World Cup Preview

Breaking down the field




The previous nine World Cup’s have ended the same way: with Cuba celebrating another gold medal.

World Cup Pairings
Group A
Italy
Japan
Panama
Mexico
South Africa
Spain
Taiwan
United States

Group B
Australia
Canada
Cuba
Germany
Netherlands
South Korea
Thailand
Venezuela
Since baseball's World Cup began in 1938, Cuba has won 25 gold medals, more than all other countries combined. The Cubans have won gold in 20 of the last 24 World Cups and have not lost to Team USA in a World Cup game since 1970.

The last time Cuba faced the USA was in 2005, when Cuba shelled Team USA starter Brian Bannister en route to an 11-3 victory. To say that Cuba is a bit of a favorite to win the gold medal in 2007 is like saying Rickey Henderson has a bit of a chance to make the Hall of Fame.

On the mound, 34-year-old righthander Pedro Luis Lazo has been a mainstay on Cuba’s pitching staff for more than a decade. Lazo, who has drawn comparisons to Lee Smith, features a mid- to high-90s fastball as well as a slider. He was dominant in the 2005 World Cup with 27 strikeouts and only one walk in 17 innings. In the World Baseball Classic in 2006, Lazo came on in relief against the Dominican Republic and allowed one unearned run in 4 2/3 innings. He did struggle, however, in his last outing against Team USA in the 2006 Olympic qualifier, when he allowed four runs in five innings, including home runs from Brandon Wood and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Another key pitcher for Cuba will be Yadel Marti, who pitched well for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic against Venezuela while going up against Johan Santana. Other Cuban pitchers include veteran lefthander Adiel Palma, who beat Team USA's college national squad in the Pan American Games final in Brazil this summer.

On offense, Cuba has veteran catcher Ariel Pestano, the MVP of the 2004 Olympics. Infielder Eduardo Paret was the MVP of the 2005 World Cup, where he hit .632 and stole eight bases. Second baseman Yulieski Gourriel is a tremendous power hitter who led the 2005 World Cup with eight home runs, leading to a .319/.385/.894 line for him in the tournament. Other notable Cuban players include star outfielders Osmany Urrutia, who resembles Ichiro in hitting style and results but Dmitri Young in build, and five-tool stalwart Frederich Cepeda.

We’ve already broken down Team USA here. Here’s a look at some other key teams competing in the World Cup.

Australia

Although Australia has never finished higher than seventh in the World Cup, the team did win the silver medal in the 2004 Olympics and won the Intercontinental Cup in 1999, another tournament that Cuba typically dominates. The World Cup team will feature five players who have played in the major leagues: Lefthander Travis Blackley, first baseman/corner outfielder Justin Huber, lefthander Brad Thomas, righty Rich Thompson and infielder Glenn Williams.

Blackey, 24, started two games this season for the Giants, his first major league action since he started six games for the Mariners in 2004. In 162 1/3 innings with Triple-A Fresno this year, Blackley posted a 4.66 ERA with 121 strikeouts and 68 walks. His younger brother Adam also is on the team and helped beat Cuba in an exhibition game last week.

Thomas once ranked as the No. 5 prospect in the Eastern League after the 2001 season. Since then, he has pitched 23 2/3 innings in his three major league seasons, the last of which was 2004. He spent this season with Triple-A Tacoma, where he had a 4.87 ERA in 116 1/3 innings. Thompson made his major league debut this season with the Angels, appearing in seven games as a reliever. The 23-year-old had a 2.01 ERA in 49 1/3 Double-A innings and a 2.19 ERA in 24 2/3 Triple-A innings this season.

Huber, 25, has collected 98 major league at-bats in three years of spot duty with the Royals. He showed impressive power this season with Triple-A Omaha, hitting .276/.336/.517 with 18 home runs in 286 at-bats. Williams had 40 at-bats for the Twins in 2005, but other than that brief stint he has been a lifelong minor leaguer. The 30-year-old hit .235/.287/.358 for Triple-A Rochester.

Canada

Canada’s youngest player is 18-year-old righthander Philippe Aumont, whom the Mariners picked with the No. 11 overall pick in June. Aumont is a 6-foot-7 pitcher with athleticism and a mid-90s fastball, but it might be too much to expect the youngster to make much of an impact yet against much older competition.

The rest of the Canadian team also skews a bit young, including the higher-profile prospects on the team. The team is strong but young in the outfield, where Nick Weglarz (Indians), Jamie Romak (Pirates) and Michael Saunders (Mariners) will play. All three players are patient hitters with good power, but only Saunders has played at a level as high as Double-A. Astros outfielder Jimmy Van Ostrand, who hit .289/.360/.455 in the low Class A South Atlantic League and played in the Futures Game, will also suit up for Canada.

South Korea

South Korea won the silver medal at the 2005 World Cup and has won silver in three of the last five World Cups. This year's squad features righthander Chan Ho Park, who pitched four innings for the Mets this season, his 14th year in the major leagues. Park, the team captain, is now 34 years old. Righthanders Byung-Hyun Kim and Jae Seo, who both pitched in the major leagues this season and appeared in the World Baseball Classic, will not participate in the World Cup.

Netherlands

Europe's top team, the Netherlands roster has familiar names for international and minor league fans and drawn on both European players and players from Dutch colonial territories in the Caribbean. Righthander Rob Cordemans has pitched for Dutch national teams for a decade, and lefthander Diegomar Markwell, a former Blue Jays farmhand, has joined him this decade in the national team rotation. Seven-foot-1 Twins farmhand Loek Van Mil also will pitch in Taiwan. Manager Robert Eenhoorn, a former Yankees shortstop, will have two solid prospects in his lineup in Angels shortstop Hainley Statia and Nationals outfielder Rogearvin Bernadina.

QUICK HITS

Panama took the bronze medal in 2005 and won silver in 2003. The team has three players who played in the major leagues: ace righty Rafael Medina, infielder Angel Chavez and outfielder Sherman Obando. Chavez appeared in 10 games for the Giants in 2005, and hit .291/.336/.433 this season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

• Japan
, which typically is one of the stronger countries in international competition, has chosen to send its professional players to the 2008 Olympics rather than the World Cup, meaning the country will field a team of amateur talent. Thailand makes its first World Cup appearance in 2007 after the Chinese team dropped out, reportedly due to the fact the tournament is being held in Taiwan (a.k.a. Chinese Taipei).

Germany is making its first World Cup appearance in 30 years. The team is managed by Greg Frady, head baseball coach at Georgia State, and features hard-throwing former Twins farmhand Tim Henkenjohann, who Frady says has touched 97 mph.

• Chin-Feng Chen, the first player born in Taiwan to reach the majors, will play for Taiwan. Chen’s .382 batting average led the Chinese Professional Baseball League this year. Indians farmhand Seng-Wei Tseng also is on the Taiwan roster.

Spain finished in the top three in the European Olympic qualifier and returns its top player from that event for the World Cup. That's former University of Miami star outfielder Danny Figueroa, now an Orioles farmhand. Spain also has Mets farmhand Rhinel Cruz, a righthander, on the roster. Italy, coming off a disappointing effort at the Europe qualifier that dashed its hopes of an Olympic berth, has a young roster featuring U.S. minor leaguers Alessandro Maestri (Cubs) and Alex Liddi (Mariners).

Contributing: John Manuel