The 61st Cuban National Series structure looked different than recent competitions. However the finals match up will look familiar. The Granma Alazanes triumphed over The Matanzas Cocodrilos in April of 2021. 14 months later the two squads will meet in a rematch. Matanzas is appearing in their third consecutive finals and hopes to garner their second championship. Granma is vying for their fourth title since 2017.
The two met to kick off the season on January 23rd, 2022. This represented a very different calendar than we have become accustomed to of late. The season itself was 75 games in length and eliminated the two-phase structure in place for the past decade. All 16 teams played 75 games which is below the usual 90 game docket.
There are certain indications that this might be a one off. A planned Special Series is rumoured for October 2022. The aim is to help in the selection of the World Baseball Classic squad. They will compete in the next tournament in the spring of 2023. Speculation is the 62nd Cuban National Series is likely to commence in September of 2023 because of this.
It shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that these two franchises are back in the final. By no stretch was their journey here linear though. The erosion of talent in the National Series frequently focuses on young talent leaving to pursue MLB contracts. Granma and Matanzas have built their foundations more on veteran players or repatriating players.
The Alazanes still had to overcome Ace pitcher Lazaro Blanco surprising many by staying in Florida. This while travelling with Cuba during their Olympic Qualifying bid in the summer of 2021. The surprise more in his advanced age and questions over what his next move might be. He is scheduled to pitch in the Dominican professional league. A move that may have been possible while staying in Cuba. But A a payday in Korea’s KBO might be the end goal. The KBO is considered the third best pro league in the world and likely where Blanco can best compete. Korea and Cuba have no official baseball interaction unlike the Federation’s association with Japan’s NPB.
If Losing your top pitcher isn’t daunting enough both teams are lacking key pieces. This due to State sanctioned talent deals with professional leagues in countries such as Japan and Mexico. Matanzas will also be without their top starting pitcher. Yoennis Yera is currently plying his craft with Tabasco Olmecas of Mexico. It is arguable though, that Granma is further affected by this agreement. Two key Granma outfielders in Raico and Roel Santos are also playing with The Olmecas.
Last year’s finals MVP for the Alazanes Guillermo Garcia broke through when it mattered most. His reward was a contract in Japan. Garcia signed with the Chunichi Dragons. Little info is available beyond the fact that he isn’t in Cuba currently. Young players like Garcia frequently start out in Japan’s equivalent to AAA before earning a spot in their top league.
We can fixate on who is not here for the teams. They are in the finals though, because they still possess much talent. The Alazanes finished in third place knocking off Industriales and Ciego de Avila in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Cesar Garcia led the pitching staff with 107.2 innings with a solid 3.18 ERA but is emblematic of the types of pitchers that succeed in today’s National Series. Pitching to contact and only striking out a batter less than every two innings, he allowed baserunners but kept them from scoring. 43 year old Leandro Martinez is ageless and truly an exhibit of the art of pitching.
Carlos Benitez, Osvaldo Abreu, Guillermo Aviles, Alexquemer Sanchez and Ivan Prieto represent a balanced heart of the lineup with a solid mix of under 30 youth and middle age guile. Aviles has hit rounded the bases four times in these playoffs and looks dialled in heading into the Championship showdown. They have ridden getting just enough pitching mixed with clutch hitting and limiting mistakes to keep their championship dynasty window open.
The Cocodrilos entered 2022 as the prohibitive favourites and are obviously close to fulfilling expectations, however as the seven seed they underachieved during the regular season. Yoennis Yera was likely the best pitcher in the league before heading for Mexico, his loss will be immense. Dariel Gongora has stepped up though. His 2.98 ERA is microscopic compared to league average or at least the rest of the staff. Noelvis Entenza and Jonder Martinez’s numbers aren’t impressive but the two veterans will be used as Swiss army knives. Both frequently pitch in high leverage bullpen situations but can also step into the rotation as needed.
Javier Camero led the team with 48 RBI and was instrumental in the Finals in 2022, can he recapture clutch glory? Erisbel Arruebarrena is a dangerous power threat since returning from a stint in the Dodgers organization. He is complemented by the contact approach of former Yankees farmhand Yadil Mujica. Jefferson Delgado at age 38 always gives competitive at bats as the majority of the lineup grinds pitchers down walking well more than they strike out.
Even as things change very quickly in the Cuban National Series the consistency of the two finals competitors remains the same. The path to the Cuban National Series Championship has gone through either Granma or Matanzas for close to the past decade. As in any baseball series the team that limits mistakes has the upper hand, this is especially true as both teams rely on soft tossing pitchers and the defenders behind them. There is generally more baseball action than we have seen in the current MLB product. Granma can cement itself as a dynasty if they take home their fourth title in six years. The Cocodrilos can change the narrative of being competitive underachievers if they take their second banner in three championship trips.