Although the challenges of COVID-19 altered the landscape for the prominent Latin American winter leagues in 2020-21, the games were mostly played within 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, with the annual Caribbean Series starting Sunday afternoon at Teodoro Mariscal Stadium in Mazatlán, Mexico.
In the traditional tournament of league champions, clubs representing the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico (Pacific League), Venezuela, Colombia and Panama will play a five-game elimination round, followed by two semifinal contests on Friday and the championship game on Saturday.
In lieu of a national champion, Panama will be represented by a team comprised 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 campaign, there were more familiar names in winter ball this season, and some have decided to carry on and represent their leagues in the Caribbean Series. Yadier Molina, Carlos Martínez, Robinson Canó, Melky Cabrera and Luis Medina — the
Health protocols in place for the Caribbean Series include negative COVID tests required 72 hours before teams’ arrivals in Mazatlán, and limited movement of players and staff around the city. The Confederation, in conjunction with local authorities, determined that up to 45% fan capacity will be allowed in Teodoro Mariscal Stadium, which translates to roughly 7,200 spectators.
For the 63rd edition of the Caribbean Series, the Águilas Cibaeñas, managed by Félix Fermín — a former Major League shortstop and the all-time winningest skipper in Caribbean Series play with three titles with the club (2001, ’03 and ’07) based in Santiago, Dominican Republic — are considered the favorites.
But, as Águilas general manager Ángel Ovalles pointed out last week, in a short series, “any team can win one game.” Here’s how the teams stack up, country by country.
The Águilas staged a dramatic comeback after being down 3-1 in their best of seven championship series against a Gigantes del Cibao club managed by D-backs bench coach Luis “Pipe” Urueta. With reinforcements such as Canó, Junior Lake, league MVP Ronald Guzmán and Jonathan Villar, along with Águilas mainstays Cabrera, Juan Pérez, Francisco Peña, Juan Lagares and Johan Camargo, the club seems to have few weaknesses.
A starting rotation of Martínez, César Valdez, Joe Van Meter, Andy Otero and Yunesky Maya has the Águilas brimming with confidence.
— Águilas Cibaeñas (@aguilascibaenas) January 31, 2021
“Our strength is our rotation,” Ovalles said. “I think Carlos Martínez and César Valdez can pitch two games [with second starts in the semifinal and championship rounds, if necessary]. They’re solid competitors. They’re going to put is 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 playing for his older brother José on Atenienses de Manatí in Puerto Rico this winter, Molina — currently a free agent, but reportedly close to coming to a decision for the 2021 Major League season — reinforced the Criollos in their championship series against Indios de Mayagüez and helped Caguas win its 19th title, most in league history.
¡Llegamos al hotel! 🚌 Los Criollos de Puerto Rico están en Mazatlán.
— Los Criollos de Caguas (@CriollosCaguas) January 31, 2021
Molina, who will be participating in his second Caribbean Series and will likely face longtime Cardinals batterymate Martínez on Sunday in the Criollos-Águilas opener, will be part of a Caguas club largely intact after their winter season. Although Reds hurler José de León and Padres catcher Víctor Caratini will not accompany the team after helping it capture the Puerto Rican league crown, key players such as outfielders Johneshwy Fargas and Jarren Durán, as well as pitchers Héctor Santiago, Giovanni Soto and Medina, will continue on for manager Ramón Vázquez in Mazatlán.
CHAMPIONSHIPS: Five for Criollos, 16 for Puerto Rico
Caribes de Anzoátegui
After replacing Jackson Melián as manager at the end of December, Mike Álvarez led the Caribes to its fourth Venezuelan league title and its first since 2015 with a sweep of last year’s champion, Cardenales de Lara.
The largest turnover of reinforcements for the Caribes will be on its pitching staff, with seven new hurlers selected from other clubs to accompany the team in Mazatlán. Of those, the most notable name is Silvino Bracho, who pitched in parts of five seasons out of the D-backs’ bullpen before signing a Minor League deal with the Giants in November.
The lineup will include Luis Sardiñas, Jesús Sucre and Willians Astudillo, all with varying degrees of experience in the Major Leagues, as well Minor League veterans Balbino Fuenmayor and Alí Castillo.
CHAMPIONSHIPS: None for Caribes, seven for Venezuela
Tomateros de Culiacán
Late Saturday night, the Tomateros defeated Naranjeros de Hermosillo in Game 7 of their championship series to win their second straight Pacific League title. Jesse Castillo’s second home run of the game in the top of the 10th inning off former Major League reliever Fernando Salas proved to be the game winner, giving 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 as a player with Tomateros in 1996 and 2002, will seek his first crown as a skipper in the tournament this year, his fourth try.
CHAMPIONSHIPS: Two for Tomateros, nine for Mexico
Caimanes de Barranquilla
After making its debut as a nation last year with Vaqueros de Montería, a club managed by Ozney Guillén — son of former Major League manager Ozzie — Colombia will try to secure its first win in a Caribbean Series game this year. The Vaqueros finished with an 0-5 record in the 2020 tournament in Puerto Rico.
This year, the Caimanes, managed by José Mosquera, dethroned the Vaqueros after coming back from a 3-1 deficit in their best of seven championship series with the help of Harold Ramírez and Dilson Herrera, both with Major League experience.
The Caimanes will have largely the same roster, including Ramírez and Herrera, that won the Colombian league title. They added just four reinforcements, two pitchers and two position players.
CHAMPIONSHIPS: None for Caimanes, none for Colombia
Federales de Chiriquí
Plans for an abbreviated season in Panama were scrapped because of the COVID-19 pandemic, just two years after the nation’s representative, Toros de Herrera, shocked the Caribbean baseball world by winning the tournament at home, in Rod Carew Stadium, upon the country’s return to the series in its “second stage” (1970-present).
The Federales team put together by the Panamanian league (PROBEIS) for this year’s series includes Angels right-hander Jaime Barría and infielder Jonathan Arauz, who saw action as a Red Sox infielder in 2020, in addition to former Major Leaguers Alejandro de Aza, Yohan Flande and Willy García.
The club will be managed by veteran Cuban skipper Alfonso Urquiola, who has won two championships in the Panamanian league and three in his country’s National Series. He also led Cuba’s Pinar del Río club to the 2015 Caribbean Series title.
CHAMPIONSHIPS: None for Federales, two for Panama
CUBA ABSENT AGAIN
In the wake of taking part in the Caribbean Series from 2014-19 for the first time 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 hadn’t secured its visas for Puerto Rico in time to play in the series. After completion of the tournament last February, the Confederation concluded that only Panama and Colombia would be “invited countries” in ’21, with the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela as the organization’s member nations in the tournament.