World Baseball Classic Update

Baseball’s Winter Meetings in Dallas kicked off last Monday with a major announcement about the World Baseball Classic, including some preliminary roster announcements, and there have been additional developments since then. Some of these took us completely off guard and others were expected, but as the WBC is really starting to take shape we thought we’d update our preview of the tournament in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2006 with some additional insights. We will continue to cover the WBC as it takes shape over the coming weeks.

The most surprising part of the announcement was the fact that Italy has apparently colonized such unlikely places as Bellflower, California, and Passaic, New Jersey. OK, maybe Italy colonizing Passaic isn’t all that odd. The Italian team’s roster will receive some unexpected help from a large group of Italian-American ballplayers, including Bellflower’s Val Pascucci and Passaic’s Mark DeRosa. The big name associated with Italy will be Mike Piazza; Frank Catalanotto and Dave Dellucci wil help anchor the batting lineup and Jason Grilli and Mike Gallo the pitching staff.

That surprise announcement, and the strong possibility that there are more Italian-Americans to come, help to turn Team Italy into a potential second Team USA, not a small consideration when Italy’s Pool D games will be played in Orlando. It certainly guarantees that Italy’s games against the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are much less likely to be embarrassing blowouts. While the announcement was something of a surprise, in a sporting sense there is no skullduggery involved. All the players have parents born in Italy, and under international sporting rules, if you have a parent born in a country (sometimes even a grandparent!) you can usually play for it. An explanation of eligibility rules for the WBC is here.

A very troublesome development, however, occurred this past Wednesday as the U.S. Treasury Department denied permission for MLB to bring a Cuban team to the WBC. The Cuban team had been expected to participate in the tournament, considering the opportunity too attractive to miss. Now a heavy-handed, politicized bureaucracy appears intent on making it impossible, and the Treasury Department has refused to discuss the case. This change is going to necessitate scheduling changes; presumably the Treasury Department’s ambit extends to Puerto Rico as well, which is where the Cuban team was to play the first- and second-round games.

For the U.S., perhaps the most important early development is that Buck Martinez will be the U.S. manager, with Davey Johnson serving as his bench coach. In scientific terms, this is like appointing Jerry Lewis as head of research with Louis Pasteur as his lab assistant. I hope you like bunting, U.S. fans!

The rosters for the World Baseball Classic are set at 30 players. Of these players, at least 13 must be pitchers and three of the position players must be catchers. While the lists as released right now won’t be the final rosters—injuries and last-minute drop-outs will no doubt change the composition somewhat—we’re going to analyze and comment on some of the selections as they stand right now.

The U.S. roster, loaded with superb talent, nevertheless has a couple of names that make you say “wha?” Most notable among these is the redoubtable “Senator Al” Leiter, a lightweight among the Halladays, Peavys and Clemenses. Of course, it’s not that long since Leiter last had a fine season (just two years ago), and the U.S. team, while knee-deep in quality relievers such as Jason Isringhausen, Huston Street, Billy Wagner, B.J. Ryan, Brad Lidge and Chad Cordero, is somewhat shorter on starters. Since the tournament is in March, the U.S. team will likely give its starters short stints and go to its brilliant bullpen early in every game; there will certainly be some very good starters working out of the bullpen as well. In fact, many teams may be in this boat as the WBC rules will apparently include pitch count limits of some kind. These have yet to be worked out, but they appear to be quite important to MLB’s clubs, not surprisingly.

You just can’t find a weakness in the U.S. roster; every position is covered twice over by superb players, from Joe Mauer and Jason Varitek at catcher, to Derek Jeter and Mike Young at shortstop. Forty-one players were named, so not every named player will go to the WBC, but it would be hard to go wrong here. Even if the best 11 players off this roster were sent home, this team would be right there. Yes, even if it has to play Brian Schneider or Michael Barrett at catcher. And just when you thought they were completely loaded, Alex Rodriguez has apparently not yet decided whether to play for the U.S. or the Dominican Republic, although he has stated that he is “leaning” towards the Dominican Republic. No doubt A-Rod is trying to figure out additional ways to make himself look insincere before having to settle on a flag. Rumors that he is in negotiations to buy one of the competing countries and name it “A-Rodistan” are apparently unfounded.

The Dominican Republic released a list of 29 players, and with only two catchers on the roster we know that the last spot would be reserved for a third catcher. Therefore, there is a small chance that the Dominican will have exactly this roster construction for the tournament. The hitting roster looks like it will shape up as predicted, and it will be an incredibly entertaining lineup to watch. The infield will include three premier hitters in Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano and Miguel Tejada. Manager Manny Acta will have to decide between Adrian Beltre and Placido Polanco at third base; a decision which could be further complicated if Aramis Ramirez joins the team before the tournament. The outfield consists of Manny Ramirez, who had the option of playing for the United States, Wily Mo Pena and Vladimir Guerrero, with David Ortiz at DH. There isn’t a scarier lineup in the competition, even with the offensive sinkhole at catcher. Juan Brito and Alberto Castillo have been appointed to the team, leaving Miguel Olivo and Ronny Paulino (Pittsburgh/AAA) as the leading candidates to fill the remaining roster spot reserved for catchers.

However, the Dominican’s roster announcement does contain some surprises. It looks like the bench will consist of Ronnie Belliard, Robison Cano, Beltre/Polanco, Pedro Feliz and Neifi Perez. This seems like a poor way to construct their bench. They have a plethora of second and third basemen, and while Feliz can fill it at first base and Perez at shortstop, Feliz is also the Dominican’s only outfield reserve. Their outfield, particularly at the corners, is outstanding, but it seems likely that you’d want to have a couple of reserves around, for precautionary reasons and in the case of blowouts. We’d be surprised if this roster didn’t change somewhat, but even the infield suggestions are questionable, as it leaves Rafael Furcal, Jhonny Peralta and Luis Castillo off the team. Potential outfield reserves include Jose Guillen, Juan Encarnacion and Willy Taveras.

The bullpen also contained some surprising names. As it stands right now it includes Antonio Alfonseca, Eude Brito, Jesus Colome, Coco Cordero, Franklyn German, Jose Mesa, Felix Rodriguez, Duaner Sanchez, Julian Tavarez, Salomon Torres and maybe Robinson Tejeda, depending on how many starters the team uses. To demonstrate just how unqualified we are to go into fortune-telling, in our preview of the Dominican’s bullpen we listed nine names, of which two are in the 11-man pen. Maybe all these players were approached and declined invitations to play, which is also possible for the hitters, but otherwise it looks like another case of poor selections. We’re not sure what would cause someone to select some of those names over Damaso Marte (particularly because the entire bullpen is right-handed), Jose Valverde, Luis Vizcaino, Guillermo Mota, Ervin Santana, Julio Mateo and, if healthy, Al Reyes and Armando Benitez is beyond us. Nevertheless, with their outstanding lineup the Dominicans are easily among the tournament’s two or three favourites, with or without an optimally constructed bench and bullpen.

While the Dominican roster contained many surprises, the Canadian one was almost exactly what one would have expected. Canada announced two-thirds of the roster on Monday, so there are still 10 empty spots that will be filled before the March competition. Canada’s chance to advance to the finals took a big hit when Rich Harden wasn’t listed on the roster and will likely not take part in the WBC because of his rehabilitation and concern over further arm injuries. While disappointing to Baseball Canada, the move is completely understandable, and minimizing the risk of injury for Harden should be everyone’s first priority. Canada can still advance to the second round even without Harden, but their match against Mexico will likely be the deciding game. It will be up to Ernie Whitt to set the rotation, but it would not be surprising to see Erik Bedard held back for this game.

The bullpen consists mostly of the usual suspects, along with a couple of surprises. A healthy Eric Gagne will give Canada one of the best closers in the WBC, and with Jesse Crain, Chris Reitsma and Paul Quantrill setting him up from the right and Rheal Cormier acting as a LOOGY, the bullpen is serviceable, at the minimum. Ryan Dempster was not listed on the roster; we’re not aware of any reason he would not take part in the tournament. If he’s added later he’d serve as the primary set-up man and would give Canada’s bullpen a huge boost.

Two names were added that we discussed as possibilities but left off our predicted roster in the Annual. Steve Green is a righty from Quebec who split last year between Akron (Cleveland/AA) and Toledo (Detroit/AAA). He served as reliever, but prior to that had been exclusively a starter in Anaheim’s system. Green accumulated a 4.23 ERA between the two levels with a 2:1 K:BB ratio. He had a miserable 2004 at Salt Lake (Anaheim/AAA) and will likely serve as a back-of-the-bullpen reliever.

Shawn Hill made three starts for the Expos in 2004, but he experienced arm problems shortly after his demotion and spent all of 2005 on the disabled list. Despite low minor league ERAs, Hill’s potential is limited. He is not a strikeout pitcher and his control isn’t spectacular. Also, Hill has given up a high number of unearned runs throughout his minor league career. He may serve as a starter, but given his injury history the team may keep him as a reliever. There are likely three or four roster spots left for pitchers, depending on how Baseball Canada structures the rosters. Leading candidates for these spots include Dempster, Eric Cyr (Anaheim, AAA), Mike Meyers (Milwaukee/AAA), Vince Perkins (Toronto/AA), Chris Begg (San Francisco/AA), Phil Devey (Philadelphia/AA), Ryan Braun (Kansas City/A) and Cory Stuart (New York/A).

As for the hitters, there were no surprises. The names on the list should fill out the starting lineup, aside from shortstop and center fielder/designated hitter. Baseball Canada is likely waiting to see if Chris Woodward’s citizenship application is processed before the tournament, while the team’s potential starting center fielder, Adam Stern, was also not named to the team. There is a possibility that manager Ernie Whitt will use Jason Bay, Aaron Guiel and Matt Stairs in the outfield, leaving the DH spot free for someone like Mark Teahan, Scott Thorman or Pete LaForest. However, further comment on the Canadian lineup and bench construction will have to be reserved until the other names are announced.

Venezuela, for its part, only announced a partial roster, but with many of its expected stars showing up on the roster, they should be a force to be reckoned with. Most notable are superstars Johan Santana, Freddy Garcia and Carlos Zambrano on the mound and Bobby Abreu, Melvin Mora and Carlos Guillen among position players. Felix Hernandez, for his part, wants to join them but so far the Mariners have stood firm that they don’t want him risked. This controversy may yet escalate; we’ll keep you posted. Even without Felix, Venezuela have enough arms to be a threat to everyone.

We’ll look at some other rosters in a future WBC Update. For now, feel free to send us your suggestions and comments.

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