Whether you were waiting for it or not, the World Baseball Classic is fast approaching. The international shindig kicks off in Tokyo on Thursday and runs through the final at Dodger Stadium on March 23. In an attempt to get you quickly up to speed with what's going on, BLS has been running occasional team previews.
Pool: B, Mexico City
'06 WBC finish: Finished second overall, losing to Japan 10-6 in the final; 4-2 record in pool play
First game: Sun. March 8 vs. South Africa
Five questions to ask about Cuba
• Has Cuba lost its international baseball clout? That's the question the some dejected Cubans are asking themselves. The nation hasn't been ranked No. 1 in the world since losing the '06 WBC final to Japan and they came home from Beijing last summer with only a silver medal. For a country that places all its resources on dominating the amateur 'sphere and won gold at the 1992, '96 and 2004 Olympics, that finish ranked as a most severe disappointment. Entering this WBC, there's no question what the country desires. Cuba "isn't going for any result other than first place," manager Higinio Velez has said to reporters.
• Will Fidel Castro be watching? With his health fading and his control ceded to a relative, El Comandante finds himself in a situation similar to another famous baseball lover — George Steinbrenner. However, recent reports have said that Castro has been spotted walking the streets of Havana for the first time since '06 and you can bet he'll be watching the WBC if he's able. After the disappointment in Beijing, an essay with Fidel Castro's byline appeared, stating that wholesale changes could be in store for Cuba's baseball program if the team's "drought" continues. As always, Castro's presence will loom large over the Cuban squad.
• Will any Cuban players go out for a latte and not return to the team hotel? While defections are always a possibility for Team Cuba, the 2006 WBC came and went without any of the team's players leaving the team for good. Several players off the '06 team, however, have found their way out of the country in the years since, including shortstop Alexei Ramirez, now of the White Sox, star pitcher Yadel Marti and outfielder Yasser Gomez. Both Marti and Gomez defected late last year and said escaping the Cuban government's injustices — and not pursuing a MLB career — was the main impetus for their decision to defect.
• Will anyone else be missing from the team? The Cubans will not have the services of 25-year-old outfielder Alexei Bell, who starred in the '08 Olympics but is not on the WBC roster. Bell was hit in the head with a pitch by teammate Yuniesky Maya and, according to reports, "hasn't been the same."
• So who WILL be around to keep the Castros happy before eventually defecting themselves? Cuba's pitching rotation would've looked much better if Marti were still around. The team instead will have to rely on 35-year-old Pedro Luis Lazo to be the team's ace. The aging righty has plenty of international experience (four Olympics!) and will be backed by two youngsters who can throw in the 90s — Maya, 24 and Aroldis Chapman, 21. As for the lineup, the Cubans are said to be packed with young guys capable of scoring runs and will be led by outfielder Alfredo Despaigne. With host country Mexico being the biggest hurdle in pool play, perhaps it's only a matter of time before we can tell if Cuba's youth is capable of standing up to the veteran pros in later rounds.
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Previous WBC previews: Korea (Jan. 9); Venezuela (Jan. 13); Australia (Jan. 21) Mexico (Jan. 27); Netherlands (Jan. 29); South Africa (Feb. 4); China (Feb. 16), Italy (Feb.17) Japan (Feb. 18), Canada (Feb. 20), Chinese Taipei (Feb. 23); Panama (Feb. 24); Dominican Republic (Feb. 26), Puerto Rico (March 2)