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03/08/09 11:17 AM EST

Cuba expected to rise to top of Pool B

Biggest threat to '06 runner-up should come from Mexico

When looking at the Group B rosters, the question becomes, "Who can top the mighty Cubans?"

The answer might be "no one," even though the Cuban team lacks names that are familiar to Major League Baseball fans. But the squad is loaded with amateur talent that has plenty of experience in international tournament play.

After all, Cuba finished second in the 2006 World Baseball Classic to Japan and earned the silver medal in the 2008 Olympics. The Cubans also took home the gold in the 2004 Olympics.

Team Mexico figures to be the biggest threat to the Cubans, as its roster includes such recognizable names as Oliver Perez, Adrian Gonzalez, Jorge Cantu and Joakim Soria. The Mexican team also sent the Americans home in '06 with a 2-1 victory in Round 2.

As for the other two countries in Pool B, Australia and South Africa, they're just hoping to win a game after going winless in the inaugural Classic. But both figure to be stronger, with the game growing in popularity in their respective countries.

It should make for an exciting pool, but it's hard to imagine the experienced Mexican and Cuban national teams going home early.

'06 result: 13th place, with 0-3 record, did not qualify for Round 2
MLB players: 19 affiliated with Major League clubs
Key players: Outfielder Justin Huber, pitcher Rich Thompson, shortstop Brad Harman

The key for the Australians is to find their hitting stroke after scoring just four runs in the '06 Classic. But this year's roster includes three offensive players -- Huber, Harman and outfielder Chris Snelling -- who got a taste of the Major Leagues last season.

And Harman could be the man to lead the offense after batting .429 in the inaugural Classic and hitting 17 home runs in the Minors last season.

'06 result: Advanced to finals, lost to Japan
MLB players: Zero affiliated with Major League clubs
Key players: Outfielder Frederich Cepeda, pitcher Pedro Lazo, infielder Yuliesky Gourriel

The Cubans again figure to be one of the favorites to win the Classic after finishing second in the inaugural tournament and earning the silver medal in the 2008 Olympics. Several key players return from '06, including Cepeda, Lazo, Gourriel, infielder Eduardo Paret and veteran catcher Ariel Pestano.

Gourriel, widely considered to be the top talent on the squad, batted .273 in the 2006 Classic. But keep an eye on the hard-throwing Lazo, who earned an impressive 4 2/3-inning save against the Dominican Republic in the semifinals of the '06 Classic.

'06 result: Finished sixth, defeated the U.S., 2-1, in Round 2
MLB players: 17 affiliated with Major League clubs
Key players: First baseman Adrian Gonzalez, pitcher Oliver Perez, closer Joakim Soria

Pitching was the strong point for the Mexican team in 2006 after posting a 2.77 ERA, and it appears the squad has the arms to do it again. Perez will undoubtedly be the ace, but he'll have plenty of help from such veterans as Rodrigo Lopez, Luis Ayala, Elmer Dessens, Dennys Reyes and Ricardo Rincon. And they have one of the best young closers in the game in Soria, whose nickname is the "Mexecutioner."

Offensively, the club also could be a threat, especially with Gonzalez, who has become one of the best first basemen in the National League. Several veterans make up the rest of the offense, including Cantu, Rod Barajas and Alfredo Amezega, and former Major Leaguers Erubiel Durazo and Karim Garcia.

'06 result: 16th place, with 0-3 record, did not qualify for Round 2
MLB players: Six affiliated with Major League clubs
Key players: Pitcher Barry Armitage, shortstop Anthony Phillips, pitcher Alessio Angelucci

The South Africans were outscored, 38-12, in the inaugural tournament, including a 17-0 drubbing by the U.S., but they took an 8-7 lead into the ninth against Canada in their first game before ultimately falling, 11-8.

The team is hoping to build on its near victory over Canada, but that could prove to be a tough challenge, as the country has never produced a Major League player. But the roster does feature six players in the Minors as well as Armitage, who pitched in the Classic in 2006.

Rhett Bollinger is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.