The news keeps getting worse for those in charge of the World Baseball Classic.
Major League umpires won’t be officiating the WBC games. Manny Ramirez has elected to stay with the Red Sox. Pedro Martinez’s injured toe will keep him from pitching in the first round. A Vernon Wells injury will keep him out of the Classic. Roberto Kelly, the manager of the Panama team, quit in frustration over a lack of support for his team.
So as the World Baseball Classic organizers struggle to fill holes and mend gaps just a week before play starts in Asia, it’s getting harder and harder to determine just who will win this tournament. While the Dominican Republic and the United States are the gamblers’ favorites, the Cuban National team is currently the defending World Champions. They took home a gold medal during the 2004 Olympics and won the Baseball World Cup in 2003.
“They are the dominant international team in baseball right now,” Kevin Baxter, international baseball writer for the Miami Herald, said, during last Friday’s talk on Cuba and the World Baseball Classic sponsored by the Inter-American Dialogue.
For all of the talk and hype, however, no one really knows how the Cuban team will fare. For starters, their previous victories on the international stage have all come against teams consisting of non-Major League players. As the rules of the International Baseball Federation dictate, the international competitions have always omitted Major Leaguers.
The World Baseball Classic, however, will pit Cubans against some of the best players in the world. Plenty of tournament teams are loaded with Major League All Stars. While the Cubans defeated the Orioles in an exhibition game back in 1999, those Orioles were 84-78 and finished a disappointing fourth place in front of just the Devil Rays in the American League East. All Stars they were not.
During the dialogue, I asked if any current Major Leaguers could potentially play for Cuba. I figured Jose Contreras, after his postseason success, or El Duque would be assets to the Cuban team. Knowing about their defections, I did not expect them to be eligible to play.
For the most part, these players would not play for Cuba. Castro considers them traitors to the country. However, I found it interesting that Jose Contreras has a clause in his contract allowing him to play for Cuba if the Cuban Baseball Federation, the governing body of Cuban baseball, invites him to play. Contreras is also eligible to pitch for the team that could replace Cuba in the tournament. Because Contreras has to be a citizen of a foreign country to declare free agency in the Majors, he defected to Nicaragua. He could join the Nicaraguan team as a pitcher. However, that possibility is unlikely.
So then could a team of Cuban professionals with no Major Leaguers among them upset the tournament bigwigs? Baxter, in an informal conversation with me after the dialogue, expressed his opinion that the Cuban team could very well be the dark horse candidates of the tournament. The 30 players ultimately selected for the team will be the top athletes in a competitive sport on a very competitive island, and most, if not all of them, would fit excel playing for a Major League club.
Furthermore, the Cubans would be able to exploit the tournament rules to their advantage. During previous international exhibitions, the Cubans have generally ridden a few pitchers. Under the tournament rules, pitchers will be faced with strict pitch counts, and Cuba will have to go to the bullpen. While atypical for Cuban baseball, this rule change could very well help the team.
Cuban pitchers are notorious for their deception. Look at Orlando Hernandez or Jose Contreras. By mixing up arm angles, delivery speeds, and pitch selection, El Duque and Contreras have excelled as starters at various points in their professional careers.
Baxter feels this pitching edge gives the Cubans something of an advantage; by throwing their top-notch pitchers at American players, the Cubans could deceive the other teams enough to eke out a tournament win. As Baxter put it, the Major League players have seen Johan Santana, Roger Clemens, and Pedro Martinez plenty of times, but they have never faced these Cuban pitchers. It could just be enough for Cuba to win the tournament.