As the World Baseball Classic approaches and Cuba’s presence appears more and more assured, the mystery surrounding its team diminishes. Though fans of international baseball will be familiar with many of the players, Cuba’s provisional roster, revealed Tuesday, is geared towards youth, with the average age of the 60 names being 24.
Much of this youth is concentrated in pitching, where 24-year-olds Dany Betancourt and Yunesky Maya provide the team with two of its most promising young arms. Maya is a power righthander who operates in the low 90s but can touch 96 mph with his fastball. At the World Cup in September, he had a 1.23 ERA in seven innings while Betancourt had a 1.84 ERA in 15 innings. Betancourt rose to prominence on the international stage when he closed out the gold-medal game at the 2004 Olympics in Athens against Australia.
Betancourt will most likely not be doing the closing for Cuba at the WBC, as that role will fall to veteran Pedro Luis Lazo. Though he is a starter in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, Lazo has long been Cuba’s primary closer and is probably most equipped to step in and contend with a major league lineup late in a game. At the World Cup, he posted a 0.54 ERA in 17 innings with a 27-1 strikeout-walk ratio. Armed with a mid-90s fastball, the righthander attacks the strike zone and is very efficient with his pitches. As a result, it would not be a surprise to see him pitch in every game, as long as he does not surpass any of the pitch count regulations.
Beyond Lazo closing, it is unclear how Cuba will use most of its remaining pitchers, as they are all adept at starting or relieving. Adiel Palma, 35, is a lefthander in the Al Leiter mold. Relying more on movement and location than velocity, Palma has been known to throw a lot of pitches and is a very slow worker. Lefty Yulieski Gonzalez appeared in three games at the World Cup and was 3-0, 1.62, while righthander Ormari Romero threw eight shutout innings.
One intriguing name on the roster is righthander Vicyohandri Odelin, a staple of Cuba’s national teams from 2001-2003 but who failed to make the Olympic ’04 roster or the ’05 World Cup team. He is back in the mix, however, after a strong season in Serie Nacional.
The most notable exception on the roster is righthander Norge Vera, who started an exhibition game Cuba played against the Orioles in 1999. In the 2003 World Cup in Havana, he got the victory in the semifinals in a 6-3 victory over Taiwan and came out of relief the next day to get the win as Cuba defeated Panama 4-2 to win gold. The 34-year-old, second to Orlando Hernandez in career winning percentage in Serie Nacional, has been hampered by arm problems, which likely led to him being left off of the provisional roster.
The youth of the team is apparent on the offensive side, with 21-year-old Yuliesky Gourriel and 26-year-old Michel Enriquez leading the way. This tandem terrorized the opposition at the World Cup, as Gourriel hit .319-8-19 in 47 at-bats while Enriquez hit .500-1-20 in 46 at-bats. Tall and wiry, Gourriel is a third baseman with lighting quick wrists and boasts the best power on the team. Enriquez, typically the DH, is their most consistent hitter who rarely strikes out and sprays line drives across the field. Another key hitter is outfielder Osmani Urrutia, who has won five straight batting titles in Serie Nacional.
The most intriguing youngster is 16-year-old Dayan Viciedo, MVP of the World Junior Championships last fall. In Serie Nacional, the 5-foot-10, 195-pounder made the all-star team while playing for Villa Clara. While Viciedo is far from a lock to make the team, his appearance on the provisional roster stamps him as one of Cuba’s brightest young talents. The Villa Clara manager, former national team star Victor Mesa, told Cuba’s Granma news that Viciedo has “as good arm and tremendous power. He’s got excellent technique, but at the same time is surprisingly calm for his young age and very secure in defense.”
Cuba’s offense also includes a couple of veterans who will be key contributors in 33-year-old shortstop Eduardo Paret, who reached base 19 times in 26 plate appearance in September’s World Cup before getting hurt and missing the rest of the tournament, and 30-year-old Eriel Sanchez, a catcher/first baseman who rivals Gourriel for best power on the team.
Cuba will shut down its top league, Serie Nacional, from Feb. 12-March 24, a sign of the importance it has placed on the World Baseball Classic. Once the season shuts down, the 60 players on the provisional roster will be invited to a camp where they will vie for the 30 spots on the roster that will play in the Classic. To help prepare, Cuba has invited the teams from Puerto Rico, Panama and Venezuela to come to Cuba in late February for a small exhibition tournament. Because Cuba does not have much in the way of international scouting, this will provide them with a chance to size up the competition.
None of these countries, however, has yet to accept the invitation.
Cuba’s Provisional World Baseball Classic Roster:
Catchers: Ariel Pestano; Eriel Sánchez; Yulexis La Rosa; Vladimir García; Roger Machado.
Infield; Joan Pedroso; Danny Miranda; Loidel Chapellí; Ariel Borrero; Leslie Anderson; Yorelvis Charles; Rudy Reyes; Héctor Olivera; Michel Enríquez; Yulieski Gourriel; Amaury Suárez; Vismay Santos; Eduardo Paret; Yorbis Borroto; Juan Carlos Moreno; Luis Miguel Navas.
Outfield: Carlos Tabares; Osmani Urrutia; Frederich Cepeda; Juan Carlos Linares; Yoandry Urgellés; Alexei Ramírez; Yoennis Céspedes; Yoandy Garlobo; Andy Zamora; Alfredo Despaigne; Dayán Viciedo; Reutilio Hurtado; Serguei Pérez
Pitchers: Danny Betancourt; Alberto Bicet; Pedro Luis Lazo; Yunesky Maya; Deinys Suárez; Yadel Martí; Yosvani Fonseca; Jonder Martínez; Yulieski González; José íngel García; Vicyohandri Odelín; Yadier Pedroso; Luis Borroto; Norberto González; Adiel Palma; Robelio Carrillo; Valeri García; Alien Mora; Ormari Romero; Luis M. Rodríguez; Ubisney Bermúdez; Alberto Soto; Israel Soto; Maikel Folch; Vladimir Baños; Yosvani Pérez.