Iglesias was dynamite in relief after making the full-time conversion last year, and Chapman is Chapman. Gutierrez, who was also a rotation consideration, was a very good reliever in Cuba before defecting. Lazo, Concepcion, and Hinojosa have had various levels of success in MLB and Triple-A while Sierra is a decent prospect who struck out 21 batters in 14 2/3 Double-A relief innings last year.
Clearly, the strength of our hypothetical Cuban expatriates team is the offense. They’d have to score runs and lots of ‘em to have a chance in the WBC. In all likelihood the relatively thin pitching staff would prevent this club from being a serious WBC title contender. They sure would be fun to watch though. No doubt about that. There are some exciting players on this roster.