Catch Them While You Can: Cuban Baseball Stars Play At Caribbean Series For First Time In Decades

The signs being carried by a couple of hundred people outside a hotel on Margarita Island on Sunday read variations on “Cuba, go home!” The sentiment was aimed at baseball players from the Villa Clara club who represent the country at this year’s Caribbean Series, being held on this Venezuelan island.

It looks like critics' wishes may be granted, but not necessarily for the reasons they hoped.

The protesters are opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who is seen as a puppet of the Cuban communist regime. But the real marionettes may prove to be the players on the field, who have lost their first two games at the Series to Mexico’s Hermosillo squad and the home country’s Navegantes de Magallanes.

Even so, there has been a great deal of curiosity this year about the Caribbean Series (which is often referred to conversationally as the “Caribbean World Series”), much of it because a Cuban team is being represented for the first time since 1960.

Cuba hosted the first Series in 1949 and won of seven of the first 12 tournaments before withdrawing from the competition when former President Fidel Castro banned all professional sports. (The U.S. does not participate, although so many MLB players are involved through their winter league teams, that the league gets to approve the schedule and other details of the event.)

Whenever Cuban players are showcased in international events, there is buzz about how the Serie Nacional’s talent will measure up — not least from MLB general managers and agents.

Here are some of the players drawing the most attention. It should be noted that not one of the following players plays for Villa Clara in the "Serie Nacional." After the team was selected to represent Cuba at the Caribbean Series, its manager and GM were allowed to cherry-pick a handful of other team’s stars.

Alfredo Despaigne, RF: With a career .345 average, The right-handed slugger is a 27-year-old superstar in Cuba’s Serie Nacional. Despite his short frame (5’ 8”, 215 lbs.), he led the league in home runs in 2011-12 with 36 in 87 games was named most valuable player in Cuba for the third time. Any MLB team would be thrilled to get their hands on him.

Yulieski Gourriel, 3B: A two-time Serie Nacional MVP, Gourriel is a power hitter (249 career homers) who is a tough out (.415 on-base percentage). When he first emerged into the international spotlight at the 2006 World Baseball Classic, many scouts thought he would be a first-round draft pick if eligible for the MLB draft. The 29-year-old has had injury-related down years since then, but still has consecutive most valuable player awards to his credit.

José Miguel Fernández, 2B/SS: A pesky batter who led the Serie Nacional with a .393 batting average in the first half of the 2012-13 split season, the 25-year-old lefty is sure-handed and lead-footed. In 2008-09, he led the Serie Nacional in double plays hit into (21) and turned in the field (85). He hit .545 during the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

Norge Luis Ruíz, P: The young righthander is in his sophomore season, and he’s already struck out 144 batters in 223 innings. At last summer’s “friendly” between the Cuban national team and a group of U.S. collegiate all-stars, the 19 year old introduced himself by striking out 11 in seven-plus innings.