The 62nd Cuban National Series launched at the end of March in the shadow of Cuba’s greatest baseball triumph in some time. The season launch was actually delayed by a week to March 29th. This was so Cubans could celebrate and welcome select members of the World Baseball Classic squad which finished 4th in the vaunted competition. Of course, key members who had been integrated from MLB and Pro leagues weren’t able to join due to the United States edict, but their involvement still represented a reunion even recently deemed impossible. In the aftermath, I wrote how this reunification and performance need to be considered Job One and Not Job Done by the Cuban Baseball Federation.
Team Asere, as they were colloquially dubbed, provided joy to a baseball populous that increasingly can only speak of the good old days. Cuba’s love for baseball will likely never die, but increasingly, a passionate love affair now feels more like a marriage of convenience. The Baseball Federation does themselves no favors in the court of public opinion with their inconsistent decision-making model. However, it should be noted that Cuba faces an economic landscape as dire as any point in its history. Many who lived through the “Special Period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union claim this rivals, if not eclipses, the austere period.
This austerity and scarcity touch all aspects of life in Cuba and not even baseball is spared. Fuel shortages mean Night Baseball is a rarity as the stadium lights are expensive to run, if they work at all. This might seem trite but as Cubans must work harder to make ends meet, this means there is less time during the day to spend in scorching stadiums. Diehards will always support no matter when games are played but to capture the grander populace prime-time televised baseball games are a must. In their place are more frequent broadcasts of international soccer, a game more and more youth would claim to be fans of.
The advent of smartphones and the internet means the average Cuban has access to more info than ever before. More frequently, this info is about players leaving the island. This trend is not new, but the trend of players not even considered top prospects but merely tired of life on the island leaving is. The pressures on the game have resulted in plummeting attendance and engagement. I was at the LatinoAmericano stadium for Havana’s season opener in March. The number one stadium in Cuba is also the second largest in the world. The 55,000-seat stadium saw capacity crowds as recently as the spring 2020 playoff run for Industriales, but for this season opener, the crowd filled perhaps 10% of the seats.
Cuba did play games during the pandemic. Fans were barred from entry so they played in literal empty stadiums but now it feels like they are playing in just veritable empty stadiums. It should also be noted that the schedule calendar has been shifted often over the past few years. This year’s playoffs will run into mid to late July, most seasons would begin in mid-August.
The schedule is now 75 games instead of 90 but is supplemented by the Elite Series which is reported to run for a second season this fall. The inaugural Elite Series was not well received either by fans or critics. The six team circuit saw the creation of new team identities and strange provincial pairings. It also set the trend of exclusive daytime games, many starting at 10 am with fewer than ever being viewable on TV.
With all of that as the backdrop, is there reason for optimism heading into the playoffs? There are a few compelling storylines and one potential big development which could fortify the talent base in the future. Let’s take a look at the teams that make up the eight-team field.
Las Tunas enters as the top seed. However, only 6.5 games separated #1 from #9 as Mayabeque finished tied with Ciego but missed out on tiebreakers. The Lenadores won their first championship four years ago. They have largely returned many of the key pieces since to diminishing results until now. Similar to 2019, they slugged their way into contention. Led by Hector Luis Castillo and former MVP Yordanis Alarcon who paced the circuit hitting .404 and .402, respectively. Yosvani Alarcon has likely been the top-hitting Cuban catcher of his generation. He still produced at a .317 clip with a team-leading 11 home runs and 64 RBIs.
For the first time in a while, more chatter will revolve around who is returning, as opposed to who is leaving. Rafael Vinales has been granted permission to rejoin for the playoff push. He, like many, had declined to play in the 62nd National Series due to personal reasons. More likely, it was a mature player questioning his desire due to poor pay and overall conditions for players. However, the lure of a championship and supporting teammates must still be strong enough. The Lumberjacks’ lineup just got even stronger.
They’ll face the Ciego de Avila Tigres led by former home run champ Osvaldo Vazquez. The catcher/DH put another 15 over the fence this year. Kevin Soto paced the staff going 7-2 with a 2.95 era despite walking more batters than he struck out. Vladimir Garcia is another veteran hurler who has been relied on in playoff pushes before. He was 4-0 in a commuted 18 game stint.
Rumors have persisted since the selection process for the WBC squad that Yasmany Tomas has had his eyes on returning. He was a late omission from that squad. Manager Mandy Johnson stated that he was left off the roster because center field was occupied by Luis Robert. A baffling statement as Tomas has never been confused for a central gardener. Cuba was pushing for his repatriation as a condition of his involvement. Despite this snafu and after failing to catch on with an MLB or MiLB squad in spring training, it was declared he would like to rejoin Industriales in the National Series. The repatriation roadblock held this up until now.
INDER, the governing body of sport in Cuba, announced that naturalized Cuban athletes would no longer have to reside in Cuba to play for or in Cuba. This means that Tomas is cleared for the playoff run. More players may be able to return in the future. His fit on the roster isn’t obvious. Likely, if he had a better professional offer in hand, he would accept that. However, we have never seen a slugger who hit 31 home runs in a Major League season return to Cuba. At 32, Tomas didn’t reach the lofty goals attached to the $68 million contract he signed with Arizona. He might be the dangerous hitter Industriales needs to snap a 13-year title drought, though. The Lions are dangerous after being left for dead at the 1/3 mark of the season. They were dead last at 7-18 but enter as the hottest team since that point.
The Habaneros will be in tough against Sancti Spiritus. The Gallos had an identical 41-34 record but will have home field advantage. Frederich Cepeda appears ageless for the Roosters. He hit .339, pacing all qualified batters with a .533 OBP and doing the heavy lifting with 13 HR and 57 RBI. Jose Isais Grandales pitched like an ace winning 9 games with a tidy 2.56 ERA in 91 IP. His 40 K’s and 40 BB’s point to his reliance on pitching to contact and limiting slugging. This seems to be a common trend for top Cuban arms.
The upstart Santiago Avispas will host Camaguey. Neither team entered with grand expectations. Santiago led the field for much of the season before securing the second seed. Osday Silva stung the ball all season for the Wasps and hit a league leading 18 round trippers. Santiago was the only pitching staff with an era under 4.00 pitching to a respectable 3.98. The Toros had a more balanced lineup with Luis Antonio Gonzalez topping out with half of Silva’s total for four baggers. Yordanis Samon continues to be a double machine, even in his 40’s and drove in 65 runs. Dariel Gongora was an innings eater, throwing 107 frames of 2.78 era baseball.
Three seed Artemisa might have the toughest draw in the first round. The Matanzas Cocodrilos are a veteran squad who have been to the finals in each of the past 4 years. They were missing many key players, many playing professionally in Mexico for most of the year. They will get some of those pieces back. ShortStop Erisbel Arruebarrena will return and former MiLB prospect Rubi Silva will also join the Crocs. The Hurricanes were led by veteran Dayan Garcia. A surprise member of the WBC squad for some , he has gotten better with age. The rest of the roster is relatively young but did hit a robust .314 collectively. That was good for second in the circuit.
Gametime.sport holds the streaming rights for the Cuban National Series Playoffs. They had offered a paid subscription during the regular season for $59.99. That offer is still shown on their website however as of this writing it is unknown if a special playoff package will be available. Their coverage of select games will begin July 9th at 2pm featuring the Artemisa vs Matanzas matchup. They will pickup coverage of the Industriales vs Sancti Spiritus series beginning July 12th. At this juncture it is unlikely that every series will be telecast on or off the island.
Select games will be night broadcasts. July 12, 13, 14 from LatinoAmericano will begin at 6pm.