Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
How do you say "play ball" in Mandarin?
Perhaps we'll find out Friday night when Australia and Chinese Taipei kick off the World Baseball Classic at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium in Taiwan.
I assume the Australian equivalent of "play ball" involves Russell Crowe and a sentence that ends with the word, "mate." And maybe a bloomin' onion at Outback Steakhouse (Can we skip the rest of this column and go there right now? I think I have a gift certificate).
Though the Australia/Chinese Taipei matchup probably won't be the most Tivo- worthy game of the tournament, have that remote ready. It's going to be a great month of baseball.
Not everyone will be participating in this year's WBC. Alex Rodriguez is on the shelf with a hip injury and reigning NL MVP Buster Posey will be in Scottsdale competing in spring training games (and possibly working on his tan).
Don't get the wrong idea, though. This tournament still has plenty of star power. Let's introduce you to this year's talent:
First base: What an embarrassment of riches for Canada. The Canadians have not one but two MVP first basemen in Justin Morneau (won the AL award in 2006) and Joey Votto (took home MVP honors for the NL in 2010). Mexico's Adrian Gonzalez (100 RBI in five of his last six seasons) and America's Mark Teixeira (338 career HR) have also had success during their major league careers.
The dark horse of the group? How about Team Italy's Anthony Rizzo (.285, 15 HR, 48 RBI in 87 big league games last season)? The 23-year-old Cubs first baseman has "future All-Star" written all over him. Don't forget about the D.R.'s Edwin Encarnacion either (career-high 42 HR for the Blue Jays in 2012).
Second base: While not as stacked as first, this year's WBC still boasts a pair of perennial All-Stars at second base in Yankees infielder Robinson Cano (Dominican Republic) and Cincinnati's Brandon Phillips (United States). This will be Phillips' international debut while Cano is making his second appearance for the D.R. (he hit .231 at the Classic in 2009). Marco Scutaro (.328 average for San Francisco in the playoffs last fall) and Omar Infante (.274, 12 HR, 53 RBI, 17 SB for the Marlins and Tigers in 2012) give Venezuela a nice one-two punch at second base as well.
Shortstop: With Jose Reyes (fourth on the active steals list with 410) and Hanley Ramirez (won the batting title for Florida in 2009) both on the roster, shortstop won't be an issue for the Dominican Republic in this tournament. Don't overlook Venezuela's two-headed monster of Asdrubal Cabrera (AL All-Star in 2011 and 2012) and Elvis Andrus (averaging 30.8 steals since 2009) either. You know this is a position of strength when former NL MVP Jimmy Rollins isn't even mentioned until the third sentence. 2013 will be Rollins' second go-round with Team USA after hitting .417 in the 2009 WBC.
Third base: A Triple Crown winner and a World Series MVP ... on the same team? Whoa. Team Venezuela's duo of Miguel Cabrera and Pablo Sandoval will be tough to beat. Give the Americans some credit though. Landing David Wright (.306, 21 HR, 93 RBI, 15 SB in 2012) was a smart move. Canada's Brett Lawrie (.273, 11 HR, 48 RBI for Toronto last season) could also turn a few heads.
Outfield: Team USA's outfield is a thing of beauty. Ryan Braun and Giancarlo Stanton produced the two highest home run totals in the NL last season and Baltimore's Adam Jones is coming off a breakout season (.287, 32 HR, 82 RBI). While not as impressive as USA's collection of outfielders, you could hardly call outfield a weak spot for the D.R., who feature Nelson Cruz (108 HR since 2009) and Alejandro De Aza (career-high 26 steals last season). Venezuela's Carlos Gonzalez (averaging .313, 27 HR, 98 RBI, 22 SB in his last three seasons) won't be an easy out either.
Catcher: Catcher gives us another deep talent pool to sort through. Last season, Puerto Rico's Yadier Molina was in the running for National League MVP (.315, 22 HR, 76 RBI in 2012). USA's Joe Mauer beat Molina to the punch by three years, taking home the AL MVP award in 2009. Though not an MVP candidate, Venezuela's Miguel Montero can still rake with the best of them (led MLB catchers in RBI in 2011). D.R.'s Carlos Santana (not the guitarist) might be headed down a similar path (45 HR, 155 RBI the last two seasons).
Starting pitcher: Strangely, the most dominant pitcher in the tournament is 38 years old. Of course, I'm referring to 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey of Team USA. Good luck trying to hit an 80 mph knuckle ball, rest of the planet. Fellow National League All-Stars Gio Gonzalez (league-leading 21 wins last season) and Ryan Vogelsong (3-0 with a 1.09 ERA during San Francisco's World Series run in 2012) round out the rest of USA's starting rotation.
The other squads are pretty thin on pitching (D.R.'s Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez may be the best the rest of the world has to offer), so they'll have to out-slug their opponents if they want to win the title. Taipei's Chien- Ming Wang (2-3, 6.68 ERA in 10 games for Washington last season) is hoping a strong performance in the WBC could land him a tryout with a major league club.
Relief pitcher: Jose Valverde lives! He'll be suiting up for the Dominican Republic along with last year's major league ERA leader, Fernando Rodney (0.60 in 76 appearances). Former Brewers teammates John Axford (Canada) and Francisco Rodriguez (Venezuela) will also be in attendance. America's flame- throwing closer Craig Kimbrel (NL saves leader each of the last two seasons) might be the best reliever in the whole tournament.
I didn't mention any Japanese players in my preview but remember, Japan is a perfect 2-0 since the World Baseball Classic debuted in 2006. Despite inventing the sport, the U.S. has never finished better than fourth in this exhibition.
Will anything change in 2013?
We'll know the answer to that soon. For now, let's just play ball.
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