30 January 2013

2013 World Baseball Classic: Cuba

This is the second in a series to introduce everyone to teams participating in 2013's World Baseball Classic.  As this series progress, you will find all of the articles under this key world: 2013 World Baseball Classic.  Previously, we reviewed Australia.

The body of the Cuba article was written by Chris Lindsay.

IBAF Ranking (out of 74) 1st
2013 Pool Japan


2013 Players of Note Ismel Jimenez RH

Jose Abreu, 1B

Yulieski Gourriel, SS

Frederich Cepeda, OF

Alfredo Despaigne, OF

2009 Record 4 - 2, Round 2

2009 All WBC Frederich Cepeda, OF

Yoenis Cespedes, OF

2006 Record 5 - 3, Lost Final to Japan

2006 All WBC Yulieski Gourriel, 2B

Yoandy Garlobo, DH

Yadel Marti, RH

When sportswriters and pundits have nothing else to talk about, they sometimes like to speculate on whether or not baseball can still be considered the 'national pasttime' of the United States. But there is never any question of the matter in Cuba. Although other sports are popular there – particularly boxing and soccer - sport in Cuba is synonymous with baseball. By all accounts it borders on a national obsession.

Baseball was introduced to Cuba in the mid-nineteenth century, and thus its history there is very nearly as long as in the US. Due to Cuba's proximity to the US and the historically close trade and political relations between the countries, Cuban baseball was very closely linked with US baseball. Cuban professional leagues, which included black and mixed-race players, often played barnstorming tours in the US against major league, minor league, and negro league opponents, and US professional players often played winter ball in Cuban organisations. 

Of course, things changed quickly after the Cuban Revolution. The close connection between Cuban and US baseball that had existed for decades was suddenly cut off. Although for most countries the Cold War ended more than twenty years ago, it continues between Cuba and the US. The US maintains a near-total boycott on Cuban trade, and travel between the two countries has been mostly illegal. Cubans continue to emigrate, for both political and economic reasons, and the US is their most common destination.  And all of this affects Cuban baseball.

Under Cuba's communist government, sport is seen as a noble endeavour, something to inspire the people and help them be fit. It is sponsored and encouraged by the government. However, it is not run as a business the way it is in other countries. Amateur teams are formed by factories, farms, and municipalities. The closest equivalent to professional players are the players in the Cuban National Series, who play for teams organised by the provinces. The best among them are nationally and even internationall famous, but they are poorly-paid and most work other jobs. In the US, minor leaguers put up with low pay, but have some hope that they may be called up to the majors and see a big payday. In Cuba, there are no major leagues to be called up to, and it's no wonder that a steady stream of top level players emigrate, forsaking their home, friends, and family to pursue a professional baseball career. Any MLB fan can reel off a list of Cuban-born players who have starred in the major leagues: Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, the Hernandez brothers, Kendrys Morales, Alexei Ramirez, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Contreras, and many more.

Cuban players who defect and go on to play in the majors offer some means of evaluating the quality of national play. I wouldn't count players like Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro here, as they grew up in the US and should be viewed as Cuban-born products of American baseball training. The famous defectors have generally done quite well in MLB and posted respectable careers. Clearly, the best Cuban players are solid major leaguers.

Despite the constant drain of talent, Cuban baseball has been perennially excellent. The IBAF ranks them number one in the world. New young stars continue to emerge at an unabated pace. It is still quite difficult for a non-expert to assess the overall level of play in the Cuba, since their statistics exist in isolation. Their teams have only limited exposure to international competition, unlike Japan and South Korea, which employ some foreign players, and unlike other Latin American leagues, where major leaguers play winter ball and whose products go to MLB in droves.

The Cuban National Series is the regular season for the 17 teams representing the provinces of Cuba. The series normally lasts ninety games and is followed by a championship tournament. The league currently uses the designated hitter. There are some significant differences to MLB play, with the league using aluminum bats and an offense-friendly ball. However, the pitcher's mound is also five inches higher than the MLB mound (it's the same height as MLB used prior to 1969). Current statistics indicate that the league is very offense-friendly, with several offensive records being set in recent seasons. 

Cuba has generally excelled in international competitions, such as the WBC and the Pan American Games. Of course, any tournament represents a problem of small sample size, with the ultimate winner owing a lot to luck. But consistent performance across multiple tournaments is impressive. The Cuban National Team dominated the amateur Baseball World Cup, winning 25 titles in 39 tournaments (their closest competition: the United States, with 4.). They also won three gold and two silver medals over five Olympics. And in the first World Baseball Classic, going up against  professional players, they won a silver medal. The second WBC was less successful for them as they were eliminated in the second round, but they still went 4-2 in the tournament and both losses came against the eventual champion, Japan. 

Baseball Defectors and Possible Changes

Last year, Yoennis Cespedes was one of the big stories in baseball. He had established himself as a top outfielder in Cuban league play and starred in several international competitions, including the 2009 WBC. After defecting in 2011 and establishing residency in the Dominican Republic, he attracted lots of attention by releasing a ludicrous yet highly popular video showing highlights of his fitness regime. More practically, he represented a potential star talent on the free agent market, a 26-year-old outfielder with potential for average, power, speed, and defence. He signed with the Athletics and posted a strong .292/.356/.505 batting line, good for a 137 OPS+. If this represents a rookie campaign that he can build on, he could be fearsome for the next few years. But even if it represents his ceiling, it's a ceiling that any team would be thrilled with. At $36 million over four years, he looks like a steal. 

Under the 2011 MLB collective bargaining agreement, teams are limited in their ability to sign international free agents (including young Cuban defectors). Each team has a soft cap on the total amount of money it can spend on such free agents, the cap varying according to team performance but generally not exceeding $5 million. There are strict penalties for exceeding the limit, including a stiff luxury tax and a tiny cap on the size of individual contracts. Given that teams in the past would routinely spend much more than $5 million on individual players, this represents a massive change that severely limits the compensation for international free agents. It has been widely speculated that the change will drive young athletes away from baseball into other, potentially more lucrative sports. 

Recently, we have seen shortstop Aledmys Diaz trying to enter the free agent market. In a twist, MLB is investigating the possibility that he might be 22 and not 23 years old as he claims, which would make his signing subject to a team's international free agent pool limit. This is the first case I'm aware of in which a Latin American player has (possibly) falsified his age upwards in order to maximise his value since Adrian Beltre.

But the impact of the CBA on Cuban players might be limited. Cuban players over the age of 23 with at least three years of experience in the national series are exempt from the limitations, and historically most of the big-name defectors have been well above that age (that's why they were big names). Younger players may be deterred from defecting until they are past the age limit. In the future, we will be unlikely to see players like Jorge Soler and Yasiel Puig leaving at ages 20 and 21. But they may just wait a few more years and then make their move. Even a contract at the major league minimum represents a huge raise for a Cuban player. 

Another potential change is afoot, and it has to do with travel restrictions. Beginning this January, the Cuban government is lifting most travel restrictions on its citizens. The hope is that this will allow Cubans more freedom to travel abroad, visit relatives, and help to normalise relations with the US. But there is also a possibility that it could lead to a new round of defections, as players could use the new freedom to get out of the country with far greater ease than ever before. Instead of escaping in a raft to Florida, the next Kendrys Morales might be able to take an airplane to Mexico.   It's difficult to imagine that the government won't put some means in place to prevent this (such as refusing to issue passports to potential defectors), or that they won't reverse the reform if it leads to a mass exodus. But it will be interesting to see what happens.

In a smaller but parallel move, the US government is also easing travel restrictions for US citizens visiting family in Cuba. Thus, Jose Contreras recently visited his mother on the island, apparently without any problems. This change could make it easier for exiles to stay in touch with their families and friends on the island, potentially making defection more attractive.

A few years ago, there was public discussion in Cuba of a proposal to allow baseball players to play professionally for foreign teams. In most countries, this would be no big deal, but in Cuba it was a completely revolutionary idea. Due to the US ban on trade with Cuba, it is unlikely that such a deal would allow Cuban residents to play legally in MLB, but it would open international leagues, such as NPB and KBO, to them. This would certainly be a huge step in opening Cuban baseball to global competition. The Cuban government would benefit since it could tax the earnings of the players and reduce the bad press it receives when there is a high-level defection. However, once the player was legally playing abroad, it would be impossible to stop them from defecting, and it's difficult to imagine a star player making $10 million a year and then choosing to stay in an ostensibly egalitarian country where the average wage is about $20 a month. In any case, there has been no discussion of the idea recently, but the fact that it was once raised leaves it as a possibility for the future. 

Current Players

Although the final roster for the WBC has not been set, there are several players on the Cuban National Team who are well established and should play important roles in the tournament. Because the Cuban league plays during the winter, the players should be in mid-season form for the tournament. This year's league play has been shortened so that the Cuban series will finish before the WBC begins. Although several prominent members of the 2009 WBC roster have defected, the core of the team from that year remains intact. Like that team, this year's version should have a good offensive lineup, but may suffer from a lack of pitching.  The pitching thins out after Ismel Jimenez, a 29-year-old right-hander slotted as the opening day starter for the tournament. He is the ace of Sancti Spiritus Gallos and is clearly a quality pitcher in his prime.

The team is highlighted by a strong outfield. Alfredo Despaigne, a 26-year old outfielder for Granma Alazanes, is right handed and has twice set the single-season home run record in Cuba. In the 2009-10 National Series, he hit an astounding .404/.489/.814, with 31 home runs.  His performance in the last two seasons has seen a lower batting average but increasing numbers of walks, and last season he posted a Bondsian line of .326/.479/.695 with 36 home runs and 91 walks, 27 of them intentional.  He has excelled in international play including the 2009 WBC.  Frederich Cepeda is a 31-year-old outfielder for Sancti Spiritus, a switch hitter with power, average, and a good eye: he has performed exceptionally well in the previous two WBCs as well as in other international competitions, and like many of his teammates, has incredible batting statistics in the Cuban National Series.  In the 2009 WBC he was one of the best hitters in the tournament, hitting 12 for 24, with three home runs.

As with any team in any tournament, how well the Cuban team performs will have a lot to do with luck.  They should do a good bit of hitting, and their pitching probably won't embarrass them. They will compete in Pool A, alongside Brazil, China, and Japan, where they will certainly be favoured to advance to the next round.

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