Pitchers and catchers are starting to report to spring training and the college season has begun, but in Cuba, baseball season has been well underway for months.
Serie Nacional, Cuba's top professional league, holds its midseason all-star game tomorrow at 2:15 p.m. ET in a game that is scheduled to be streamed here live online. The quality of Serie Nacional baseball ranges from players who wouldn't make it out of Rookie ball in the United States all the way up to guys who could step into the big leagues tomorrow and be above-average regulars. The all-star rosters, of course, include many of Cuba's top players.
The league will hold its home run derby finals before the game with outfielder Alfredo Despaigne, second baseman Hector Olivera and first baseman Alexander Malleta. Despaigne was an automatic entry into the finals as Serie Nacional's current home run leader, while Malleta and Olivera earned spots in the finals after beating first baseman Jose Abreu, outfielder Rusney Castillo, third baseman Yulieski Gourriel and catcher Lisban Correa in the semifinals today.
A few notes on some of the players to watch:
• Abreu just turned 25 last month and is the reigning Serie Nacional MVP after tying Yoenis Cespedes last season for the single-season Cuban home run record with 33. This year Abreu is hitting .371/.526/.724 in 170 at-bats, leading the league in OBP and ranked second in slugging, so he could be adding another trophy to his mantle. Here's a video of him going deep.
• Despaigne, 25, set the Serie Nacional single-season home run mark with 32 home runs in 2008-09, and he could reclaim his title this year. He has already hit 21 home runs in 53 games (Cuba plays a 90-game season) and could challenge for his third Serie Nacional MVP award after winning it in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Here's some video of Despaigne with everyone in the stadium going completely bananas.
• The all-star teams are determined based on fan voting, and outfielder Frederich Cepeda received more votes (9,062) than any other player. Cepeda, a 31-year-old switch-hitter, is hitting .279/.451/.507 in 140 at-bats. Here's a video of Cepeda and one of the best home run calls you will ever hear.
• Gourriel, a 27-year-old third baseman, has played in more than a dozen international tournaments over the past decade and won back-to-back MVPs in Cuba in 2004-05 and 2005-06. There are some scouts who say he doesn't always play up to his tools, but he's having another good year in Cuba, batting .310/.416/.598 with 15 home runs in 184 at-bats. Here's a video of Gourriel leaving the yard in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
• Olivera, another Cuban national team veteran, is a 26-year-old second baseman having a strong season. He's batting .315/.433/.624 with 15 home runs in 178 at-bats and ranks fifth in the league in slugging. This video has some brief footage of Olivera at the 37-minute mark.
Catchers: Yosvani Peraza (Pinar Del Rio), Lisban Correa (Industriales)
Infielders: Jose Abreu (Cienfuegos), Jose Fernandez (Matanzas), Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spiritus), Roberto Ramirez (Metropolitanos), Juan Carlos Torriente (Industriales), Rudy Reyes (Industriales), Alexander Malleta (Industriales)
Outfielders: Irait Chirino (Industriales), Guillermo Heredia (Matanzas), Frederich Cepeda (Sancti Spiritus), Yadiel Hernandez (Matanzas), Yoelvis Leyva (Cienguegos)
DH: Serguei Perez (Industriales)
Starting pitchers: Jorge Martinez (Matanzas), Yadier Pedroso (Artemisa), Odrisamer Despaigne (Industriales), Ismel Jimenez (Sancti Spiritus), Yohan Hernandez (Matanzas), Norberto Gonzalez (Cienfuegos).
Relievers: Felix Fuentes (Matanzas), Duniel Ibarra (Cienfuegos), Jose Garcia (Artemisa)
Manager: Lazaro Vargas
Catchers: Yosvani Alcaron (Las Tunas), Lednier Ricardo (Camaguey)
Infielders: Ariel Borrero (Villa Clara), Hector Olivera (Santiago De Cuba), Yeniet Perez (Villa Clara), Yordan Manduley (Holguin), Marino Luis (Camaguey), Yordanis Samon (Granma), Alexander Ayala (Camaguey)
Outfielders: Rusney Castillo (Ciego De Avila), Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), Reutilio Hurtado (Santiago De Cuba), Andy Zamora (Villa Clara), Edilse Silva (Santiago De Cuba)
DH: Isaac Dorta (Ciego De Avila)
Starting Pitchers: Fredy Alvarez (Villa Clara), Alain Sanchez (Villa Clara), Yaumier Sanchez (Santiago De Cuba), Yasmani Hernandez (Villa Clara), Yoelkis Cruz (Las Tunas), Alain Dela (Santiago De Cuba)
Relievers: Pablo Fernandez (Holguin), Yolexis Ulacia (Villa Clara), Yadir Rabi (Ciega De Avila)
Manager: Ramon Moret