Baseball’s history in the Olympics is not as long or rich as you might think at first glance. It is indisputable though that Cuba has dominated in the five Olympic Baseball competitions. The first official competition was in 1992 and Cuba won the first gold. They would win two more and two silver, medalling in all five competitions before it’s dormancy after 2008. Baseball returns to the Olympics in 2021, however the Cuban baseball team will not. Cuba Eliminated From Olympics qualifier after dropping second straight game.
Cuba entered at the top of Pool B in America’s Olympic Qualifier in Florida. They were also the #7 ranked nation in the world. These rankings need to be taken with a grain of salt. Many nations rosters fluctuate based on player availability from tournament to tournament. Cuba’s Olympic qualifier roster might more accurately represent their National Team roster overall than most of the other Nations. This was reason for cautious optimism in the face of a decade of diminishing returns in International competition.
The nature of a three game round robin format does not leave much margin for error. It is tough then to look at two one run losses and a quick exit and be overly positive or negative. Does the loss represents a Titanic sinking for the former International powerhouse? I won’t go that far as the iceberg has been approaching for quite some time. I will try to break a down a mix of positive and honest critiques of the national program though.
The offence has struggled mightily in the past few International competitions but had its opportunities. The batting order was a mix of legends and repatriated players who had pursued MLB careers. The defection of youngster César Prieto upon landing in Miami points to a big strain on the system. Cuba has to be strategic in roster construction. The roster outside of Prieto definitely lacked upside potential but for the young pitchers currently playing professionally in Japan. This isn’t to say that any other youngsters that may have been included are flight risks. But it has to be in the federation’s mind.
Both games played out similarly. A veteran starting pitcher struggled to shake off early rust and gave up multiple runs in the 1st inning. Lazaro Blanco arguably made one big mistake and found himself behind 3-0 before most of the crowd had settled in. Blanco did collect himself and gave Cuba a chance to get back in it. Despite a massive home run from National Series MVP Lisban Correa their late rally ultimately they fell just short. The final score of both games was 6-5. Despite shaky starts Cuba had their chances. They ultimately failed to drive in the key run or take momentum in key innings.
Arm chair quarterbacking and an impressive relief performance would suggest that Yariel Rodriguez should have started game 2. He is generally considered the best young starter in Cuba. He has also impressed for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan’s top Pro League. Rodriguez was called on with two out in the 1st after Juan Carlos Viera surrendered three quick runs of his own and was on the verge of giving up more. Rodriguez improved his stock with 6.1 innings of 11 strikeout emergency brilliance but did give up two more runs. Livan Moinelo and Raidel Martinez both looked solid if not spectacular out of the bullpen. The Cuba to Japan pipeline represents a great opportunity to develop young arms while they can get paid very well by Cuban standard. The fear that they are auditioning themselves for the Majors is real though.
Cuba was also in a tough situation in carrying multiple legendary players. Although each have proven they still have gas in the tank in the National Series. Their inclusion limited the defensive flexibility and each represented similar offensive profiles. It would have been tough to exclude any of Frederich Cepeda, Yosvani Alarcon, Yordanis Samon and Alfredo Despaigne. It was also tough including all four on the roster. Alfredo Despaigne left game 1 with an upper body injury on an aggressive swing in the bottom of the ninth. His slow start in Japan this year, this injury and his age can’t dispel concerns that the injury might be career ending. At the very least it might be career altering. Frederich Cepeda started game two on the bench. He did drive in a run with a sac fly in a late pinch hitting appearance but time is still undefeated.
The most positive development for the Cuban National Series is the reintroduction of many players who had explored baseball off the island. Erisbel Arruebarrena hit a clutch home run in Game 1 and led the league in that category in his first season back in 2019. Lisban Correa represented the 2nd straight repatriated star to lead the league in round trippers and also hit a clutch home run as mentioned. Yadir Drake and Yadil Mujica also integrated into the National Series and National team. These moves might not return Cuba to the top of the International stage but their depth adds value to the top domestic league in the country.
The shadow of the late Higinio Velez looms with Cuba eliminated from Olympics qualifying. The longtime president of the Cuban Baseball Federation of course recently passed. He rose to fame in leading Cuba to Olympic success. Velez was also central in the negotiations of the now defunct 2018 agreement with MLB to create legal passage to America.
If this agreement were to be revived, it might help Cuba in future competitions. Obviously top MLB talent aren’t able to compete in the Olympics. But other countries do employ low level minor league top prospects in these tournaments. Would Cuba have fared better with Yoelqui Céspedes, Pedro Leon or Victor Mesa Jr in the lineup? It might also slow the number of defections to include only the real Major League prospects. It would also infuse dollars back into baseball infrastructure.
Some are calling this latest failure rock bottom for Cuba and no doubt it stings as both games were very winnable. There were positives and Cuba did look better overall than they have in more recent International showings. There will be a new Olympic baseball superpower anointed in the next while. Cuba must continue to reinvent itself. This is no easy task with the strains on resources and increasing Professional intrigue with Cuban players. The recent passings of top Cuban brass in Velez and Ernesto Reynoso. Retirements of longtime Cuban stars such as Frank Morejón, and failure to qualify for these Olympics might indicate that we are officially in a new era of Cuban baseball. An era where now more than ever Cuban baseball players impact baseball on the world stage just not in a Cuban uniform.