Although the challenges of COVID-19 changed the landscape for the prominent Latin American winter leagues in 2020-21, the games were mostly played on modified schedules – some with fans and some without. The exception was Panama, whose season was canceled due to the pandemic.
But now the finish line is near, and the annual Caribbean Series kicks off on Sunday afternoon at Teodoro Mariscal Stadium in Mazatlán, Mexico.
In the traditional league championship tournament, clubs from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico (Pacific League), Venezuela, Colombia and Panama play a five-game elimination round, followed by two semi-finals on Friday and the championship game on Saturday.
Instead of a national champion, Panama is represented by a team made up of veterans of its league and other circuits affiliated with the Caribbean Confederation of Professional Baseball under the banner of the Federales de Chiriquí Club.
With the 2020 major league season limited to 60 games and no minor league season, there have been more familiar names in winter ball this season, and some have decided to continue and represent their leagues in the Caribbean Series. Yadier Molina, Carlos Martínez, Robinson Canó, Melky Cabrera and Luis Medina – according to MLB Pipleline the number 11 of the Yankees – should take part in the tournament.
Health protocols for the Caribbean Series include negative COVID tests required 72 hours before teams arrive in Mazatlán, as well as restricted movement of players and staff around the city. In cooperation with the local authorities, the federal government has stipulated that the Teodoro Mariscal Stadium, which is equivalent to around 7,200 spectators, has a fan capacity of up to 45%.
For the 63rd edition of the Caribbean Series, the Águilas Cibaeñas, led by Félix Fermín – a former shortstop of the Major League and the most successful skipper of the Caribbean Series to date – play with the club with three titles (2001, ’03 and ’07) . based in Santiago, Dominican Republic – are considered the favorites.
But as Águilas general manager Ángel Ovalles pointed out in a short series last week, “any team can win a game”. The teams stack up from country to country.
Águilas Cibaeñas |
The Águilas made a dramatic comeback after losing 3-1 in their best of seven championship series to a Gigantes del Cibao club, led by D-Backs Bank coach Luis “Pipe” Urueta. With reinforcements like Canó, Junior Lake, MVP Ronald Guzmán and Jonathan Villar, as well as Águila’s mainstays Cabrera, Juan Pérez, Francisco Peña, Juan Lagares and Johan Camargo, the club seems to have few weaknesses.
With a starting rotation of Martínez, César Valdez, Joe Van Meter, Andy Otero and Yunesky Maya, the Águilas are full of confidence.
– Águilas Cibaeñas (@aguilascibaenas) January 31, 2021
“Our strength is our rotation,” said Ovalles. “I think Carlos Martínez and César Valdez can play two games [with second starts in the semifinal and championship rounds, if necessary]. They are solid competitors. You will be put in situations to win games.
“And our offense should be solid.”
CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY: Five for Águilas, 20 for the Dominican Republic
Criollos de Caguas
After Molina had played for his older brother José at Atenienses de Manatí in Puerto Rico this winter, he reinforced the Criollos in their championship series against Indios. He is currently a free agent but is said to be close to making a decision on the 2021 Major League season de Mayagüez and helped Caguas win its 19th title, the most in league history.
¡Llegamos al Hotel! 🚌 Los Criollos of Puerto Rico están en Mazatlán.
– Los Criollos de Caguas (@CriollosCaguas) January 31, 2021
Molina, who will be taking part in his second Caribbean series and will face long-time cardinal batterymate Martínez in the opening game in Criollos-Águilas on Sunday, will be part of a largely intact Caguas club after his winter season. Although the Reds hurler José de León and Padres catcher Víctor Caratini won’t join the team after helping him take the Puerto Rican league crown, key players will be outfielder Johneshwy Fargas and Jarren Durán as well as pitcher Héctor Santiago Giovanni Soto and Medina continue to do this for manager Ramón Vázquez in Mazatlán.
CHAMPIONSHIPS: Five for Criollos, 16 for Puerto Rico
Caribes de Anzoátegui
After Mike Álvarez replaced Jackson Melián as manager at the end of December, he led the Caribes to their fourth Venezuelan championship and their first since 2015 with a win against last year’s champions Cardenales de Lara.
The greatest turnover in reinforcements for the Caribes comes from the pitching staff. Seven new hurlers will be selected from other clubs to join the team in Mazatlán. The most notable name is Silvino Bracho, who threw off the D-Backs bullpen for parts of five seasons before signing a minor league deal with the Giants in November.
The line-up will include Luis Sardiñas, Jesús Sucre and Willians Astudillo, all of whom have different experience in the major leagues, as well as minor league veterans Balbino Fuenmayor and Alí Castillo.
CHAMPIONSHIPS: None for Caribes, seven for Venezuela
Tomateros de Culiacan
Late on Saturday night, the Tomateros defeated Naranjeros de Hermosillo in Game 7 of their championship series and won their second title in a row in the Pacific League. Jesse Castillo’s second home game appearance in the tenth inning of former Major League reliever Fernando Salas proved to be the winner of the game and gave former big league infielder Benji Gil his fourth championship as Culiacán’s manager.
EEEEEEL JEEEEESEEEEEEE PAARAAAA LAAAA CAAAALLEEEEEEEEE 🚀
Nuestro REFUERZO @ JCastillo53 nos pone a 3️⃣ outs del campeonato 🤩
🍅 @clubtomateros 7️⃣
– Tomateros de Culiacán (@clubtomateros) January 31, 2021
Gil, who won the Caribbean Series playing Tomateros in 1996 and 2002, will be aiming for his first crown as a skipper in the tournament this year, his fourth attempt.
CHAMPIONSHIPS: Two for Tomateros, nine for Mexico
Caimanes de Barranquilla
After debuting as a nation last year with Vaqueros de Montería, a club headed by Ozney Guillén – son of former Major League manager Ozzie – Colombia will try to get their first win in a Caribbean Series game in this one Year to achieve. The vaqueros ended the 2020 tournament in Puerto Rico with a 5-0 record.
That year, the Caimanes, administered by José Mosquera, dethroned the vaqueros after returning from a 3-1 deficit in their best of seven championship series with the help of Harold Ramírez and Dilson Herrera, both experienced in the Major League were.
The Caimanes will have largely the same squad, including Ramírez and Herrera who won the Colombian league title. They only added four reinforcements, two pitchers and two position players.
CHAMPIONSHIPS: None for Caimanes, none for Colombia
Federales de Chiriquí
Plans for a shortened season in Panama were abandoned because of the COVID-19 pandemic, just two years after the nation’s representative, Toros de Herrera, shocked the Caribbean baseball world by hosting the tournament at home at Rod Carew Stadium upon the return of the Landes won to the series in its “second stage” (since 1970).
The Federales team put together by the Panamanian League (PROBEIS) for this year’s series consists of Angels right-hander Jaime Barría and infielder Jonathan Arauz, who appeared as a Red Sox infielder in 2020, and former Major Leaguers Alejandro de Aza, Yohan Flande and Willy García.
The club is led by the experienced Cuban skipper Alfonso Urquiola, who has won two championships in the Panamanian league and three in his country’s National Series. He also led the Cuban club Pinar del Río to the 2015 Caribbean Series title.
CHAMPIONSHIPS: None for Federales, two for Panama
CUBA DEVIATING AGAIN
After participating in the Caribbean Series for the first time from 2014-19 in the second stage after winning seven titles in the “first stage” (1949-60), Cuba will be absent from this year’s tournament for the second year in a row. Last year, the Confederation stated that Cuba did not receive its visas to Puerto Rico in time to participate in the series. After the tournament closed last February, the Confederation concluded that only Panama and Colombia would be “invited countries” in ’21, with Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela being the organisation’s member states in the tournament.