The Cuban National Team continues its 19-game barnstorming tour through the Can-Am League with three games against the New Jersey Jackals at Yogi Berra Stadium beginning Tuesday night. On Monday afternoon, the team greeted the press at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, adjacent to the stadium on the
The Cuban National Team continues its 19-game barnstorming tour through the Can-Am League with three games against the New Jersey Jackals at Yogi Berra Stadium beginning Tuesday night. On Monday afternoon, the team greeted the press at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, adjacent to the stadium on the campus of Montclair State University.
The Can-Am League already had a pre-existing relationship with the the Cuban Baseball Federation, thanks in part to Quebec Capitales president Michel Laplante, who helped bring outfielder Yulieski Gurriel to Quebec two years ago.
Because there are no international tournaments between now and the 2017 World Baseball Classic next spring, part of the motivation for the tour was to continue to prepare for that tournament with international play. In Canada, the team went 3-7, but since entering the United States, the Cubans have won six games in a row.
"We didn't know what we were going to come up against because we haven't been here before but the competition has been really, really good so far," said Cuban team manager Roger Machado. "It took us some time to get together and figure out how to play, but we are on track now and we are much more comfortable."
The team, though, is now short one player. Following their series with the Sussex County Miners last week, outfielder Lazaro Ramirez, 24, reportedly disappeared while on a shopping trip with several other players.
Though President Barack Obama has restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the Rays played Team Cuba in Havana in March, there is still no clear-cut way for Cuban players to make their way to the Major Leagues. Subsequently, defections have decimated the Cuban team, leaving few legitimate big-league prospects on the roster.
Still, Major League scouts have flocked to each game the Cuban team has played, looking for talent from an island that has produced so many great baseball players. The brightest stars remaining are outfielders Luis Robert, 19, and Julio Pablo Martinez, 20, and outfielder/first baseman Guillermo Aviles, 23.
Despite his youth, Robert has been followed by scouts at international tournaments for years, as he has consistently been one of Cuba's best junior players. Robert played center field on Cuba's U18 World Cup team in the summer of 2015, and played left field for Serie Nacional champs Ciego De Avila last season. At 6-foot-3, Robert is a powerful, athletic right-hander with good speed for his size. He slashed .305/.384/.413 with 32 walks and 46 strikeouts in 313 plate appearances last season.
Martinez is a lefty, with plus speed and excellent outfield instincts. He slashed .292/.391/.477 for Guantanamo in Serie Nacional last season, with 12 home runs, 44 walks and 58 strikeouts in 350 plate appearances.
Aviles, also a lefty, has a smooth swing with good rhythm and balance, and above all, some pop.
"Robert and Martinez have speed and they can hit and they're intelligent players, but Aviles has the power," says Machado. "As coaches, we see these three as the top tier of talent on our team."
The team was justifiably nervous after the departure of Ramirez, and subsequently cancelled many of its remaining public appearances. It did, however, keep its visit to the Berra Museum, as it is directly adjacent to the Jackals' ballpark and held interest for the Cuban players. The team toured the museum and took pictures with children participating in its girls' softball camp.
"The United States created baseball, and Cuba has embraced it," said Cuban Baseball Federation commissioner Heriberto Suarez. "We are here to unite different countries and different people, and of course, to play baseball. Baseball is the best thing Cuba has to offer, and we are grateful everyone here is supporting us."
Lindsay Berra is a columnist for MLB.com.