MLB.com Columnist

Jesse Sanchez

Puerto Rico looks to make mark in Caribbean Series

Puerto Rico looks to make mark in Caribbean Series

CULIACAN, Mexico -- Alex Cora wakes up every morning to the sound of his smartphone rattling on the night stand.

Somebody on the other end of the line wants to know about his Caribbean Series roster. On most days, he's on his phone fielding questions about Puerto Rico's World Baseball Classic team. He's starting to get calls from reporters in Puerto Rico who want to talk about the Astros.

Cora, the general manager of Puerto Rico's World Baseball Classic team and the Winter League champion Criollos de Caguas, might be the busiest man in baseball these days. He reports to Spring Training in Florida next month to begin his first season as Houston's bench coach.

"There's a lot of work, but I love it," Cora said from his home in Puerto Rico. "I'm excited about Spring Training. It's something I wanted to do and I wanted to be a part of. I can't wait to do my part."

Cora, who retired in 2011 after 14 seasons with the Dodgers, Indians, Red Sox, Mets, Rangers and Nationals, took over as general manager in Caguas during the 2012-13 season. He played for Caguas each winter during his big league career and knows what to expect from the competition this week in Mexico.

A team from Puerto Rico has not won the Caribbean Series since 2000.

"We are going to go in and people might look at our roster and wonder who these guys are, but we can play with anybody in the Caribbean," Cora said. "We are going to pitch our butts off. We will have 15 pitchers and there will be depth. We can match up with teams with our bullpen and shorten up the game. We are going to trust that offensively we are going to do enough and our defense will stay hot."

This year's Caribbean Series includes Winter League champions Tigres del Licey from the Dominican Republic, Mexico's Aguilas de Mexicali, Criollos de Caguas from Puerto Rico and Venezuela's Aguilas del Zulia. The Series starts on Wednesday afternoon at Estadio Tomateros in Culiacan.

Alazanes de Granma, the Serie Nacional champion, will represent Cuba as a special guest.

"We had a lot of ups and downs in the regular season, but we had a good winning streak in the middle of November that put us in a position to make it to the playoffs," Cora said. "We beat two good teams in Mayaguez and Santurce. I felt like if we caught the ball and pitched well, we could play with Santurce in the finals and we did. The guys also really started playing with emotion and passion."

The initial design of the Caribbean Series was 12 games, with each team squaring off against each other twice. A new format extended the double round-robin format an extra day in 2013, with a championship game played between the teams with the two best records. The latest format pits each team against each other once, followed by two semifinals and a championship game.

The history of the Caribbean Series can be traced back to the union of the leagues in Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela and the formation of the Caribbean Federation in 1948. The first tournament was held a year later.

Overall, the Dominican Republic has won the Caribbean Series title 19 times and Puerto Rico has the second-most championships (14). Mexico has won nine times -- including last year's title -- Cuba has won eight times, and Venezuela has seven championships.

A Caribbean Series title by Puerto Rico this year would add momentum to the island's recent baseball resurgence. Cora's World Baseball Classic team begins play in March.

"This is a good time for Puerto Rico. We are in a good place," Cora said. "With what Javy Baez and Francisco Lindor and Roberto Perez did in the World Series, and it was unreal for the playoffs, especially Game 8 in Caguas. There are prospect showcases and young talent that will go in the Draft. It's getting better and people are starting to enjoy baseball and hopefully, we can keep that rolling."

The field:

• A team from Mexico has won the Caribbean Series championship in 2013 (Yaquis de Obregon), '14 (Naranjeros de Hermosillo) and '16 (Venados de Mazatlan). Obregon also won the title in '11. Mexicali won its first and only Caribbean Series title in 1986. Players to Watch: Nationals reliever Oliver Perez and free-agent reliever Sergio Romo.

• Licey has won 10 Caribbean Series titles. The Dominican's last championship came in 2012 by the Leone del Escogido. Player to Watch: Arizona shortstop Sergio Alcantara, the club's No. 28 prospect.

• A team from Puerto Rico has won the Caribbean Series 14 times, but the island has not taken home the title since Santurce won in 2000. Overall, Caguas has three Caribbean Series titles with championships in 1954, 1974, and 1987. Players to watch: Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo, Twins outfielder Eddie Rosario and Brewers pitcher Hiram Burgos.

• Venezuela has won seven Caribbean Series championships with its most recent coming in 2009 by the Tigres de Aragua in Mexicali. Zulia won the Caribbean Series title in 1984 and 1989. Player to Watch: Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis and right-handed pitcher Tayron Guerrero, No. 23 on Marlins Top 30 prospects list.

• In 2014, Villa Clara became the first team from Cuba to participate in the Caribbean Series since 1960, and it was eliminated in four games. In 2015, the team from Pinar del Rio defeated Mexico for the title. Cuba's Ciego de Avila was eliminated in the semifinals last year and finished the tournament with a 1-3 record. Players to Watch: Outfielders Alfredo Despaigne, Victor Mesa, and Yoelkys Cespedes, younger brother of Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, plus infielder Guillermo Aviles.

• The schedule (all games available live on Gameday). Wednesday: Cuba vs. Dominican Republic, 5 p.m. ET; Puerto Rico vs. Mexico, 10 p.m. ET. Thursday: Venezuela vs. Puerto Rico, 5 p.m.; Mexico vs. Dominican Republic, 9 p.m. Friday: Cuba vs. Puerto Rico, 5 p.m.; Venezuela vs. Mexico, 9 p.m. Saturday: Dominican Republic vs. Puerto Rico, 5 p.m.; Cuba vs. Venezuela, 7 p.m. Sunday: Dominican Republic vs. Venezuela, 3 p.m.; Mexico vs. Cuba, 7 p.m. Monday: Semifinal game between second seed and third seed, 3 p.m.; semifinal game between top seed and fourth seed, 7 p.m. Tuesday: Final, 9 p.m.

Jesse Sanchez, who has been writing for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.