A few years ago, this would have been considered heresy, but today it is the harsh and sad reality: Puerto Rico is now the Cinderella of Caribbean baseball.
Gone are the days when Puerto Rican and Dominican teams dominated the so-called Latin American World Series, back when Venezuelan and Mexican teams only turned up to round out the tournament in the hope of pulling off a shock victory.
However, whether because of economic problems or bad management, it is clear that the Puerto Rican winter league has lost the luster and appeal of yesteryear and that this has impacted negatively on the results of its Caribbean Series representatives.
For the 2016 edition in Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico will be represented by the storied Cangrejeros de Santurce, who secured their 14th title and their second straight in the domestic competition. And it was Santurce who were the last Puerto Rican team to be crowned champions of the Caribbean Series on the same stage where the 2016 series will take place, Juan Marichal Quisqueya Stadium. That victory took place 16 years ago, in 2000, when Santurce went through the tournament undefeated, leaving a series of smashed collective batting records in its wake. It was Santurce's fifth Caribbean Series title.
Only the Dominican side, Licey Tigers (10), have won more Caribbean crowns than Cangrejeros, who in turn are tied with another Dominican team, Aguilas del Cibao, each having won five championships.
However, both Licey and Aguilas will be absent from this edition, which means that Santurce, in spite of its Cinderella status, will have the opportunity to cut Licey's advantage and steal a march on the team from Cibao.
Cangrejeros are one of the most iconic teams in Caribbean baseball and, in their heyday, legends such as Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson and Frank Robinson, all members of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, wore the famous jersey.
The version of Cangrejeros that will compete in the Caribbean Series is mainly based on the position players who helped the team win the domestic tournament and on reinforcement pitchers from the other teams, due to the absence of the most of the champion's starters.
The righty Hiram Burgos, starter and loser of the decisive game for Indios de Mayagüez, will be one of the key pitchers for the team led by Ramón Vázquez, who will be making his debut in the Caribbean Series.
What's more, the Puerto Rican squad will be strengthened by Kennys Vargas, who was named Winter League MVP with Indios and belongs to the Minnesota Twins in the major leagues. Vargas will occupy the designated hitter spot and could alternate in the starting lineup with Santurce starter Neftalí Soto, who belongs to the Chicago White Sox organization.
The full roster that will make the trip to Santo Domingo is made up of Roberto Peña of Santurce and the Houston Astros organization and René García (Gigantes de Carolina and Milwaukee Brewers).
In the infield, Jesmuel Valentín (Mayagüez and Philadelphia Phillies), José Lozada (Cangrejeros and Washington Nationals), TJ Rivera (Mayagüez and New York Mets), Osvaldo "Ozzie" Martínez (Gigantes de Carolina and Baltimore Orioles) and Yadiel Rivera (Santurce and Brewers) will play alongside Vargas and Soto.
In the outfield, Santurce can count on the Dominican Ruben Sosa (Santurce and Los Angeles Angels), Jorge Padilla (Cangrejeros), Juan Silva (Santurce and the New York Yankees), Danny Ortiz (Mayagüez and the Pittsburgh Pirates) and Henry Ramos (Caguas and the Boston Red Sox).
Along with Hiram Burgos, the pitching corps includes Andrew Barbosa (Mayagüez and Mets), Alex Burgos (Mayagüez and Los Angeles Dodgers), Alex Claudio (Mayaguez and Texas Rangers), Efraín Nieves (Criollos), Fernando Cabrera (Indios and San Francisco Giants), José De La Torre (Criollos and Cincinnati Reds), Mario Santiago (Carolina), Miguel Mejías (Caguas and the Cubs), Adalberto Flores (Santurce), Joseph Colon (Santurce; signed by Cleveland), Fernando Cruz (Cangrejeros and Cubs), Chris Smith (Carolina and Toronto Blue Jays) and the Dominican Ricardo Gómez (Santurce).
The squad may not be packed with big names, but the structure of the competition allows them to dream, even if Puerto Rico doesn't come into the tournament as favorite. They just need to avoid finishing bottom in the qualifying round in order to qualify for the semifinals and keep their title hopes alive.
Just ask the Cubans who, after an absence of over half a century, saw Villa Clara finish at the bottom of the standings on their return to the Caribbean Series in 2014 before Pinar del Río lifted the title last year, despite scraping into the semifinals with one win and three losses.
But they won the two most important matches, the semifinals and final, to win the pennant.