No Country for Old Men Article originally written November 2019
I recently appeared on the “La Vida Baseball Live” Daily Podcast to discuss my journey following Cuban Baseball. I stated and will stand steadfast to one point. There is currently more Cuban baseball talent than there has ever been but it isn’t consolidated in Cuba anymore.
It’s not to say that the Cuban National Series isn’t still a competitive league. And it is still a great incubator for top talent. But whether through the loss of star talent, or through the shear attrition of defections. Baseball played in Cuba and by Cuban teams is not to the level it once was.
The World Baseball Classic launched in 2006 and aimed to connect the baseball world. It hoped to create a better funnel for international talent to be seen and ultimately make their path to the Major Leagues. In many ways it aimed to achieve what the NBA had with “The Dream Team” in 1992. Pro players were allowed into the Olympics and new fans were captivated all over the world.
The positive of this is that it seems to have worked. Although players from every country had plied their craft in MLB before. Many more who otherwise might not have been seen. Have since starred in the WBC and made their way to America. Baseball had already built a pipeline to most of Latin America. Cuba except for a handful of players who risked it all to get out were more legend than prospect.
Cuba finished 2nd in that original baseball classic. Losing to Japan, the two nations that have seen the biggest growth in MLB representation since. This push to make it easier for international talent to get to MLB, stripped away Cuba’s inherent advantage in international competition. The Cuban National Series and myriad Sub-series competitions on the island were effectively a 16 team pro-league designated as amateur.
The results spoke for themselves. Three Olympic Gold Medals, 25 World Cup Baseball 1st place finishes, Ten Intercontinental Cup 1st place finishes and 12 PanAmerican games Gold medals. Until the turn of the 2010’s success in “amateur” tournaments was although not a given still a likelihood.
The first World Baseball Classic not only served to level the international playing field. It also gave the best scouting look at top Cuban talent yet. At the very least it gave inspiration for those who otherwise might not consider leaving the island to think they might have a shot at Major League riches. Alexei Ramirez likely stands out as the big name, (Yulieski Gurriel did get much attention in this tournament but would remain in Cuba for another decade) that would make his way to MLB after this tournament. He definitely wouldn’t be the last.
The loss of that talent obviously hurts. Jose Abreu, Aroldis Chapman, Kendrys Morales and other more mature players would leave and carve out long, successful and in many cases ongoing professional careers. What often doesn’t get mentioned though is. That for every top level player that leaves there have probably been three times that, that although not Pro level would still be an asset to the Cuban National Series or Cuban National Team. Yordan Alvarez won the 2019 Rookie of the Year award with the Astros and represents another cohort of lost talent. Youngsters that played a short time in the National Series before getting to the states while still considered a prospect and are now breaking through on the grandest stage.
Cuba is currently trying to earn a berth in the reinstated Olympic baseball tournament in 2020. Their roster for the WBSC Premier 12 at least for batters is a strange dichotomy. Their lineup for the preliminary round although full of solid hitters that will all go down as some of the best in the Cuban National Series has an average age of 34 years old. Although they have a few younger batters coming along for experience they will likely not see much game time. For Comparison the Canadian team they lost 3–0 to in Game 1 had an average age of 29 with nobody as old as 34 years.
Cuba finds itself in a strange purgatory, it is still churning out fantastic baseball talent. After the dissolution of the planned agreement with MLB. The plan was to make it legal for players to pursue a pro career in America, Cuba has to be fearful to showcase its younger top talent. However if you have to build a roster purely around rewarding heroes of the past, or of players that aren’t a flight risk. It really should come as no surprise that Cuba is no longer the international powerhouse they once were.
All top levels of baseball are getting younger. But especially in international competition you can no longer afford to be a Country for Old Men.
Canada’s Top expert on Cuban Baseball