Qualifier Notebook

Complete Coverage of the Americas Olympic Qualifier

By Eric Edwards

October 29, 2003

SAN JUAN, P.R.–It took an Olympic effort, but the forces that formed Puerto Rico’s entry into the Americas qualifier for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens finally announced their final roster Tuesday.

While it is not the powerhouse that general manager Jose “Ronquito” Garcia had hoped at the beginning of the process, it is a club with a chance to contend for the two Olympic spots at stake, especially now that Venezuela, Dominican Republic and Aruba are out of the mix.

The team features prospects like outfielder Alexis Rios (Blue Jays), outfielder Angel Pagan (Mets), lefthander Luis Gonzalez (Dodgers) and righthander Jonathan Albaladejo (Pirates), and a number of players with major league experience–staff ace Omar Olivares, lefthander Angel Miranda, relievers Jose Alberro and Joe Rodriguez, catcher Hector Ortiz and outfielder Hiram Bocachica.

Olivares will be joined in the starting rotation by righthander Josue Matos (Mariners) and Miranda. The lineup figures to have Omar Garcia at first base, Raul Nieves at second, Luis Figueroa at shortstop and Luis D. Figueroa at third base. Rios, Bocachica and Pagan will start in the outfield. Jose Munoz, Jose Flores, Robinson Cancel and Jesus Feliciano will share DH duties and fill in off the bench.

A shortage of quality pitching–just nine members of the 11-man staff are professionals–-figured to be the team’s soft underbelly until the three countries pulled out. The restructured schedule now gives manager Sandy Alomar (Rockies) enough off days to go with a four-man rotation, allowing him to send Olivares and Matos out a second time for the club’s two most important games when the crossover single-elimination playoffs begin Nov. 7.

“We’re fortunate the schedule ended up as it did,” said Alomar, whose team was originally scheduled to play six elimination-round games in seven days. “Normally these competitions are so taxing on a pitching staff. But with three days off over the first seven, we should be able to get through it OK.”

Garcia had hoped to put together a more sturdy staff, but lefthander Hector Mercado (Phillies) and ex-big league righthander Jose Santiago showed no interest, and Dicky Gonzalez (Red Sox) never turned out to practice with the club.

Former Oakland A’s minor leaguer Luis Lopez, Andres Torres (Tigers) and Gabby Martinez (Devil Rays) all practiced with the team, but were left off the final roster. Torres left because of his mother’s recently diagnosed illness, Lopez because Ponce of the Puerto Rican League couldn’t afford to lose him, and Martinez because of an abundance of middle infielders.

Just getting across the finish line had GM Garcia exhausted.

Not only did he have to get permission from Major League Baseball on an initial list of 45 players, he needed the cooperation of the Puerto Rican League’s six teams, since their season starts Sunday, two days after the opening game of the qualifier. That proved a logistical nightmare.

After drawing up an initial list of 37 players, Garcia met with the six owners and the two sides reached an agreement that the Puerto Rican team would draw four players from each winter club.

Nearly a dozen of the players on the initial list declined to participate in the tryout camp, leaving Garcia with slightly more than 24 players, but an uneven mix from each winter league team. He was able to convince two teams, Caguas and Ponce, to contribute more than the required four players. Each gave five, while San Juan contributed four, Carolina and Santurce three and Mayaguez just two.

In fairness to the Indians, reserve catcher Wilbert Nieves pulled out at the last minute for unspecified “personal reasons” according to Garcia.

Left with just 21 professionals, Garcia was forced to add two amateur pitchers and an amateur catcher to round out the roster. Righthanders Lionel Santiago and Carlos Manuel Perez were members of the Puerto Rican team that won a gold medal this summer in the Central American and Caribbean Games in El Salvador.

This is the first time Puerto Rico will use professional players in an Olympic sanctioned competition. Former baseball federation president Osvaldo Gil, who voted against allowing professional baseball players into the Olympic fold in 1996, tried to construct a team for the 1999 Pan Am Games, but received permission from MLB for just 10 of the 40 players he requested and pulled out.

Puerto Rico Roster

Pitchers: Stevenson Agosto, Jonathan Albaladejo, Jose Alberro, Giancarlo Alvarado, Luis Gonzalez, Josue Matos, Omar Olivares, a-Carlos Manuel Perez, Joe Rodriguez, Orlando Roman, a-Lionel Santiago.

Catchers: Robinson Cancel, a-Jose Juan Collazo, Hector Ortiz.

Infielders: Luis Figueroa, Luis D. Figueroa, Jose Flores, Omar Garcia, Jose Munoz, Raul Nieves.

Outfield: Hiram Bocachica, Jesus Feliciano, Angel Pagan, Alexis Rios.

Manager: Sandy Alomar Sr. Coaches: Eduardo Figueroa, Joey Cora, Jose Carradero.

Panama Builds On World Cup

Panama, celebrating its centennial as a sovereign nation, has the potential to be a rude host because its team is riding high. Managed by former Pirates speedster Omar Moreno, Panama finished second in the World Cup, and Panamanian media outlets are reporting that most of that roster is returning intact.

Former big leaguer Olmedo Saenz, however, won’t be on the team. Oddly enough he backed out to fulfill his contract to play in Puerto Rico’s winter league. Saenz will be replaced by former big leaguer Sherman Obando, who will take over in the middle of the order alongside Ruben Rivera.

The team also has added a pair of big league pitchers to the roster to join ace righthanders Rafael Medina, the ex-big leaguer, and veteran Lenin Picota. Southpaws Bruce Chen (Red Sox) and Roger Deago (Padres) bring the team more major league experience, and Team Panama also added minor league third baseman Damaso Espino (Royals).

Other affiliated players on Team Panama include righthander Alan Vergara (Astros) and lefthander Jaime Soldana (Yankees); catcher Julio Mosquera (Mariners); and infielder Avelino Asprilla (Pirates).