Overview - Puerto Rico is very independent when it comes to international baseball. In the Series del Caribe they fly their own flag and play their own national anthem. They also won the Series del Caribe this year after getting off to a slow start in pool play, the first time they have won the event since 2000. They also finished a surprising second place in the 2013 WBC. This year’s roster should be stronger even though it will be tough to repeat the second place finish.
Puerto Rico has always been a hotbed for baseball. They claim major league baseball including Puerto Ricans in the domestic draft killed the sport in Puerto Rico. They don’t play baseball in high school in Puerto Rico so in the past the kids were signed after their 16th birthday. When the draft rules were changed to include Puerto Ricans scouts had nowhere to watch kids between the ages of 16-18 years of age. They were lost in a black hole. To accommodate this hole kids who want to continue to play after their 16th birthday enroll in the baseball academies that have sprouted across the island to fulfill those needs. Carlos Correa was part of one of those academies. Some of the kids move to the States to play baseball in high school such as Javier Baez. It is not the hotbed that it once was, but there is still breath in the game.
You look at the World Cups and Puerto Rico was competitive until around 1976. That was the last time Puerto Rico finished in the medal round, right behind Cuba for second place. In 1951 they won their only gold medal in the World Cups, and they have had nine medal finishes in the 16 World Cups that were held between 1947 and 1976. During that same time the United States only won five medals, though they did not become competitive in the World Cups until 1969.
The second place finish in the 2013 World Baseball Classic may have created renewed interest in baseball in Puerto Rico. The domestic drafts have included higher picks with Javier Baez, Francisco Lindor, Jose Berrios and Carlos Correa among number one draft picks. Delvin Perez is the latest number one pick, though he did not make the 2017 WBC roster.
In the 2006 World Baseball Classic Puerto Rico was a surprise team, finishing undefeated in their pool. This included a 12-2 shellacking of Cuba in a game that did not mean much since both teams were advancing to the second round prior to the game starting. In the second round Puerto Rico found things a little tougher, losing to the Dominican Republic and then in a game to determine who advances to the medal round, losing to Cuba 4-3.
In the 2009 double elimination format Puerto Rico again swept through their opponents, their pitchers allowing only one run in their three wins, two versus the Netherlands and one versus Panama. In a second round opening game Puerto Rico crushed the United States 11-1. Perhaps there was too much celebration after that win because they lost their next two games, first to Venezuela 2-0 and in a repeat match with the United States they lost 6-5. The United States rallied for three runs in the last inning to win that game.
In 2013 Puerto Rico finally lost a first round game to the Dominican Republic, but it was the last game of the pool when both teams were guaranteed of advancing. In the second round they turned the tides on the United States. They lost the opener to the United States 4-3 to drop into the losers bracket. They barely escaped in their game against Italy winning 4-3 to give them another game against the United States. This time it was Puerto Rico with the win, Nelson Figueroa twirling six innings of shutout two hit ball.
A second loss to the Dominican Republic did not prevent them from advancing to the medal round. It just forced them to play the two time defending champions Japan instead of the Netherlands. Puerto Rico shocked the world by eliminating Japan 3-1. In the championship game they were shutout by the Dominican Republic for the second game in a row to finish in second place.
Puerto Rico qualified for the 2015 Premier 12 as a result of their 9th place international ranking. Without their major leaguers they did not do so well. They advanced out of their pool as the fourth seed with a 2-3 record, finishing just ahead of Taiwan in a tie breaker. Japan got a measure of revenge against them in the single elimination playoff round, crushing them 9-3.
This year Puerto Rico may have a better team than the 2013 WBC team. It may not result in a better finish because teams will not underestimate Puerto Rico this year.
International Baseball Ranking - Puerto Rico is ranked 12th. Three teams in their pool are ranked ahead of them. Mexico (6th), Venezuela (7th) and Italy (11th) would seem to have the upper hand in advancing. The advantage Puerto Rico has is they have their major leaguers participating in this event, some of them young superstars shaping the major league game.
Pitchers - Jose Berrios, Hiram Burgos, Alex Claudio, Joseph Colon (DPP), Edwin Diaz, Joe Jimenez, Jorge Lopez, Seth Lugo, Miguel Mejia (DPP), Emilio Pagan, Orlando Roman, J.C. Romero, Hector Santiago, Giovanni Soto
Designated Pitchers Pool - Andrew Barbosa, Jose De La Torre, Jose DeLeon, Rayan Gonzalez, Joel Pineiro, Dereck Rodriguez, Andres Santiago, Mario Santiago
Catchers - Yadier Molina, Roberto Perez, Rene Rivera
Infielders - Mike Aviles, Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, T.J. Rivera, Kennys Vargas
Outfielders - Carlos Beltran, Reymond Fuentes, Enrique Hernandez, Angel Pagan, Eddie Rosario
Strengths - They will have one of the best catchers in baseball Yadier Molina leading the pitching staff. His skills may have fallen off a little bit as injuries nag him as he gets older, but he should be fresh for these games. He also has a couple solid back up catchers to spell him in Roberto Perez and Rene Rivera. This is a solid group. The manager will have a tough choice choosing his shortstop. Will it be Carlos Correa or Francisco Lindor? My guess is Correa will see some time at third. The starting pitching also has some talented youngsters to throw on the mound. This is usually a team weakness but with Jose Berrios and Jorge Lopez they have two good young starters. Joe Jimenez is a young relief candidate, with Edwin Diaz their certain closer. Seth Lugo, Hector Santiago and Hiram Burgos may be the veterans called on for making the starts, another tough call by the manager. Jose Deleon is another talented young starter available for the second round should Puerto Rico advance.
Weakness - The outfield does not really have a lot of power. Carlos Beltran is listed as an outfielder but he will see most of his time at DH. At first base Kennys Vargas has not found success at the major league level and can be a liability on defense. He appears to be the only player on this roster who can play that position. The starting pitching may also rely on young unproven pitchers who have not achieved a lot of success in the major leagues, or go with veteran hurlers who lack the stuff of their young arms. It will be a tough call for the manager on game day.
Prospects to Watch - Jose Berrios got lit up by major league hitters last year, but he is a pitcher with lots of stuff. Jorge Lopez is another pitcher who struggled last year with the Brewers but he is ready to make amends for his poor season. The Dodgers had to trade Jose Deleon to fill their second base hole. Another young pitcher to call on in the second round. Joe Jimenez is the closer of the future for the Tigers. Those are the pitchers to watch. The position players are less talented, all now young veterans who have made their mark in the major leagues with the exception of Reymond Fuentes and Kennys Vargas. Fuentes was once a first round pick of the Red Sox but he looks more like a fourth outfielder now. Vargas has not had a chance to win a first base job in the major leagues.
Expected Finish - A lot will depend on the young pitching. Myworld expects them to get past the first round and possibly find themselves in the medal round. They will fall short of their second place finish in 2013.