Playing for Villa Clara in Serie Nacional, the league at the top of the Cuban baseball chain, at first spooked Dayan Viciedo.

But then he turned 16, and everything was all right.

A big leaguer, even if only by Cuban standards, at 15? What in the name of precocious talent is going on here?

Something extraordinary, obviously. Viciedo has been included on Cuba's 60-man provisional roster for the World Baseball Classic, making him a marked man even if he doesn't make it to next month's tournament.

Make that, marked adolescent.

Viciedo popped up on the 60-man squad a couple of weeks after becoming the youngest player to appear in his country's All-Star Game, an honor he earned, in turn, with his brilliant play in right field for Villa Clara.

Without missing a beat, he has since kept up his blistering pace. Viciedo began last week among the league's leaders with a hard .368 average and .593 slugging percentage.

That's a quantum leap from only a year ago, when he became a celebrity for cracking Villa Clara's lineup at 15, but was batting .243 with little pop through the season's first 50 games.

Then, perhaps after glancing in the mirror, Viciedo told reporters, "It's not bad for my age."

What he's doing now isn't bad, either, for the ages.

"It is unusual for someone that young to play in the main Cuban league; they usually break in at 18," says Peter Bjarkman, a veteran watchdog of Cuban baseball who has authored books on the subject. "The top prospects play in the developmental league, their version of the Minor Leagues, and those who have enough talent move up pretty quickly.

"It's not unprecedented, but it's pretty unusual."

The precedent belongs to Omar Linares, the Cuban legend who debuted in Serie Nacional at 14 and was on the National Team at 16.

Yes, Viciedo is well aware of whose footsteps he is following. He even wears Linares' old number -- 10 -- and broke in playing his position, third base.

Viciedo told reporters last year, "I've always admired Linares, ever since I started playing when I was seven years old."

Which wasn't too long before most of us started planning for the new millennium.

Viciedo was a member of the team which beat the United States, 2-1, in the title game of the Pan American Junior Championships in Villahermosa, Mexico, last September. Needless to say, he was the only one playing in the 18-and-under tournament between "big league" seasons.

A classic diamond in the rough, the still-physically maturing Viciedo obviously excites everyone with his potential. The most intrigued observers include his current manager, Victor Mesa, who a year ago said "in two or three years, he will be a great player, but he'll have to work very hard."

"He has a good arm and tremendous power," Mesa added. "He's got excellent technique, but at the same time is surprisingly calm for his young age and very secure in defense. "

Mesa marvels at Viciedo's poise in the Serie Nacional fishbowl, but the teenage prodigy is accustomed to the glare. He has played on age-bracket teams in international tournaments since 11.

Although most experts do not anticipate seeing Viciedo in Puerto Rico for the WBC action, they may get a surprise. Mesa is on Cuba's coaching staff for the Classic, and he is expected to lobby hard for the inclusion of his young jewel.