Cuba has released rosters for two early summer competitions, the third Caribbean Cup and the Americas Olympic Baseball Qualification Tournament. The Copa del Caribe is set for May 8-15 after a postponement from a scheduled start this past weekend and the final roster has been announced (below). From May 31-June 5, a full Cuban team is likely to travel to Florida for a shot at an Olympic berth, with several of its top stars in NPB listed on the preliminary roster. Both squads are notable in that they feature the veteran talent for which Cuba is known, but each contains several highly regarded players in their early 20s. We break down the rosters, which include several of the most famous Cuban béisboleros ever and one of the top international prospects.
Cuba’s Murderers’ Row Returns
The big three still remain: Frederich Cepeda, Alfredo Despaigne, and Yosvani Alarcón. Undoubtedly one of international baseball’s greatest pure hitters of all time, Cepeda drew a mind-boggling 98 walks (against only 21 strikeouts) in 320 plate appearances in the 60th Cuban National Series, which concluded recently. He hit .369/.563/.607 in his age-40 season, raising his career line to .325/.474/.556 over 24 seasons. Cepeda has, of course, been a driving force in Cuba’s success since the last millennium.
Unlike Cepeda, Despaigne has spent a fair portion of his career in Japan, hitting .261/.350/.498 in parts of eight NPB seasons. Combined with his absurd CNS numbers, he has a .313/.408/.582 mark in 18 seasons. He returned for another year with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks this spring and is in a race with Cepeda (who has three more safeties to his name) for hit No. 2000. Despaigne currently has more than 1,900 professional hits and over 400 homers.
Alarcón has been behind the plate for many of Cuba’s victories in the past 15 years and, like Cepeda, has mostly remained in Cuba. The Lenadores de Las Tunas star had a normal season by his standards this year, slashing .328/.375/.507, virtually identical to his career line through 16 seasons.
Erisbel Arruebarrena is a final name that will sound quite familiar after the Dodgers signed “The Flea” following an exhilarating 2013 World Baseball Classic performance. He is the only player on either roster with MLB experience, albeit only 41 at bats in 2014. Arruebarrena is one of a number of high profile defectors to return to the CNS and thrive.
Yurisbel Garcia, who has also played on the grass for NPB’s Hawks the past four seasons, also returns to the roster, as does Yadir Drake. Garcia is a .302/.353/.520 hitter in Japan, similar to his overall numbers in 13 professional seasons. Drake has plied his trade in Cuba, the U.S. minor leagues, Mexico, Venezuela, and Japan, hitting .307 as a rightfielder with discipline since the Dodgers granted him his release.
Prospects to Watchcepeda
There are several names you may not know, but should. César Prieto is arguably the top prospect in Cuba and, indeed, one of the most exciting young Cubanos in recent memory. This year, he shattered the CNS record by hitting in 45 consecutive games, which ties Wee Willie Keeler for the second-longest of any top league worldwide. In fact, in the last 99 seasons, only Prieto and Joe DiMaggio have streaks of 40 or more games in any top league. Even including the minors, only 13 other hitters have reached that number, while the previous Cuban mark of 37 came with a metal bat [link].
Prieto led in hitting this season at .403, the only player to top the four-hundred plateau. He had 31 walks and only 11 strikeouts in 360 plate appearances, and had 27 percent more hits (128) than the second-place finisher (101). After hitting .370/.443/.520 in his first 157 CNS games, the middle infielder—only 21 years old—became one of the rare Cubans to sign with the Mexican League, inking a contract with the Tabasco Olmecas for the 2021 season [link].
Loidel Chapellí Jr. was the 59th CNS Rookie of the Year after hitting .288/.390/.366 in 2019-20, adding the award to his 2016 WBSC Baseball Player of the Year nod, his 2016 U15 Baseball World Cup MVP award, and his 2017 U18 World Cup appearance [link]. Only 19, the leftfielder upped his numbers to .317/.442/.496 this year.
It is rare to strike out more than a batter per inning in the Serie Nacional, but Yunior Tur Pozo claimed the CNS 60 Reliever of the Year at age 22 after punching out 45 in 38.1 frames with a 2.11 ERA. After not permitting even an unearned run in 22 innings in 2019-20, his career 1.51 run prevention mark and 10.7 K/9 are eye-popping.
Chapelli has signed to play in Panamá’s professional league this year, along with heralded Camagüey teammate Yosimar Cousín, who it was believed would be named to one of the rosters. Prieto, Tur, and Geyser Cepeda (see below) will also play in the Central American country.
Mid-Career Veterans to Remember
Although past the prospect age, Rafael Viñales is young enough that he could still develop into a national team star. The catcher-first baseman was second in the league in average (.387), home runs (19), and slugging percentage (.659). Viñales has a .517 slugging percentage in this last five CNS campaigns.
Those power numbers were second only to Lisbán Correa, who returned to Cuba after defecting and has taken his game to another level. This year, he became the first defector to win National Series MVP after a monster season in which he led the league in roundtrippers (28) and slashed .320/.457/.692, slightly behind his .408/.539/.708 mark in only 18 games the year before. He has also signed in Mexico for 2021.
Frank Madán threw the 60th no-hitter in 60 seasons of the Cuban National Series on Dec. 29, one of five shutouts in the 2020-21 campaign. The burly right-hander (listed at 5-10, 248 at age 29) was named Pitcher of the Year after going 13-5 with a league-leading 109 strikeouts in 141.2 innings.
Other pitchers that could make a start include Yoennis (“Yoanni”) Yera, who looked good in five starts in the Mexican Winter League (2.93 ERA and 4.17 K/BB in 27.2IP), Carlos Viera, and Yoen Socarrás.
Olympic Qualifier Pre-Selection
Catchers (4): Yosvani Alarcón (LTU), Luis Gomez (CMG), Ariel Martinez (MTZ), Rafael Viñales (LTU).
Infielders (14): Erisbel Arruebarrena (MTZ), Guillermo Avilés (GRA), Alexander Ayala (CMG), Humberto Bravo (CMG), Lisbán Correa (IND), Jeferson Delgado (MTZ), Dayán García (ART), Raúl González (CAV), Yurisbel Gracial (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks), Yordan Manduley (HOL), Yadil Mujica (MTZ), César Prieto (CFG), Yordanis Samon (CMG), Luis Sánchez (GTM)*.
Outfielders (7): Frederich Cepeda (SSP), Alfredo Despaigne (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks), Yadir Drake (Leónes de Yucatán), Yhosvani Peñalver (IND), Raico Santos (GRA), Roel Santos (GRA), Loidel Chapellí Jr. (CMG).
Pitchers (14): Lázaro Blanco (GRA), Bryan Chi (IND), Carlos Font (SCU), Pavel Hernández (IND), Frank Madan (CMG), Raidel Martínez (PRI), Liván Moinelo (PRI), Andy Rodriguez (IND), Yariel Rodriguez (Chunichi Dragons and CMG), Yudier Rodriguez (LTU), Yuen Socarrás (SSP), Yunior Tur (SCU), Carlos Viera (LTU), Yoanni Yera (MTZ).
Technical Corps: Manager: Armando Ferrer (MTZ); Carlos Martí (GRA), Ricardo Eizmendiz (CNB), José Hernández (CAV), Alexander Ramos (IJV), Raicel Sánchez (PRI), Jesús Salgado (MTZ).
Caribbean Cup Final Roster
There are a handful of fairly interesting players on the roster for the Caribbean Cup and the squad is a representative “Cuba B” team, as it has sent to so many tournaments. It is scheduled to face Dominican Republic, Curaçao, Panamá, and then Puerto Rico in the “Elite Group”.
Geyser Cepeda is the top prospect on this list, as he hit above .350 for the second year in-a-row. Cousin of the more famous Cepeda, the 23-year old plays centre and combines great plate discipline (51 walks and 15 strikeouts in 317 PA in 2020-21) with speed and increasing power (.504 slugging in the 60th CNS).
Pablo Luis Guillén is a moderately intriguing right-handed pitching prospect. Debuting at 18, the now 22-year-old has a 2.73 ERA as a starter across five professional seasons, including three starts in the 2020-21 Venezuelan Winter League. Marlon Vega earned Rookie of the Year honours for Mayabeque with a 4.36 ERA and 8.0 K/9 in relief, though he did walk 6.6 per nine.
Luis Mateo had a breakout season this winter, slashing .361/.438/.469 as a 24-year old and was tabbed as the league’s All-Star SS and “Best All-Around SS”. He had 37 walks and only 18 strikeouts in 325 plate appearances and is a .313 career hitter in 278 games. Yasniel González and Dennis Laza both had very good campaigns for Mayabeque and joined Geyser Cepeda as All-Stars and “Best All-Around” outfielders. González (age 29) hit .338/.481/.565 as the Huracánes’ rightfielder, while the 35-year old Laza manned the opposite corner and slashed .321/.450/.571.
Manager: Pablo Civil
Catchers (3): Iván Prieto González (GRA), Andrys Pérez García (MTZ), Osvaldo Vázquez (CAV)*.
Infielders (7): Osvaldo Abreu (GRA)*, Juan Carlos Arencibia (PRI), Guillermo Garcia (GRA), Luis Vicente Mateo (CFG), Daniel Pérez Pérez (CFG), Pavel Quesada Pedroso (CFG), Santiago Torres Baena (SCU).
Outfielders (4): Geyser Cepeda Lima (SSP), Yasniel González Vega (MAY), Yoelkis Guibert Stevens (SCU), Dennis Laza Spencer (MAY).
Pitchers (10): Frank Alvarez Díaz (PRI), Naykel Cruz Saldívar (MTZ), Dariel Fernández Baz (PRI), Cesar Garcia (GRA)*, Yander Guevara (CAV)*, Pablo Luis Guillén (VCL), Yankiel Mauri Gutiérrez (SSP), Yadián Martínez (MAY), Reinier Rivero Estrada (MTZ), Marlon Vega Travieso (MAY).
*Not on preliminary roster.
Cut from Preliminary Roster
Catchers (2): Rafael Viñales Álvarez (LTU), Yosvani Alarcón Tardío (LTU).
Infielders (7): Guillermo Avilés Difurnó (GRA), Lisbán Correa Sánchez (IND), Dayán García Ortega (ART), Andrés Hernández Díaz (IND), Yordan Manduley Escalona (HOL), Yadil Mujica Díaz (MTZ), César Prieto Echevarría (CFG).
Outfielders (3): Yadir Drake Domínguez (MTZ), Raico Santos Almeida (GRA), Roel Santos Martínez (GRA).
Pitchers (7): Lázaro Blanco Matos (GRA), Bryan Chi Montoya (IND), Carlos Font Mustelier (SCU), Frank Madan Montejo (CMG), Yunior Tur Pozo (SCU), Carlos Juan Viera Álvarez (LTU), Yoanni Yera Montalvo (MTZ).