Cubans ready for another Classic run
Powerhouse should again be in the mix for championship
It will have a hard time topping the drama Cuba's entry in the inaugural World Baseball Classic provided three years ago, but the 2009 Cuban team has the potential to be as strong -- if not stronger -- than the one that advanced to the championship round of the initial event before falling to Japan.
Three years ago, the Cuban team was initially not allowed in the tournament. But the U.S. Treasury Department reversed its decisions and decided not to ban Cuba's participation.
It was an historic move, as Cuba had been an international power in baseball and winner of three of the four Olympic gold medals in the preceding 16 years.
They were the winners of the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, and the 2004 International Baseball Federation World Cup in the Netherlands. The Cubans have won the latter tournament 25 times since its inception in 1938. But Cuba had never competed against Major League players in an international tournament.
The closest it came was splitting a pair of exhibition games against the Baltimore Orioles in 1999, losing in Havana and winning at Camden Yards.
With players like center fielder Alexei Ramirez, currently with the White Sox, the Cubans lived up to their reputations by winning five games in the tournament before falling to Japan, 10-6, in the championship game at San Diego's Petco Park.
The Cuban team cruised through the first round, topping Panama and the Netherlands, with its lone loss in Pool C coming against Puerto Rico. The loss was avenged in the second round, when Cuba topped Puerto Rico along with Venezuela to qualify for the semifinals.
The club rebounded from a 7-3 loss to the Dominican Republic in Round 2 with a 3-1 semifinal victory against a Dominican team made up of Major League All-Stars to qualify for the matchup against Japan.
Possible 2009 Team Cuba Roster
That win earned Cuba the distinction of being the only Latin American team to reach the final in a field that included such powerhouses as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. The final was the 37th time Cuba advanced to a championship game, spanning years of Olympic participation, World Cups and Intercontinental Cups.
Ramirez, who helped the White Sox reach the playoffs in 2008, hit .375 (6-for-16) with two doubles and two RBIs for Cuba in the Classic.
Although it is unlikely Ramirez will participate for the Cuban team in 2009, many of the players who helped Cuba get to the final three years ago could return. Officially, no roster spots have been filled.
Outfielder Yoandy Garlobo, who hit .480 with a .536 on-base percentage, had the fourth-best average of any tournament participant and the second-highest among players with at least 20 at-bats, trailing only Ken Griffey Jr.'s .524 mark in 21 at-bats for the USA.
Outfielder Frederich Cepeda hit .385 with two homers and eight RBIs in 26 at-bats, including a two-run home run in the eighth inning off Soichi Fujita in the final that cut Japan's lead to one run.
Outfielder Osmany Urrutia (.345), first baseman Arriel Borrero (.318) and third baseman Yulieski Gourriel (.273) should be back to form the nucleus of what will likely be another productive offense. Cuba's team batting average in the 2006 Classic was .283, and the club's 44 runs and 117 total bases surpassed every team except Japan.
Starting catcher Ariel Pestano and shortstop Eduardo Paret could also be back for return engagements.
Pedro Lazo (1-0, 2.45 in 2006), who helped beat the Dominican Republic to put the Cuban team in the final, is expected back, along with Ormani Romero (2-1, 4.15), who started against the Japanese.
Two key players from the 2006 team who apparently won't be participating this time are pitcher Yadel Marti and outfielder Yasser Gomez.
Marti and Gomez were reportedly kicked off Cuba's top league team for "a grave act of indiscipline," likely ending their hopes of playing in the 2009 Classic.
The one-sentence announcement on Friday, Nov. 21, in the Communist Party newspaper Granma offered no details on why Marti, picked to the all-tournament team at the 2006 Classic, and Gomez, a former Olympian, were released from Havana's Industriales.
According to the newspaper, two people close to the team said the action came after the pair was caught trying to defect to the United States. The two people spoke on condition of anonymity and did not elaborate, fearing it could lead to problems with Industriales.
Marti was 1-0 with two saves and a 0.00 ERA in 12 2/3 innings during four games in the inaugural Classic. The right-hander joined Daisuke Matsuzaka and Chan Ho Park as the all-Classic pitchers. Marti and his teammates were welcomed home as heroes after the event and honored with a parade through Havana's streets.
The 28-year-old Gomez hit .394 in 2007. He began playing in Cuba's top league as a teenager and was part of the Olympic team at the Sydney Games in 2000, which took the silver medal. He was left off Cuba's 2006 Classic squad. Both Gomez and Marti failed to secure spots on the Cuban team that finished second at the Olympic Games in Beijing, absences that surprised many in baseball circles.
This time Cuba is Pool B, along with Australia, Mexico and South Africa, at Mexico City.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.