Cuban baseball is back in Canada. The Cuban national baseball team returns to the Independent League known as the Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball (CANAm), where it will play 21 games that will prepare it for its main goal this Summer: to reconquer the title at the Pan American Games in Lima.
This will be the third time the team participates in the competition, although their trip to Canada was almost postponed due to political reasons. It will be a good opportunity to see live Cuban baseball.
The close of the Canadian Embassy’s consular services in Havana put Cubans at risk of missing the tournament, since this forced the Cuban baseball players to travel to a third country to apply for visas there.
The Cuban baseball federation assured that this was not economically viable and declined its participation in the CanAm League. Fortunately for the sporting event, the meeting between Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez and his Canadian counterpart Chrystia Freeland, in Toronto, unraveled the visa issue.
WHICH CUBAN BALLPLAYERS WILL DRAW THE MOST ATTENTION IN THE CANAM LEAGUE?
Cuban baseball will compete in the CanAm League with the best players of the local tournament. On the list of 28 players there are veterans with more than ten years of experience, such as pitcher Lázaro Blanco along with various prospects.
Within the framework of the agreement between Cuba and Major League Baseball (MLB) it was expected that several of the young players who are now part of this team would sign a minor league contract with American franchises, but the Trump Administration decided to cancel the agreement.
Recently, President Trump met with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred to discuss the agreement; but, according to National Public Radio, the president would only be willing to admit Cuban players into the Major Leagues, without defecting, if MLB helped the Administration with the crisis in Venezuela.
Related article: Cuba Baseball Suffers Under Trump
Baseball talent hunters who watch the Cuban games in the CanAm League will surely examine two players attentively: César Prieto, a very versatile hitter, good shortstop keeper, and Andrés Hernández, a third baseman with powerful hands and wrists.
In the outfield, all eyes are on three Cuban youngsters: Yoelkis Guibert, Yuniesky Larduet and Yoelkis Céspedes (half-brother of Yoenis Céspedes of the New York Mets). These three prospects are known for being very fast and for their great defensive skills. In Guibert’s case what stands out is his batting strength.
As for Cuban pitchers it is very likely that Roberto Hernández will receive the most attention from the media. This pitcher had a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians, but after living for a while in the United States, he decided to return to Cuba.
In the National Championship for players under 23, his performance was so compelling that the director of the Cuban national team, Rey Vicente Anglada, decided to take him to Canada. Hernandez is only 19 years old and his fastball exceeds 93 miles per hour.
Three other young players stand out for the speed of their pitches, well over 90 miles: Yariel Rodríguez, Yosimar Cousín and Norge Carlos Vera. The latter is the son of one of the best Cuban pitchers of all time, Norge Luis Vera, and in his first year with the National Series he showed that he had the talent to become a winner.
In the 2019 season of the CanAm League, Cuba will face six opponents in a three-match series: the Ottawa Champions, the Quebec Capitals, the Trois-Rivieres Eagles, the Rockland Boulders, New Jersey and the Sussex County Miners, with which they will play four games.
CUBAN BASEBALL IN THE CANAM LEAGUE, A HISTORY OF SUCCESS AND SOME CONTROVERSY
After Cuba allowed the hiring of its athletes in professional leagues in 2013, but were then barred from belonging to the American organized baseball circuit, plus the scandal behind Alfredo Despaigne’s false passport in Mexico that provoked the slugger’s permanent expulsion from this tournament – Canada became the main recipient of Cuban players.
The debut of Cuban baseball players in the CanAm League took place in 2014. One of its greatest moments was the batting title conquered by Yunieski Gurriel with the Capitals of Quebec. The Gurriel’s older brother averaged 321, with 10 runs scored, four doubles, a home run and 11 runs batted in. In addition, he had an On Base Percentage (OBP) of 376 and a 410 slugging average.
Related article: Yuniesky Gurriel, confessions of a Cuban baseball player in Canada
In 2016, Cuba participated for the first time with the national team in the tournament. The team ended with a record of 11 wins and 9 losses. In addition, other players signed with different teams. The most prominent were Donald Duarte and Alexander Malleta, as both were proclaimed champions with Ottawa. In the final series against Rockland, Malleta had an average of 429 (21-9), with three doubles and three RBIs.
Yurisbel Gracial (today a star with the Fukuoka Softbank in Japan) and Roel Santos, with the Capitals of Québec, also participated in that campaign.
In 2017, the main Cuban star in the CanAm League was Lázaro Blanco who played with the Capitals of Quebec. In the regular season’s calendar, Blanco achieved 11 wins and only suffered four failures. Blanco was the ERA leader, with 2.98 and finished third in wins and strikeouts (118). Then, in the playoffs, although he was not as effective, he still helped the Capitals win the championship. Next to Blanco were shortstops Yordan Manduley and Gracial.
Cuba returned with its national team, but this time the results were terrible. The Caribbean team was led by Roger Machado and just won five out of the 21 games. The team left a bad impression due to an incident with a referee in one of the final games.
In 2018, the Cuban player with the best numbers was Yordan Manduley from Holguin, who finished as lead batter with an average of 337 and was included, for the second time, in the All-Star team of the tournament. This time the organizers could not afford the expenses of the national team, so many thought that the team would never return to that event; however, funding emerged and Cuba is back in Canada.