The world baseball classic has many interesting story lines to follow: Who will and won't play, international rivalries, the US team trying to redeem itself, Japan trying to repeat as world champions, and so on. The list is nearly endless.
However, some of the more interesting stories to follow are individual players trying to make their name, or reassert their dominance, by capturing the attention of the international viewing public.
5. Yovani Gallardo
Gallardo and Francisco Liriano are in similar positions, but Gallardo has more pressure on his shoulders. Both pitchers missed the majority of last season with injuries and both are looking to rebound for their club as much as for their respective countries.
However, where Liriano has Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey as other front line starters on his staff, Gallardo is the man in Milwaukee. The loss of Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia puts the Ace label squarely on Gallardo’s shoulders.
Like Liriano, Gallardo may end up passing on the WBC and, in doing so, doom team Mexico to a subpar finish (Not that I don’t love the idea Carlos Silva hanging sinkers as he replaces Gallardo…wait, that’s right, I don’t love Carlos Silva).
There isn’t hard evidence proving that pitchers are worse off having pitched in the WBC, but the data on hand isn’t exactly promising. Given the fact that Gallardo has yet to pitch a full season in the majors, and his team has no chance of actually winning the tournament, it could be advisable for him to skip.
However, this problem gets at the fundamental draw of the tournament: There is a certain amount of pride that comes from representing one’s country. Both Gallardo and Liriano are caught in an awkward position. Their teams have, rightfully, taken a hands off approach to their decisions, so each player can decide his own path.
I, for one, hope both guys show up for their respective teams and pitch well during the season. The classic will only survive if players like Gallardo show that there is interest in it and that it is worth watching. If they don’t play, I understand completely, but I really hope they do!
4. Manny Ramirez
The man without a team gets to display his skills anyway and that’s the best thing for him right now. Ramirez will get a chance to show the Dodgers and Giants exactly what he can do in the context of meaningful games despite being a free agent.
The power already in the Dominican lineup gives Manny plenty of protection, and if offseason reports are true, he’s in some of the best shape of his life. It’s a spring training cliché, no doubt, but Manny’s work ethic is one of the most questionable parts of his player profile; if he shows up looking fit and hitting well, he’ll get the contract he wants pretty quickly.
3. Pedro Martinez
Like Manny, Pedro is teamless, but still wants to play. The WBC pitch limits, as well as the other great pitchers on the DR’s staff, will allow Pedro to sell himself as a starter, while only taking on a reliever’s workload.
Even if he doesn’t fool teams into thinking he’s a legitimate starter, if he pitches well against the upper level competition he faces, Pedro may get a hefty contract offer to come out of the bullpen in long relief.
There are questions as to whether Martinez would accept such an offer, but as long as he shuts hitters down this spring, Pedro will get at least one offer that he can live with.
2. Yu Darvish
Like Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006, Yu Darvish is the Japanese pitcher to watch, He’s likely to make the jump to MLB as soon as his contract with the Nippon Ham Fighters expires, with all the usual suitors expected to bid.
He’s a phenom with absolute shut down stuff, and he has been durable, even by NPB standards. The WBC will give him a chance to show what he can do with the larger ball against top line competition.
No matter what he does this time around, his posting fee and subsequent contract will be massive. However, if he shows even a fraction of the skills that earned him this hype, his fees will go into the stratosphere.
This will be American fans' first real chance to see Darvish, who also pitched in the Olympics, though it will hardly be their last.
At just 22, he younger than Tim Lincecum, Fransisco Liriano, David Price, or most any other highly major league prospect. So, he could play in Japan for another 3-4 years before coming over and still be considered a young player.
1. Ichiro Suzuki
Here's another Japanese pitcher to follow. No, there aren’t two Ichiros, just the outfield hit machine who has been experimenting with a knuckleball. Ichiro is always worth watching, as any dynamic player is, but the idea of getting to watch as he unveils a previous hidden talent is really exciting.
If he comes in and can actually get hitters out convincingly, imagine what it will do to his next contract. He’ll almost certainly move to the NL, remain an outfielder while he still has his legs, but always working on his secret weapon that could prolong his career. Think of his value to someone like Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa, who loves batting his pitcher eighth.
Fans may or may not get to see Ichiro try his newest trick, it will certainly depend on game situations. However, it’s worth watching just in case he heads out to the mound to try his Tim Wakefield impression.
Once the final rosters are set, it will be easier to see who will and won't be able to help their country stake a claim on national glory. Until then, we as fans can only hope that someone in addition to Japan will field their country's best possible team.
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