Cuba Is Ready To Win The 2013 World Baseball Classic

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Saturday February 16th, 2013

LazoClasico1.jpg

Pedro Luis Lazo. One of Cuba’s greatest pitchers of all-time. Considered also one of the best pitchers in the history of baseball not to pitch in the big leagues. A legend, he represented Cuba in the 2006 and 2009 WBC tournaments. He will be missed in this year’s edition.

By Jonathan Hacohen  (Lead Baseball Columnist, Oakland A’s Correspondent and Website Founder):  

Going into the 3rd edition of the World Baseball Classic, the #1 question that I get asked on a daily basis is: “Which country will win it all?” A fair question, as all sports fans (not just baseball ones) love to predict champions before the first game is even played. Given that Japan has won the first two WBC titles (2006 and 2009), they have to be the favorites going into this year’s tournament. But as every new WBC edition begins, every country begins to get hungrier and hungrier. We had a qualifier tournament recently, the inaugural one for a WBC. 16 countries battled it out to win the 4 coveted spots into the tournament. Chinese Taipei, Brazil, Canada and Spain will field teams next month.

Canada and Chinese Taipei were two of the four countries that did not receive automatic entries and were required to qualify. Brazil and Spain were the newcomers that got their first taste of the WBC…and evidently loved it. So who will be it folks? Japan beat Korea in 2009 and Cuba back in 2006. Ironically, Cuba lost to Japan twice back in the 2nd round of 2009. If not for Japan, Cuba would have at least WBC title under their belts. Maybe two. So who does Cuba get in their group as part of the 1st Round of the 2013 WBC? Japan, of course. This time around, things will be different. Cuba is ready to knock the Japanese gorilla off their backs and take the 2013 World Baseball Classic.  


Antonio Castro (far right). Team Doctor for Cuba and Fidel Castro's son. While he claimed to not report back to his dad during games, I'm sure the players around him always kept their guard up. And intensity higher.

Antonio Castro (far right). Team Doctor for Cuba and Fidel Castro’s son. While he claimed to not report back to his dad during games, I’m sure the players around him always kept their guard up. And keep their intensity higher.

With Japan sitting in Cuba’s Group A (along with China and Brazil), it will be difficult if not impossible, for both teams to advance beyond Round 2. But if all the chips fall into place, they could still possibly meet in the finals. Trust me, it is a lot of eye straining and chart formations- but it could happen. My bet though is that one of Cuba and Japan could be out by the 2nd round. My money is on Japan taking the fall in that case. Cuba is simply due. While China and Brazil will field decent teams, they will be no match for Japan and Cuba. You can take that to the bank. It is interesting how the WBC organizers created the group pairings.

Clearly competitive balance was in mind, as some groups are clearly stronger than others. Group B of Korea, Chinese Taipei, Netherlands and Australia is as weak as they come. Chinese Taipei and Korea should have a fairly easy time advancing to Round 2. That is where Cuba will have truly experience Asian baseball at its best- as likely all 3 of its competitors in Round 2 will be fall from the east. Cuba will be in Fukuoka for Round 1 and then move over to Tokyo in Round 2. I wonder how the Japanese officials will feel about the Cuban guards with machine guns in the dugout. Location may prove to be a hinder for team Cuba. But as long as they get to Japan early and assimilate to the time zone and conditions, they should be fine. At least they will stay in the same region for the first half of the tournament.

Groups C and D in the tournament are definitely not as clear-cut. The most difficult pairing has to be Group C. Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Spain. If I was a betting man, I will tell you right now that Spain is definitely going home after the opening round. It is a shame though that one of Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican won’t advance. That just doesn’t feel right in my books. Comparatively, the countries in Group B are getting a far easier ride. Each group should have 2 strong teams and 2 lesser squads. This “competitive balance” notion is just simply unfair in my book. It was the same idea as back in the day when the AL West had 4 teams and the NL Central had 6 teams. Easier to make the playoffs in the AL West and far more difficult in the NL Central. It’s simply a number games. In the future, I certainly hope that WBC officials will rethink their grouping strategy.

From Group D, I definitely see the United States advancing. Then one of Canada, Mexico and Italy will move on. Knowing the spirit, passion and talent to come out of Mexico, they have my vote as the second victorious squad. Sure, I hail from Canada. But considering the 2009 squad played so poorly that it was required to qualify into this year’s tournament, I just don’t see them going very far. So overall – my prediction for Round 2 will see Japan, Cuba, Korea and Chinese Taipei battling it out in Tokyo, while the U.S., Mexico, Dominican and Venezuela will meet in Miami. From there, in such a short tournament – anything can happen. Heck, there is no guarantee that my predictions will even come to fruition after Round 1. Still, the more I consider how the 2013 WBC will play out, I still see visions of Team Cuba bringing home the big prize.

It is fun to think back to the previous Cuban WBC entries. But some of the key players will not be returning. Ariel Pestano (featured on our site in March 2011), the team leader behind the plate from 2006 and 2009 will be noticeably missing from this year’s squad. So disappointed was Pestano by not making the 2013 Cuban team that he decided to retire from baseball all together. Pestano is my all-time favorite WBC player. Watching him yell at pitchers for giving up home runs was just classic. He even yelled at outfielders for misplaying balls in the field. Pestano is everything that I always envisioned from Cuban baseball. Intensity. Passion. Live and die by every pitch. That’s Ariel Pestano. Erier Sanchez at almost 37 Years Old, is now the veteran behind the plate. It will be interesting to see who fills Pestano’s shoes and if they can provide even 50% of the leadership skills that he brought to the table.

Pedro Luis Lazo (featured in our article on Cuban pitching), is another name absent from Team Cuba this year. Turning 40 this year, #99 has apparently also hung up his glove for good. In every single WBC tournament to-date, Lazo has been the horse. The go-to guy. Whether he was starting or relieving early on and pitching his innings, Cuba could always rely on his brilliant right arm. Along with Pestano, Lazo never defected and stayed true to his country and people. While he is not listed as a coach, I am sure that Lazo will be active in coaching Cuban baseball. If not this year, very soon. He is one of those guys, along with Tretiak in hockey that I always think: what if he had played in North America in his prime? Lazo would have been one of the greats. Maybe not Satchel Paige great. But great all the same. 

Want some more absent names? Try Aroldis Chapman, Leonys Martin and Yoenis Cespedes. Heard of those guys? After defecting from Cuba, each is making their name in North America. Their respective losses certainly hurts the Cuban squad. But considering that Jose Contreras, one of the best known Cuban star players to defect and find MLB fame and fortune, recently made a trip back to Cuba and welcomed back as a hero – there is hope. The hope that a player who defects could still play for his native country as part of international tournaments. I certainly hope that Cuba one day warms up to the idea. Or maybe I’m just thinking too ideally tonight.

As players age, defect and simply lose their skills, Team Cuba will have a new identity in 2013. But this is nothing different from what this squad will experience every WBC edition. But one thing will always hold true. The passion. As found in countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, players in Cuba play from a young age and give it their absolute all. But yet there is still a little something different going down in Cuba. Maybe its the politics and the fact that the country’s former President is absolutely baseball obsessed. Imagine that Fidel Castro had successfully made it to the big leagues, how different his life and that of Cuba’s would have changed in the course of history. Castro though likes to keep it in the family. His younger brother Raul is the head of Cuba. Fidel’s son, Antonio Castro is a doctor…and happens to also be Team Cuba’s doctor (as we previously reported in a feature article). What a way to keep tabs on your players. Brilliant. With so much at stake, the WBC Cuban team has more to play for than any of us could ever imagine. Win and you are a national hero. Lose…and you get to explain the defeat to Fidel Castro. Think those guys want to win pretty badly?

So while the names on the back may change, the Cuban baseball spirit continues to live on. For whatever reason, whether it be fate or destiny, Team Cuba continues to be aligned with Japan. These two baseball powerhouses are the essence of the best WBC rivalry going. Japan has won both World Baseball Classics to – date and return to win a 3rd in 2013. They have knocked Cuba out of every tournament thus far. Cuba still has Youlieski Gourriel. Starting to approach 30, this guy was once considered the future Derek Jeter of Cuba. He was seen to have that much talent. Gourriel may still defect one day to play in the show. But he better get his move on, as his time is starting to run out.

From my Cuban source, I have been told that this year’s Cuban team is full of brilliant prospects. Cuba never stops producing them. Pitchers with rubber arms and hitters that won’t stop swinging. After all, you don’t walk off the island. You hit off it. As the U.S. has proven in previous WBC tournaments, big names doesn’t always equate to victories. You need to play as a team to emerge as a champion. For that reason, Team Cuba is coming into this tournament a little under the radar. They will be playing in Japan for much of the tournament, away from much of the attention of the North American media. The players are not well-known and many countries may not take them seriously enough. That’s just the way Cuba likes it. By the time Team Cuba makes it to the semi-finals of the WBC, most of us will know the names of their future stars. Then, when Team Cuba takes the field in San Francisco on March 19th to play in the 2013 WBC finals, they will finally take it all. Somewhere, whether it will be in the stands, dugout, or a little black and white television in Havana, Pedro Luis Lazo and Ariel Pestano will be dancing for joy. To finally have shown the baseball world that Cuba is #1.

pestano_jugada

Ariel Pestano. The heart and soul of Team Cuba. Pestano was so hurt by being left off the 2013 Cuban WBC roster that he announced his retirement from baseball. You will never find a more intense and passionate baseball player. Ever.

  (*The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of mlbreports.com*)

A big thank-you goes out to our Lead Baseball Columnist Jonathan Hacohen (he is the Founder of the MLB Reports!) for preparing today’s featured article.  Jonathan has been following and writing about baseball for almost 20 years.  He founded “MLB reports” in 2010.  Jonathan enjoys reporting and discussing all aspects of baseball, including MLB and MiLB.  Jonathan resides in Toronto and covers many Blue Jays games…but his heart ultimately is in Detroit.  Jonathan bleeds Tiger Orange and Blue – and his 2nd home is Comerica Park!  For all of his article archives click here. You can follow Jonathan on Twitter 

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About Jonathan Hacohen

I practice daily yoga. Most foods are organic. If you catch me in the supermarket, it will be in the produce aisle. Warrior 1 Yoga was born from my wish to help people be healthy and happy. I preach the 4 key's to life: nutrition, exercise, water and sleep. This is my journey - I am hope to meet you along the way to share a similar path!

Posted on February 17, 2013, in World Baseball Classic and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Isn’t the main reason why group B is so weak is because the Domincan Republic decided to lose to the Netherlands in the preliminary round? If group B included Korea, Taipei, and Domincan Republic, it would not be as weak of a group in my mind.

  2. oops. mistaken…that was in 2009.

  3. Who do you see advancing out from the respective second round tournaments?

  4. Don’t sleep on mexico

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