A look at Cuba’s World Baseball Classic team and how it reached the semifinals

After playing the first two rounds of the tournament in Taiwan and Japan, Cuba advanced to the World Baseball Classic semifinals, which along with the championship game are being held at Miami’s loanDepot park.

Cuba will play Sunday against the winner of the Saturday semifinal game between Venezuela and the United States.

“This is the new page, new chapter that we could go forward,” Cuba manager Armando Johnson said after the team’s quarterfinal win against Australia on Wednesday in the Tokyo Dome. “This team, we had a lot of hard workouts and we succeed in moving forward to the semifinals.”

While the team is focused on baseball and trying to win the World Baseball Classic for the first time in five tries, the political and emotional undertones of the Cuban team playing in the heart of Little Havana will be hard to ignore. The chance of players attempting to defect is always possible, just like it was when Cuba competed in the Olympic qualifiers held in West Palm Beach and Port St. Lucie in May 2021. Three players defected at that point, including infielder Cesar Prieto.

“Our aim is go to the final and now we have a chance to challenge to go for the final,” Johnson said.

Here is a look at the Cuban team.

How Cuba advanced to semifinals

Cuba was one of the 16 teams to automatically qualify for the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Every team that played in the 2017 version of the tournament was automatically included in the 2023 tournament.

Cuba opened the tournament in Pool A, which competed in Taiwan and also included Italy, the Netherlands, Panama and Chinese Taipei. All five teams finished 2-2, with Cuba winning the pool following a complicated tiebreaker process.

Because all five teams had identical records, the tiebreaker to determine the advancing teams was which teams allowed the fewest runs per defensive out recorded.

In its four games, Cuba allowed 15 runs while recording 108 outs, which is equal to .139 runs per out recorded. That was the lowest in the field. Italy was second at .157 runs per out, followed by the Netherlands (.186 runs per out), Panama (.200 runs per out) and Chinese Taipei (.295 runs per out).

Cuba then beat Australia 4-3 in its quarterfinal game, held at the Tokyo Dome, to advance to the semifinals.

Roster composition

This year, for the first time, current MLB players were allowed to compete for Cuba. The United States in December granted permission for MLB and minor-league players affiliated with MLB clubs to be included on Cuba’s roster.

Now, that doesn’t mean that every player of Cuban descent was given an invitation to play for Cuba — nor does it mean that every player of Cuban descent wanted to play for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic.

The Cuban Baseball Federation said from the start that any player who defected from Cuba’s national team during international competition to ultimately reach the United States would not receive an invitation.

Juan Reynaldo Perez Pardo, president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, also added that players selected for Cuba’s team would be ones who “have maintained a positive attitude towards our baseball and our country.”

That said, there are a few recognizable names on the team.

Outfielder Yoenis Cespedes headlined that group before leaving the team on Tuesday for what was announced as personal reasons. The 37-year-old is a two-time All-Star who played eight MLB seasons with the Oakland Athletics (2012-2014), Boston Red Sox (2014), Detroit Tigers (2015) and New York Mets (2015-18, 2020) and had a career .273 batting average with 165 home runs, 528 RBI and 475 runs scored in 834 games.

The Cuban Baseball Federation, in a statement from Havana, did not provide many details about his departure from the team but said he might rejoin the team if Cuba reaches the semifinals in Miami.

Other notable players with big-league experience are the Chicago White Sox’s Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert Jr. as well as Detroit Tigers infielder Andy Ibanez.

Moncada has been one of the top hitters in Cuba’s lineup, posting a .421 batting average with a 1.259 on-base-plus-slugging, one home run, three doubles, five RBI, four walks and three runs scored in five games.

Four other regulars in Cuba’s lineup are hitting at least .400 — outfielder Roel Santos (.429), designated hitter Alfredo Despaigne (.412), first baseman Yadir Drake (.412) and infielder Yadil Mujica (.400).

Yariel Rodriguez has led the pitching staff, giving up just two runs through 7 1/3 innings in his two starts.

Cuba in previous World Baseball Classics

Cuba has participated in every iteration of the World Baseball Classic. It was the runner-up to Japan in the inaugural tournament in 2006 and lost in the second round of the other three tournaments, held in 2009, 2013 and 2017.