Fresh faces to anchor Cuban squad

Roster turnover leaves country's WBC fate in young hands

Third baseman Yulieski Gourriel, 21, will be one of Cuba's primary power sources.  (Eric Gay/AP)

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After the sun sets on Sunday's games, Cuba will pull the plug on Serie Nacional, its top baseball league. More pressing things are on the players' agendas: It's World Baseball Classic time. The league will go on hiatus until March 24, allowing the WBC to play through.

Cuba not only is accommodating a six-week hole in its showcase league, the Caribbean island nation is eager for it to happen. Its international baseball reputation is legendary, but has rarely been displayed in a big bowl; the NCAA would call it an RPI issue.

For Cuba, the WBC is an opportunity to put some evidence into the myth.

Ironically, it will be trying to do so with some fresh muscle. The talent lode that forged Cuba's global powerhouse image in the '90s has dissolved into retirement, and handed off to a new generation.

Cuba's 60-man provisional WBC roster reflects, in the view of experts on the subject, an almost unprecedented turnover for its national team. Even though the eventual 30-man squad is expected to have its share of veterans, it will feature plenty of new members of the nation's A-list.

"It will be a very young team, probably the youngest they've ever had," notes Peter Bjarkman, the prolific author for whom Cuban baseball has evolved into a personal passion. "There was a big void after the 2000 Sydney Olympics -- the whole crew of '90s mainstays were retiring at the same time."

That, and the loss to Ben Sheets and the United States in the 2000 gold-medal game triggered a housecleaning of Cuba's roster and a shift in the philosophy of how national teams are chosen. Now the numbers on the field are valued more than numbers in the books; it's performance over reputation.

"And," Bjarkman adds, "they filled the void very quickly."

Even future voids are already being worked on, such as the case with third baseman Dayan Viciedo. Last month, at 16, Viciendo became the youngest player in history to appear in Cuba's version of the All-Star Game. Viciedo's appearance on Cuba's 60-man WBC roster raised a lot of eyebrows, but both All-Star squads were automatically included on that provisional roster, and the whiz kid isn't expected to stick.

Viciedo may have to make way for his elders -- some of whom are even pushing 25. Players on the 60-man average 24 years of age.

But some of the new studs are much younger. In fact, the new cream of Cuba's crop may be Yulieski Gourriel, the 21-year-old third baseman who hits with power and rarely strikes out.

In the view of scouts who have seen Gourriel on the big stage, such as the 2004 Athens Olympics, he could step right now into the lineup of many big-league clubs. Gourriel had 16 homers and 55 RBIs through the first 50 games of the current Cuban season.

"I think he is their best all-around player," Bjarkman says of Gourriel, who smoked eight homers to drive in 19 runs over 11 games during last September's World Cup. "He's come out of nowhere."

As have a lot of the team's new cornerstones. "It's normal to cycle them in," Bjarkman says, "but the thing that surprises me about this generation of players is how much good, young talent has come so quickly."

Outfielder Yoennis Cespedes, 20, is in the midst of a breakout season, batting .385 with 15 home runs. Smooth middle infielders Joan Pedroso and Leslie Anderson, both in their early 20s, may need new first names by U.S. standards but don't lack anything in their games; heading into the final weekend of pre-WBC break play, Pedroso was hitting .342 with 12 homers and 44 RBIs and Anderson's .333 average included 22 extra-base hits.

Of course, the last words in Cuban offense are Michel Enriquez and Osmani Urrutia.

Enriquez, who turned 27 on Saturday, is in line to pull the Sammy Sosa of batting races: He could wind up hitting .450 and not win the batting title -- thanks to Urrutia. The 29-year-old outfielder is hitting .453 in his bid for a sixth straight batting title and fifth consecutive .400-plus season.

"Enriquez is the best hitter Cuba has right now," Bjarkman opines. "He's just having a tremendously hot season."

The turnover may be even more pronounced on the mound -- the signature of great Cuban teams. Check the chronology of their most significant international triumphs, and you will never find them outslugging the opposition.

With the notable occasional exception of someone like closer Pedro Luis Lazo -- a 32-year-old towering fireballer who is a late rally's worst nightmare -- the staff is young enough for 24-year-olds like Dany Betancourt and Yunesky Maya to rate as veterans.

Especially when you've got 18-year-olds like Alberto and Israel Soto, the latter said to routinely hit the mid-90s on the radar.

The staff will also potentially include a few graybeards of international competition, such as 35-year-old left-hander Adiel Palma and 38-year-old Ormari Romero. Cuba still values experience among pitchers who can be shuttled into tight games with ice coursing their veins.

That has been their time-tested success formula, and one that renders the pitch limits set to be enforced for WBC games practically irrelevant.

"The last couple of years," Bjarkman says, "their trend has been to go with two or three guys before they get to the closer. They have so many pitchers who are about even, they can always go to a fresh arm."

If that is an advantage, this is a bigger one: Unlike the players for the highly talented Japan and U.S. squads, who will be competing during a period usually spent in preseason camps, the Cubans will be in their midseason forms.

And this: Having developed through various international tournaments, from Juniors on up, the Cubans are accustomed to one-and-done pressure.

"They're used to lose-and-you're out tournaments, so they don't beat themselves," Bjarkman points out. "In a close game, they will be very tough to beat.

"They're so good defensively, with a very quick infield, and have enough hitting that if they get to the closer (Lazo) with a one- or two-run lead, or in a tie, they will be tough to beat."

Especially with a steeped heritage at stake. A new generation has inherited that reputation -- and the responsibility to defend it.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.