By Kevin Goldstein
February 2, 2006
The 49th Caribbean Series kicks off Thursday in Venezuela, with the hometown heroes, the Caracas Lions, looking to end their recent disappointing history. The Lions are seeking their first title since 1989 and their first championship in Venezuela since 1970.
In order to do so they will have to contend with Licey of the Dominican League. Coming off their 19th Dominican League title and the winner of nine Caribbean Series, Licey has the best accumulation of talent and is generally considered the overwhelming favorite to give the Dominican Republic's representative their seventh title in the last 10 years.
The Tigers pitching staff is filled with major league talent. Righthanders Daniel Cabrera (Orioles), Juan Cruz (Athletics) and Julian Tavarez (Red Sox) lead the rotation, while the bullpen includes relievers Jorge Sosa (Braves) and Jose Valverde (Diamondbacks). Despite the last-minute loss of Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who backed out of the series in order to prepare for the World Baseball Classic, manager Rafael Landestoy will still have a dangerous lineup filled with some of the top Dominican prospects in baseball, and one bona fide superstar in Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada, who came onto the roster from Cibao after his team was eliminated in the Dominican finals.
Where Tejada will play in the lineup is still an open question, as Landestoy does not want to split up his middle infield combination of shortstop Erick Aybar (Angels) and Anderson Hernandez (Mets). The duo, dubbed "los menores" (the minors) by the Dominican press, has given the Tigers a potent 1-2 punch in the lineup all winter, combining to hit .403 (25 for 62) in the finals, with 14 runs in seven games. The embarrassment of riches in the infield continues with Ronnie Belliard (Indians), who plays third base, and Hanley Ramirez (Marlins) who has been playing right field.
Caracas was the surprise winner of the Venezuelan title and has home field advantage, but the decision of Marlins slugger Miguel Cabrera not to participate is an obvious blow to the team's offense. Their top hitters are Ramon Hernandez (Orioles) and first baseman Alex Cabrera, the former Diamondbacks farmhand who has slugged 215 home runs in the five-year Japanese League career, including 55 in 2003, which tied Sandaharu Oh's single-season record. A strong bullpen highlights Caracas' pitching staff, including righthander Yorman Bazardo (Mariners), who has had an eye-opening winter, setting up Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez, who spun 3 1/3 hitless innings in the championship series. But the question remains as to how many leads the bullpen will inherit, as Victor Zambrano (Mets) is their top starter.
Defending champion Mexico, bolstered last year by major leaguers Vinny Castilla and Erubiel Durazo to make a run for the title on the home turf, has had no such luck in getting the top stars help them in defending the title. Mexican Pacific League champion Mazaltan features longtime Mexico star Francisco Campos and Cuban defector (and 1995 first-round pick) Ariel Prieto in the rotation, while big leaguers Miguel Ojeda (Rockies) and Ray Sadler (Pirates) lead the offense that has gotten a surprise power source in Reds prospect Jesse Gutierrez.
Once an annual contender for the crown, Puerto Rico has not been a threat for some time, losing 13 of their last 14 Caribbean Series games. The league has been mired by financial difficulties that nearly cancelled the entire season this year. Their champion, the Carolina Giants, once again feature few top talents, though the infield includes big leaguers Alex Cora (Red Sox) and Ruben Gotay (Royals).
The brainchild of Venezuelans Oscar Prieto and Pablo Morales, the Caribbean Series was first played in Cuba in 1949 and included teams from Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and Panama. The Cubans won seven of the first 12 Caribbean Series, but Fidel Castro's revolution brought an end to their participation and an end to the series from 1960-1969. Venezuela tried to relaunch the series in 1970 with just three teams (including Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic), and Mexico came aboard in 1971 to give the series the four-team round-robin format that remains today, with the Dominican representative winning 15 of the 36 series in the modern era.
Caribbean Series Rosters
Dominican Republic: Licey Tigers
Pitchers: Daniel Cabrera, Román Colón, Juan Cruz, Valerio de los Santos, Jared Fernández, Wilton Chávez, Carlos Pérez, Eddie Ramos, Jorge Sosa, Danny Tamayo, Julián Tavárez, José Valverde.
Catchers: Sandy Martínez, Carlos Ruiz.
Infielders: Erick Aybar, Ronnie Belliard, Anderson Hernández, José Offerman, Willis Otáñez, Hanley Ramírez, Miguel Tejada.
Outfielders: Melky Cabrera, Napoleón Calzado, Alexis Gómez, Timo Pérez.
Manager: Rafael Landestoy.
Venezuela: Caracas Lions
Pitchers: Yorman Bazardo, Harold Eckert, Jeremy González, Landon Jacobsen, Víctor Moreno, Juan Ovalles, Francisco Rodríguez, Rómulo Sánchez, Orlando Trías, Albert Vargas, Víctor Zambrano, Mauro Zárate.
Catchers: Henry Blanco, Luis Rodríguez.
Infielders: William Bergolla, Álex González, Marco Scutaro, Luis Rodríguez, Ramón Hernández, Álex Cabrera.
Outfielders: Rafael Álvarez, Franklin Gutiérrez, Alejandro Machado, Javier Herrera.
Mexico: Mazaltan Deer
Pitchers: Pablo Ortega, Francisco Campos, Walter Silva, Edgar González, Ariel Prieto, José Luis García, Hugo Castellanos, Marty McLeary, José Cobos, Mauricio Lara, Julio César Jiménez.
Catchers: Miguel Ojeda, Noé Muñoz, Roberto Saucedo.
Infielders: Edgar González, Héber Gómez, Luis Alfonso Cruz, Oscar Robles, Daniel Fornés, Jesse Gutiérrez.
Outfielders: Mario Valenzuela, Trenidad Hubbard, Ray Sadler, Juan Carlos Canizalez.
Manager: Juan José Pacho.
Puerto Rico: Carolina Giants
Pitchers: Willie Collazo, Miguel Martínez, Stevenson Agosto, Iván Maldonado, Josué Matos, Ismael Casillas, Federico Báez, José Santiago, Giancarlo Alvarado, Matt Hammons, Jim Magrane, Brad Salmon, Orlando Román.
Catchers: John Lin Pachot, René Rivera, Edward Guzmán.
Infielders: Rubén Gotay, Álex Cora, Luis Figueroa, Víctor Rodríguez, Álex Cintrón.
Outfielders: Jesús Feliciano, Tony Valentín, Jorge Padilla, Pedro Valdés.
Manager: Lino Rivera.