By Phil Rogers
Forget about the politics.
For the holiday season, give yourself a baseball moment worthy of John Lennon.
Imagine if the United States does normalize relations with Cuba, creating a landscape in which Cuban players can freely come and go between the U.S. and their homelands. Now think ahead to the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic, which will be held in 2017.
Imagine a team in those bright red jerseys, with MLB All-Stars playing alongside Yulieski Gourriel, Alfredo Despaigne and the other countrymen they left behind, playing with the passion and joy that was the signature of the Dominican Republic's team on its way to the 2013 title.
This would be what we've been waiting for since the championship game in 2006, when Japan beat Cuba in the championship game at Petco Park. The Cubans have fallen short of the Final Four in the last two events, which hasn't been a surprise given how the ongoing wave of defections has diluted their talent pool. But what if they could use any players born in Cuba?
What a squad.
Try beating a team that has the Marlins' Jose Fernandez as its starting pitcher and the Reds' Aroldis Chapman as the closer, with a lineup including the White Sox's Jose Abreu, the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig, the Tigers' Yoenis Cespedes and switch-hitting shortstop phenom Yoan Moncada. Maybe you could but it would take a great effort.
Just for grins, here's a look at the 28-man roster that Cuba could put together in 2017:
Get ready for some good arguments. Along with the shortstop position, this is where the motherlode of Cuban talent is found. Most of these guys are right-handed-hitting power guys, complicated the decision-making if you're putting together a balanced roster. That's the purpose here.
Among players who haven't defected, veterans Despaigne and the switch-hitting Frederich Cepeda, who would be 36 years old for the event, are no-brainer choices. Scouts say Despaigne has more power than Abreu, Cespedes or Puig, so he might be the cleanup hitter on this team.
Cespedes and Puig would be popular -- and deserving -- additions. Cuba had only five outfielders on its 2013 roster but we're taking six here, with the Cubs' Jorge Soler (projected by Bill James to deliver 28 home runs and 94 RBIs next season) and the Rangers' Leonys Martin (11th among MLB center fielders with a 3.5 fWAR last season) taking spots.
Bypassed, at least for the time being, are Yasmany Tomas, Rusney Castillo, Dayan Viciedo and Henry Urrutia. Victor Mesa, the son of Cuba's legendary manager, Vladimir Gutierrez and 31-year-old Alexei Bell represent considerations still playing in Cuba.
Gourriel, at 30 widely considered the best player in Cuba, is an easy pick at third base, as is Abreu at first base. Jose Fernandez, who played well for Cuba in the 2013 WBC and is a left-handed hitter, gets the call at second base.
Picking a shortstop isn't so simple. Moncada, 19, is expected to sign a huge contract once he's been cleared by the U.S. government. His potential gets him the call over a crowd of very talented big-leagurs.
Even though Moncada is the starter, there's room for the White Sox's Alexei Ramirez and the Marlins' Hechavarria on the roster. Left off are Yunel Escobar, Jose Iglesias, Alex Guerrero and Erisbel Arruebarrena, the last of whom started alongside Jose Fernandez in 2013. Kendrys Morales or Yonder Alonso could make the team as a backup for Abreu but we're taking an extra outfielder and only one first baseman.
It's no wonder that Ariel Pestano seemed to be Cuba's catcher forever. There's a catching shortage on the island.
Give me the switch-hitting University of Miami product, Yasmani Grandal, as the regular catcher, backed up by veteran Brayan Pena and young White Sox backup Adrian Nieto.
Fernandez will be long removed from his recent Tommy John surgery by 2017. He's going to be the ace, even though he'll only be available for three-five innings at a time. Norge Ruiz, a 20-year-old with an electric arm who stars for Camaguey in Serie Nacional, seems ready to burst onto the scene, like Chapman did in the 2009 event.
The Mariners' Roenis Elias and the Padres' Odrisamer Despaigne are safe picks. That leaves maybe two spots and we'll get creative here. There's no way they that a true Cuban team shouldn't have Orlando "El Duque'' Hernandez on it, so hold out spots for him and his half-brother, Livan Hernandez, to make comebacks. That would be so much fun.
Chapman's the closer (duh). After that it gets a little dicey.
On the same principle as inviting El Duque and Livan, keep a spot open for Jose Contreras, who seems to want to pitch forever anyway. It would be great to see him and the two Hernandezes on the same team.
That leaves four spots. We'll bet on two Cubans yet to debut in MLB, lefty Onelki Garcia of the White Sox and right-hander Armando Rivero of the Cubs (100 strikeouts in 65 innings between AA and AAA last season). The last two picks are 32-year-old Vladimir Garcia, arguably the top pitcher currently in Cuba, and 18-year-old Vladimir Gutierrez, who along with Ruiz is considered a long-term ace for the Cuban national team.
You want emotion on a diamond? Put these 28 Cubans on the same team and give them someone to play. It would be a beautiful thing.
Phil Rogers is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a columnist for MLB.com. He previously wrote for the Chicago Tribune and the Dallas Morning News.