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03/06/2013 5:23 PM ET

Puerto Rico faces stiff test in pool play

FT. MYERS, Fla. -- Following Wednesday's 8-7 exhibition victory over the Minnesota Twins, Puerto Rico flew to San Juan, where it will open World Baseball Classic play against lightly-regarded Spain, which is making its first appearance in the Classic, at Hiram Bithorn Stadium on Friday at 6:30 p.m. locally/ 5:30 p.m. ET on a game that can be watched live on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes. 

Puerto Rico will have home-field advantage throughout what's arguably the toughest round-robin pool -- Pool C -- in the tournament. It will play Venezuela on Saturday evening and face the Dominican Republic, which is eager to avenge its opening-round elimination in 2009, on Sunday night.

Only the top two teams will advance to the next round.

Puerto Rico finished fifth overall in both the 2006 and '09 tournaments.

In the 2009 Classic, Puerto Rico went undefeated in the first round and routed Team USA, 11-1, in the opening game in round two. However, Puerto Rico lost to Venezuela, 2-0, and was beaten, 6-5 by the United States in the battle for a spot in the semifinals.

This time around, Team Puerto Rico includes proven Major League talent in the Molina brothers, catchers Yadier and Jose, as well as outfielders Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan and Alex Rios -- plus a lot of young players.

"The veteran players have done a terrific job getting the young guys to relax and open up and feel like they belong here," manager Edwin Rodriguez said Wednesday.

Unproven arms could be key for Puerto Rico

FT. MYERS, Fla. -- Veteran slugger Carlos Beltran, who is participating in his third World Baseball Classic, is expected to provide much of the power, but Team Puerto Rico will likely go as far in this year's Classic as its pitching can carry it.

"I don't think we're going to be as weak in pitching as some people think," Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez predicted Wednesday.

Nevertheless, Puerto Rico's chances of advancing have definitely been hindered by the absence of free agent Javier Vazquez, who opted out of the Classic because of a knee injury. That leaves their hopes largely in the hands of a several unproven pitchers.

Journeyman Giancarlo Alvarado, who will start Puerto Rico's Classic opener against Spain in San Juan on Friday night in a game that can be watched live on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes at 6:30 p.m. locally/ 5:30 p.m. ET, tuned up by pitching the first inning of Wednesday's 8-7 victory over the Twins before a crowd that included a small group of spirited Puerto Rican fans.

"That was [Alvarado's]first outing facing live hitters in a month and a half," Rodriguez said after his starter served up a lead-off home run and walked two in his one inning of work. "I think he did fine. I think he's ready.

"Right now we have a combination of some experienced pitchers and some pitchers with very young arms," Rodriguez admitted. "With young pitchers, you never know who is going to show up."

Jose Berrios, an 18-year-old right-hander who is one of the Minnesota Twins' top pitching prospects and was off to a great start this spring before leaving the Twins' camp to join Team Puerto Rico, will work out of the bullpen during the Classic because of his lack of experience.

Berrios pitched one inning in relief Wednesday, allowing one hit and striking out one.

"That was the first time I ever saw him in a real game," Rodriguez said. "He's poised. He was just having fun out there."

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Pool C

Pool D

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Berrios, the Twins' first round Draft pick in 2012, made his professional debut with Minnesota's Rookie league teams last season. He was 3-0 with a 1.17 ERA, striking out 49 batters in 30 2/3 innings.

"You'd never know he's 18," Rodriguez said.  "He throws 97-98 mph. We had a simulated game the other day and he was very impressive. He has very good secondary pitches. But he's so young."

Beltran batted .286 with two home runs and five RBIs in six games for Puerto Rico in 2006. In '09, he hit .421 with eight hits and a homer in six games.

Infielder Rosario will see time in outfield for PR

FT. MYERS, Fla. -- With only four outfielders on his roster, Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez knows he is going to have to improvise.

That is why Eddie Rosario, the Minnesota Twins' highly-promising 21-year-old second baseman, will probably spend as much time in the outfield during the Classic as he does in the infield. Rosario, who has posted a .310 average in his three seasons in the Minor Leagues, will also serve as a designated hitter.

"We need outfielders," Rodriguez admitted.

In Wednesday's exhibition finale against the Twins, Rosario entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the fourth inning and took over at second base. He went 1-for-3.

"In Puerto Rico, in winter ball, he played outfield most of the time," Rodriguez said. "He plays the corners, but he's most comfortable playing right field."

"He's going to be something," predicted Rodriguez. "He's got a very powerful swing with that skinny [6-foot-1, 170-pound] body. He's going to drive the ball and hit home runs."

"From what I saw today, I think he's going to be a very fine second baseman."

Nevertheless, Rodriguez plans to use Rosario mostly in the outfield during the Classic.

Puerto Rico lacks depth of past Classics

FT. MYERS, Fla. -- Injuries to players such as outfielder Andres Torres, the retirement of perennial stalwarts such as Pudge Rodriguez and a decline in the number of Puerto Rican stars in the Major Leagues have made Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez's job much more difficult this spring.

"It has been challenging," Rodriguez said Wednesday.

"Before, you already had a team," Rodriguez explained. "You didn't have to scramble around. Now, we've got Minor Leaguers along with the Major Leaguers. Before, you didn't have to scout out the Minor Leaguers like we do now."

Puerto Rico finished fifth in the 2006 and '09 Classic tournaments.

There are currently 15 Puerto Ricans with Major League teams.

According to Baseball-Almanac.com, 18 Puerto Ricans played in the big leagues last year. There were 20 Puerto Ricans on Opening Day rosters in 2011. Two of them played in the All-Star game. In 1997, according to the New York Times, there were eight Puerto Ricans on the All-Star team.

"I'd say 10-15 years ago, the good athletes from Puerto Rico, they started to have more options," said Rodriguez, who managed the Florida Marlins in 2010-11.

Sports such as basketball, volleyball, golf and even American football have risen in popularity in Puerto Rico, while the popularity of baseball has declined.

Puerto Rico's roster includes several of the same players who represented their native country in the recent Caribbean Series, where Puerto Rico was a disappointing 2-4.

Jim Hawkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.