Cuba might be team to beat

SAN DIEGO -- A tall, wispy, willowy figure walks through a crowd of reporters on the way to the Cuba dugout wearing a deep red batting practice jacket that hides his uniform top. His facial features resemble those of Alfonso Soriano: high cheekbones, dark, chocolate skin and large, bright eyes. Had this player been from any other country, he would have been instantly recognizable.

"There are three great pitchers in the world right now who are not in the majors, and he is one of them," said one National League scout who saw the Cuban team play in Mexico.

But this player is Cuban; therefore, uniformity is certain and individuality is a vice. To blend in is to be part of the team. So this talented player moved in relative anonymity until a few reporters recognized those striking facial features. Yes, they murmured, it's he. It's Alberti Aroldis Chapman de la Cruz, the great 21-year-old phenom with the 100-102 mph fastball, who's already a legend simply by name.

Chapman turns toward the reporters as some begin to take his photo. He smiles a toothy grin. He waves to the cameras. Then he disappears into the dugout as unremarkably as when he entered the field, remaining a mystery to all those outside Cuba.

This is the way for the Cuban team, the only way. To argue politics is moot, because all the men with the speed guns care only about whether any of these kids can play, not about whether they prefer democracy to communism. The team Cuba will field for Sunday's spotlight World Baseball Classic game against Japan, a rematch of the 2006 WBC final, is different from the 2006 team. In comparison, it lacks bullpen depth but fields a more powerful lineup, according to several scouts surveyed.

"The guys in 2006 performed well, so you have to say right now they are better," the NL scout said. "Scouting-wise, this team is better. The guys we liked then, they're better now."

For a different analysis, perhaps it may be best to heed the words of Dr. Antonio Castro, the Cuban team physician and, more importantly, the son of Fidel Castro.

"We're a team with young players. We have some very good young pitching. As they say, youth always serves best. Ultimately, it's a good mix of veterans and good young players who strive to do their best for their beloved country."

Fidel Castro, for his part, reportedly has told Cuban newspapers he believes this Cuban team will win the Classic, though he chided the national selection for mistakes it made in a game against South Africa.

"He's a great fan of this team, just like we all are," Antonio Castro said with a smile about his father.

The Cubans' challenge, Antonio Castro said, was to build a team that could withstand the altitude of Mexico City, the site for Cuba's first-round games. To get used to the thin air, the Cuban team arrived in Mexico almost two weeks before the start of the tournament. Castro believes this squad is better conditioned than the 2006 version, and that its athleticism, particularly among the outfielders, has wowed scouts.

Outfielders Frederich Cepeda (.500 batting average), Alfredo Despaigne (.333) and Yoennis Cespedes (.538) form a formidable offensive trio. Second baseman Yulieski Gourriel (.333), who one observer said physically resembled Derek Jeter, is the star in the infield.

"I don't think there are a better four hitters in any lineup," an American League scout said.

Add to that the versatile Hector Olivera, who can play all four infield positions, and the Cubans are well stocked. The NL scout described Olivera as a player similar to Chicago White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez but with more physical talent. Veteran catcher Ariel Pestano is limited somewhat offensively but has a "bazooka" arm and is known for calling a good game.

"He'd be an everyday catcher in the big leagues right now," the NL scout said.

Chapman, of course, is the star of the pitching staff and is considered the No. 1 starter. In a bit of usual Cuban gamesmanship, manager Higinio Velez has not yet named a starter for Sunday's game, though Chapman is expected to pitch. Along with the powerful fastball, Chapman throws a breaking pitch in the high 80s.

"What can you do against Chapman?" the AL scout said. "You wait for him to lower his fastball. That 99 mph high fastball is too difficult to hit. The secondary pitch is good, but it doesn't dominate. But he can throw it for strikes, and you could work with him."

Scouts also took note of pitchers Norge Vera ("an El Duque clone without Duque's fastball"), Ismel Jimenez and Vladimir Garcia, but the team doesn't have a regular closer. There's veteran 35-year-old Pedro Lazo, though he likely is past his prime.

"He's simply not the same anymore," the AL scout said.

One can expect precision and sound fundamentals from Cuba, which runs a practice unlike any other squad. First, players come out from the dugout in an organized fashion. They stretch in the outfield as a team and meet moments later in separate hitting and pitching groups. During batting practice, infielders don't take any ground balls from coaches.

Thirty minutes before the end of batting practice, the coaches call in all players except the infielders, who then field ground balls. Moments later, all players head toward the dugout and leave the field as anonymously as when they came.

"The rest of the baseball world learned a lot about Cuba [during the last WBC]," Velez said. "Our team is a team of players and not a team of names. I don't think that you knew the Cuban ballplayers, and nobody thought they were at the level they were. We have a great league in Cuba. We play all year long. And I'm telling you: Be patient, wait to see the Cubans."

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.