The Granma Alazanes and Matanzas Cocodrilos will face off on January 22nd in game one. In previous years this might be game one of the finals. Instead it is game one of the 61st Cuban National Series. This represents a rematch from last April when Granma beat Matanzas in six games. Granma won their third title in the past five years. Cuba’s response to Covid-19 saw the delay of the baseball season. This is why we are roughly nine months from last seeing top level baseball on the island. That does not mean nothing has been happening in the Cuban baseball sphere.
2021 will be remembered for the most high level baseball defections we have seen in a calendar year. These defections represent a massive talent drain which will effect the league widely but certain teams even more directly. Trying to predict this upcoming season might be harder than ever. The simplest method might be to look at last years playoff field and lean on the teams returning the largest part of their roster. The immense loss of young talent could open the door for those who stayed and might have been blocked. Thus the league could be open for either a very young squad to rise or continue the trend of mature pitching leading the way.
Predicted Order of Finish
The Crocodiles fell just short of winning their second consecutive title. Many have lamented the fact that they have repatriated players some from other provinces instead of being comprised purely of players from Matanzas. They are a mature team and are running the majority of that roster back. Veteran hurlers Yoennis Yera, Noelvis Entenza and Yonder Martinez seem ageless. I normally wouldn’t suggest relying on arms in their 30s but the National Series works a little differently.
Sancti Spíritus Gallos
The young Gallos took a step forward last year. They had the best record but were swept by a veteran Piñar squad in round one. They still have many of the young maturing players that won the U23 competition in 2019, the last year it was held. The loss of Geysel Cepeda hurts but the returnees should keep them competitive.
Pinar del Río Vegueros
Piñar took the last playoff spot and then had a nice playoff run. As mentioned they knocked off the first seed Gallos. They have veteran arms leading the way as well with Vladimir Baños, Erlys Casanova and former MVP Yosvani Torres all on the wrong side of 30 but similar to Matanzas still dazzling batters. Livan Moinelo and Raidel Martinez could form the nastiest bullpen combo if they are delayed as rumoured in returning to Japan.
Santiago de Cuba Avispas
Another younger squad that had success in recent U23 competitions the Wasps surprised many in making the playoffs in 2021. Yunior Tur and Santiago Torres represent the best young pitcher and position player respectively in the league. However, the threat of departure looms and Santiago has been very protective of the two. Cuba in general has to be careful as some young players have felt slighted by their exclusion from National team spots and players that otherwise might have stayed have found another path.
The Ponies became a mini dynasty and no player was more important to this than Ace Lazaro Blanco. Blanco thus might be the most surprising player to have departed. He stayed in Florida after Team Cuba failed to qualify for the Olympics. The surprise might be more due to his advanced age and few thinking he would be an MLB prospect. However, it might be more of a case of now or never if he wanted to pursue a pro opportunity in Korea. The Alazanes have to fill that void and will also be without Finals MVP Guillermo Garcia. Garcia joins the growing number of Cubans being contracted out to NPB of Japan. Garcia would be eligible to rejoin Granma but the timings likely prevent this from happening. The Stallions are still deep enough to place or show but I’ll be surprised if they win the race.
Las Tunas Leñadores
The Lumberjacks are only three years removed from their 1st championship and much of their homegrown roster is still in tact. They are led by slugging brother Yordanis and Yosvani Alarcon and both can still swing it despite their defensive limitations. They might be able to out slug enough squads to be competitive but can they muster enough pitching to go further?
The Elephants have arguably been the team most effected by key defections to the Majors. Note, not necessarily the most but losing players just as the team was about to break through. Yasiel Puig, José Abreu and Yoan Moncada leaving derailed what could have been the team of the 2010s. The loss of César Prieto hurts, but there is still enough thump in the lineup to win more than they lose. They will have to improve substantially on their 5.61 ERA. That mark was the worst of any of 2021’s playoff squads.
Industriales of Havana
The Lions are going to look quite different in 2022. The Blues won their 12th championship in 2010 and are still waiting. Management vowed to get younger and more versatile but went about it in a strange way. They ostercised Frank Morejon in a move that outraged many. Yoandry Urgelles and Stayler Hernandez soon retired, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall. Reigning MVP Lisban Correa is in Panama and wasn’t included in their prelim roster selection. Will he rejoin the team after his foreign commitments. Top starter Brayan Chi and close Andy Rodriguez are both pursuing MLB careers.
The Bulls went from a finals appearance to missing the playoffs. A team that seemed to be on the door step of their first title is now in a bit of transition. Whether Yariel Rodriguez will be available or with Chunichi is unclear due to Japan’s policies on foreigners while Covid still lingers. The interesting case of another young arm Yosimar Cousin looks to have depleted them of another top pitcher. There is still some top talent in veterans Frank Medan and Yordanis Samon, but is it enough? I currently have them out of the playoffs again but they could vault a couple positions if they recapture some of 2020’s magic.
Ciego de Avila Tigres
How different would this team look with Luis Robert and Adolis Garcia patrolling the outfield? It likely would have extended their dynasty of the mid 2010s. Lets not peddle in alternate reality though other than to point out the attrition of top level talent. Rusney Castillo might be out of pro options, should both parties consider a reconciliation?
Villa Clara Leopardos
The Naranjas, Azucareros, Leopardos or whatever they are called from day to day are struggling to find their identity. They are devoid of top name talent but did appear in the finals just three years ago. They could very easily leapfrog a few of the teams ahead of them if some of their young talent comes of age. Unfortunately right now, no one is predicting particular talents to make that jump.
The former La Habana has produced a lot of talent for the International signing period of late. They have had a few of these players such as Pedro Leon and Jeison Martinez have a cup of tea with the squad on their way to America. The province perhaps due to its proximity to the capital is actually overachieving in producing top young talent, however will any of these talents wear the maroon?
2022 will mark 20 years since Holguín took home the most unlikely Cuban championship title. 2023 will mark 21 years as the Cachorros will struggle to be competitive this year. Veteran Edilse Silva rejoins them as the 39 year old Avispa has been a reinforcement for them in 4 other seasons. His 169 career home runs will boost their lineup but they will need to make massive strides on the hill to improve on last years record. Their team 5.70 era and minisicule 3.69 K/9 left them wanting more from their pitchers.
Isla de la Juventud Piratas
The Pirates have become a bit of a feeder system for other clubs including Industriales. Alberto Calderon is a promising young outfielder, now in the capital. Lazaro Ponce is a strong young catcher who left the Capital for the Island but now returns to the Capital. Technically a special designation and not a province, La Isla operates further away from the media spotlight than most teams. This could mean they are stockpiling young players and in this transitional year could surprise, but I’d be surprised by that.
The spiritual successors to the Metropolitanos. The Metros were treated as a minor league team for Industriales, oddly this hasn’t been the case for Artemisa beyond sending Yosvani Peñalver to the capital. They still haven’t been able to build a sustainable talent base though. The Cazadores are still hunting for an identity a decade into their existence and 2022 likely wont make that identity any clearer.
There isn’t the same political pressure to change their name that caused Cleveland to become the Guardians. Perhaps they should consider it though just to refresh things. There are few talented Indians in this cupboard, but as mentioned the league in general is in transition. If they can get a couple of mid prospect youngsters to overachieve they could improve on their 2021 win total. Their 7.15 team ERA is the most obvious area for improvement, even a few average pitching performances could lead to big improvements.