Star power in Venezuela

Dominican slugger Miguel Tejada stands out in a vast group of experienced major-league players who will see action in the Caribbean Series, beginning Thursday in the cities of Maracay and Valencia, Venezuela.

At least two dozen players are distributed among the starting lineups of the Dominican Republic (Licey Tigers), Puerto Rico (Carolina Giants), Mexico (Mazatlan Deers) and Venezuela (Caracas Lions).

The championship will have a head-to-head format and the team finishing first in the standings will win the trophy. Also, the series will be played simultaneously in two cities.

The round-robin tournament will start Thu., Feb. 2 at 3 p.m. ET, when Caribbean rivals Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico face each other at José Perez Colmenares Stadium in Maracay.

The second game of the day, between Mexico and Venezuela, will take place at 7 p.m. ET at Jose Bernardo Perez Stadium in Valencia.

Tejada will be playing in his seventh Caribbean Series in a row, this time as an reinforcement for the Licey Tigers, the Dominican baseball champions.

Tejada, who agreed to a $72 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles before the 2004 season, is currently considered the best shortstop in the majors.

Other renowned players on the Dominican roster are infielder Ronnie Belliard (Indians), veteran utilityman Jose Offerman (free agent), outfielder Timo Perez (White Sox) and pitchers Julian Tavarez (Red Sox), Carlos Perez (free agent), Juan Cruz (Athletics), Jorge Sosa (Braves), Jose Valverde (Diamondbacks), Roman Colon (Tigers) and Daniel Cabrera (Orioles).

The Dominicans will miss leading hitter David Ortiz (Red Sox), who will not play in the event, in order to take care of some personal issues.

"David expressed with great pain that he regrets not being able to help the team due to some issues he's got to take care of," said Tigers general manager Fernando Ravelo.

The Venezuelan team appears to be main challenger to the Dominicans -- the heavy favorites -- and last year's Caribbean Series champs, the Deers.

Caracas, the winningest Venezuelan team in the local league with 16 titles, features second baseman Marco Scutaro (Athletics), catchers Henry Blanco (Cubs) and Ramon Hernandez (Orioles), shortstop Alex Gonzalez (Red Sox) and pitchers Victor Zambrano (Mets), Francisco Rodriguez (Los Angeles Angels) and Jeremi Gonzalez (free agent).

Shortstop Carlos Guillen (Tigers) and reliever Jorge Julio (Mets) will not participate.

"I think the team to beat this year will be Venezuela and not Dominican Republic", said Juan Gonzalez Santiago, president of the Giants (Puerto Rico).

After a six-year drought and only one victory in their last 14 games in the Caribbean Series, Puerto Rico needs desperately to show some improvement to their fans.

Infielders Jose Valentin (Mets), Alex Cora (Red Sox) and Alex Cintron (Diamondbacks) stand out for the Giants, who will also have pitcher Jose Santiago.

Santiago was a last-minute confirmation, after receiving permission from the Chunichi Dragons of Japan, where he pitches in the summer.

Veteran Cuban pitcher Ariel Prieto (free agent), leads the modest Mexican squad, which will seek to retain the crown without their two key players, third baseman Vinny Castilla (Padres) and first baseman Erubiel Durazo (free agent).

On top of that, the Deers lost two of their best hitters, Pedro Castellano and Miguel Flores.

Infielder Oscar Robles (Los Angeles) and veteran American outfielder Trent Hubbard (free agent) will be counted on to carry Mazatlan's offense.

Mexican strength lies with its pitching, with Prieto and Francisco Campos, Pablo Ortega and Walter Silva forming the rotation.