World Baseball Classic: Latino teams looking strong

Triple Crown-winner Miguel Cabrera leads the Venezuela national team into the World Baseball Classic.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m more than ready to watch some baseball. Super Bowl XLVII, featuring the Harbaugh brothers, might satisfy my sports fix for one more weekend. But after that, I may have to start pounding on the heavy bag that hangs idly in my garage. Fortunately, this is one of those years when we will witness some quality action a bit early. The World Baseball Classic is just a few weeks away, and the participants take this tournament very seriously. The event has helped baseball gain recognition on an international stage, and each game oozes with patriotic pride.

In case you’re not familiar with the format of the affair, I’ll briefly explain. Qualifying rounds took place last fall, narrowing the field down to 16 teams. These clubs were then divided up into four pools. Two teams will advance out of these groups to the semi-finals, which will be held at the Tokyo Dome in Japan and at Marlins Park in Miami, Florida. The championship games will take place at AT&T Park in San Francisco, home of the World Champion Giants.

In past World Baseball Classic tournaments, Japanese teams led by Ichiro Suzuki and other veterans dominated the competition. But I think 2013 will be the year that Latin American teams prove superior. Here is a breakdown of the four pools and my predictions:

Pool A: Brazil, China, Cuba and Japan
March 2-6 in Fukuoka, Japan

The Brazilians, managed by Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, were impressive in the qualifying series in Panama. But they will now be playing without their best player, Yan Gomes of the Cleveland Indians, and won’t have enough offense to get it done.

With China’s strength still centered around ping pong tables, I see Cuba and Japan easily moving on.

Pool B: Australia, Netherlands, South Korea and Taiwan
March 2-5 in Taichung, Taiwan

The Aussies are over their heads, as usual, but the Dutch will put up a good fight. They feature some terrific young players like Jurickson Profar (Texas Rangers), Andrelton Simmons (Atlanta Braves) and Didi Gregorius (Arizona Diamondbacks), as well as a veteran presence with Andruw Jones and Roger Bernadina. The pitching, though, will be problematic.

South Korea and Taiwan are both solid and will advance in this group.

Pool C: Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Spain and Venezuela
March 7-10 in San Juan, Puerto Rico

This is the group that will raise the bar in terms of all-star competition. Spain has about as much of a chance as a snowball on the outfield carpet at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. So scratch the Europeans.

Puerto Rico will be a worthy opponent, especially at home, and will feature big league stars like Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan and Alex Rios. The pitching staff will be headed by veteran Javier Vazquez, who is throwing well and will be eyed by pro scouts as he contemplates a comeback. But I don’t think the team has enough depth in its starting pitching to hand the baton to relievers Javier Lopez and J.C. Romero.

The Dominican Republic is loaded with infielders like Erick Aybar, Adrian Beltre, Robinson Cano and Hanley Ramirez. They also have adequate pitching and one of the best closers in the business in Fernando Rodney.

But Venezuela is too strong from top to bottom. Just imagine the lineup manager Luis Sojo will toy with prior to each game. He’ll have Pablo Sandoval at third base, Elvis Andrus or Esdrubal Cabrera at shortstop, Marco Scutaro at second base and Miguel Cabrera switching back to his best position, first base.

Carlos Gonzalez, Gerardo Parra and Martin Prado will patrol the outfield. Available to catch will be Salvador Perez and Miguel Montero, with Felix Hernandez and Anibal Sanchez as key guys on the hill.

Needless to say, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela will prolong the fiesta.

Pool D: Canada, Italy, Mexico and the United States
March 7-10 in Phoenix, Arizona

The Canucks will have Russell Martin, Justin Morneau and Brett Lawrie, while Italy’s best players are Francisco Cervelli, Nick Punto and Anthony Rizzo, the Chicago Cubs slugging first baseman. But like all the dark horse teams, these clubs lack the quality arms needed to seriously compete.

Joe Torre‘s stars and stripes gang have a good enough mix of players to be very dangerous. They will have plenty of offense with Ryan Braun, Adam Jones, Joe Mauer, Giancarlo Stanton and David Wright. The starting pitching should hold up with Cy Young award winner R.A.Dicky and Ryan Vogelsong, although depth could be an issue. The possible addition of Justin Verlander, who is still on the fence, would be a huge addition to the staff. The bullpen looks stellar with Jeremy Affeldt, Heath Bell, Luke Gregerson and Craig Kimbrel leading the way.

The team from Mexico is a bit of an enigma due to some political implications, which is par for the course. The Mexican League, in a power play, has threatened to suspend any player who participates in the WBC event, which will leave the club short of personnel if the problem isn’t resolved. What’s worse, star pitchers Jorge de la Rosa and Joakim Soria are still recovering from serious injuries and are unable to suit up.

Manager Rick Renteria still has a capable mound crew with Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada and Miguel Gonzalez, who threw brilliantly in the post season for the Baltimore Orioles. Adrian Gonzalez and brother Edgar, along with Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Luis Cruz will head up the offense, and the defense should be decent with Danny Espinosa and former New York Yankee Ramiro Pena up the middle.

So, its a safe bet that the USA and Mexico will be on their way to South Florida.

Sports have a way of bringing nations and its people together. In decades past, soccer has been the great unifier, with the World Cup as its showcase event. Now you can put the World Baseball Classic in that category. According to the International Baseball Federation, the game is now played professionally in 118 countries.

Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera is definitely caught up in the moment.

“Everybody has to do what they got to do for their country,” admits Cabrera. “There’s a lot of passion for baseball in Venezuela. They want to win. I want to win.”

If Venezuela wins the third installment of the World Baseball Classic, and I believe they will, it will reinforce the success these same players had in the playoffs and the World Series. It will also add a certain level of prestige to baseball in Latin America and its loyal throng of aficionados.

Denis Villatoro

Villatoro signing puts Honduras back on the baseball map

One of my favorite cities in Latin America is Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. It’s narrow, one way streets curve up and down with a backdrop of picturesque mountains covered with pine trees. Unfortunately, “Tegus” is taking a bad rap these days with punk gangs and foreign drug lords getting all the press coverage. So, I’m happy to report some good news with the recent signing of Denis Villatoro, 18, to a professional contract by the Toronto Blue Jays. Villatoro, a Tegucigalpa resident, is locked in to a five-year development program and agreed to a modest signing bonus of $20,000.

“I understand that this will be a long journey for me, but I’m up to the challenge,” predicts Denis in perfect English. “I’m just super happy for the opportunity.”

Villatoro’s good fortune was somewhat random. A converted third baseman, Denis started pitching for the Honduran Air Force team because of his cannon arm, and was spotted by a roving Blue Jays scout. After pitching for a season in the Dominican Instructional League, Villatoro attracted the attention of the New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates and a couple of other major league teams. But his loyalty belonged to the Blue Jays.

If Villatoro eventually makes it to the show, he will be the first Honduran to do so since Gerald Young broke the ice with the Houston Astros in 1987. Young was a fleet-footed outfielder from the Caribbean city of Tela who had an up and down career plagued with injuries and cocaine use. I don’t see that happening with Villatoro, a hard-throwing gym rat with a good head on his shoulders.

Villatoro might be a diamond in the rough, but I like his chances for success. Besides, he’s from Tegucigalpa.

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