After four thrilling championship series, including a Mexican League set taken to the brink, the Caribbean Series field is set.
The Series, which begins today at Venezuela's Margarita Island, features five teams: The winners from the Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican and Venezuelan leagues and, for the first time since 1960, a Cuban team.
Here are brief rundowns of each of the entrants, including notable players and recaps of their championship series:
VILLA CLARA (CUBA): After 54 years away from the Series, Cuba's return comes with a host of big-time prospects, including infielders Jose Fernandez and Yulieski Gourriel and slugger Alfredo Despaigne.
Fernandez, a second baseman and shortstop, used a smooth, flat lefthanded swing to hit .393/.495/.593 with 27 walks against five strikeouts in 185 plate appearances on the year in Serie Nacional. Despaigne, 27, probably the most well-known of the trio, is a three-time Serie Nacional MVP and has light-tower power. He hit 36 homers in just 87 games during the 2011-12 season. The 29-year-old Gourriel won consecutive MVPs when he was 20 and 21, has taken home gold glove awards, and is a veteran of two Olympics and three World Baseball Classics.
Cuba will also bring Norge Ruiz, a righthander who fanned 11 in 72⁄3 innings against the college national team this past summer during the five-game friendship series at the Team USA complex.
INDIOS DE MAYAGUEZ (PUERTO RICO): The team was stung by the losses of the powerful Jonathan Singleton, as well as Nationals prospect and league batting champ Michael Taylor. But Mayaguez still has plenty of firepower with Twins second baseman Eddie Rosario moving out to center field in Taylor's stead. Rosario fared poorly in the regular season, but hit .303 in the playoffs.
The pitching staff is buoyed journeyman Jonathan Albaladejo, who chipped in a 2-5, 3.51 record. Mayaguez topped Criollos de Caguas in six games, winning the decisive game behind a go-ahead, eighth-inning grand slam from Twins prospect Kennys Vargas and eight innings of one-run, 10-strikeout ball from starter Jorge Martinez.
NAVEGANTES DE MAGALLANES (VENEZUELA): A word of advice to those souls unfortunate enough to face Mario Lisson: Don't pitch to him. Lisson, a 29-year-old former Royals farmhand, has hit .349 with an astonishing 12 home runs in 21 postseason games. Three more of his teammates—Ramon Hernandez (who went deep twice in the clincher), Ronny Cedeno and Ezequiel Carrera—are among the top 10 in postseason hitting. If that's not enough, they also have Giants all-star Pablo Sandoval playing third.
Former Red Sox prospect Dustin Richardson has a 3-1, 2.10 record in the playoffs, and Deolis Guerra has struck out 15 in relief. Carlos Zambrano is also on the staff, but he's allowed the most home runs and walks in the postseason.
TIGRES DE LICEY (DOMINICAN REPUBLIC): Braves slugger Juan Francisco led a tepid Tigres offense with seven home runs and drove in 17 runs in the playoffs, powering his team past the star-chocked Leones de Escogido, which stormed back from a three-game deficit to force an eighth game (the Dominican League's finals are best of nine).
Toronto righty Esmil Rogers has led the pitching staff with 22 innings of shutout ball and three playoffs wins. He's backed by lefty Francisley Bueno and righty Yunesky Maya, who boasted ERAs of 2.22 and 2.87, respectively, in the Licey's run through the playoffs.
NARANJEROS DE HERMOSILLO (MEXICO): Fresh off an invitation to Yankees spring training, outfielder Zelous Wheeler hit a three-run home run in his team's seven-run seventh inning that all but secured Hermosillo's victory in the decisive seventh game over the Mayos de Navajoa.
On the mound, Hermosillo is led by Nathan Reed (who started the clincher) and Barry Enright, who have combined to go 4-2 with 50 punchouts in 64 playoff innings. Wheeler has hit .342 with three home runs and 11 RBIs during his team's run to the Caribbean Series. Their offense also features 38-year-old Daryle Ward, the former Astros first baseman, who hit .284/.368/.522 with four home runs in the regular season.