It's baseball's version of the Olympiad.
After a four-year hiatus, the World Baseball Classic is back in 2013. With it comes the potential and the hope that the event can capture the attention of even more fans than it did back in 2009.
It will be interesting to see how the plot unfolds in the tournament for international baseball bragging rights.
Several players have opted out of the 2013 WBC, much like many did in 2009 and 2006.
One possible explanation: the risk of injury.
Tournament pool play begins March 2nd, a time when most major league players are just a couple weeks into spring training and still getting the motors going. Players can take their time and slowly crescendo into the regular season over the course of six weeks.
But for those participating in the WBC, their training regimen gets bumped up as they will be playing in competitive games a month ahead of their normal routine.
The rush is often enough for many star players to sit out the WBC so as not to jeopardize their health. Guys such as Clayton Kershaw, Albert Pujols and Bryce Harper are all noticeably absent from their respective countries' rosters.
Short of playing the tournament during the middle of the major league season (the Players' Association will never let that happen) or playing it after the World Series (also unlikely), spring is the next best time to hold such an event.
With that in mind, is there merit in the players' decisions to opt out?
ESPN's Jayson Stark says no.
In fact, his article points to evidence to the contrary. After the 2009 WBC, 73 players opened the regular season on the disabled list. Two had participated in the tournament.
And in only two of the past eight seasons have there been less than nine percent of active players on the disabled list. Care to guess which two years those were?
You guessed it. The two years (2006 and 2009) when the WBC was held.
Furthermore, ESPN's Ben Lindbergh theorizes that it is not injury that is risked in this event. Strict pitch counts are in place to restrict pitchers from exerting too much, too soon in the spring.
Rather, because the players (creatures of habit by nature) are forced out of their routines for a couple weeks, their performance is what can suffer.
And, even that is not conclusive, according to Lindbergh.
No matter whether the risk of injury is, indeed, heightened by playing in the event, the thought of it possibly curtailing a player's season (and possibly costing him millions in his next contract if he is close to free agency) has deterred some of the game's best from taking part in the event, diluting the overall product.
The Japanese team's winning percentage certainly is high in the World Baseball Classic.
Two tournaments, two championships.
Going for a third straight title may prove to be a bit tougher in 2013, though.
No longer armed with the likes of Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka or Yu Darvish, the Japanese will have to get by without many of the household names the American fans are accustomed to seeing. The only Japanese player with name recognition in the American game is infielder Kaz Matsui.
However, Japan is still considered one of the favorites. The Japanese still filled out a roster with players who have WBC experience.
And, knowing how seriously the Japanese take the sport and how much it has meant to the country to be the only one to win the event, it stands to reason that Japan will have something to say about the outcome of the WBC.
One thing that could help grow the popularity of this event would be for the USA team to take home the title. Giving the American fans a taste of victory in the WBC would only give them a larger thirst for more in years to come.
The USA team, managed by Joe Torre, certainly has the talent to win it all.
Team USA is led by its pitching staff, as the rotation ranks among the best in this year's event. Reigning National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey heads the staff that also includes Derek Holland of the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants starter Ryan Vogelsong, whose heroics during last season's World Series made him more of household name.
The rotation was even deeper with Atlanta Braves ace Kris Medlen aboard. But he has withdrawn to be with his family as they await the birth of their first child.
The rest of the pitching staff is comprised of solid bullpen arms, topped by young phenom Craig Kimbrel.
Guys like Giancarlo Stanton, Ryan Braun and David Wright anchor the middle of the USA lineup. And to be sure, the rest of the position players bring quality depth.
But the USA offense may come in a step below some of the other lineups in the tournament.
It's always fun to take a look at the best lineups in the majors and see how well some of them fit together.
It's even more fun when you can look at the All-Star lineups and laugh at how much fun those managers must have making that fantasy lineup.
Well, some of the managers in this year's WBC will have an easy job filling out a lineup card. That's because there is ridiculous talent on some of the squads.
Take Team USA, for example.
Joe Torre can sprinkle guys like Jimmy Rollins and Adam Jones at the top of the order. Then he can fortify the middle with Giancarlo Stanton, Ryan Braun and David Wright. And it must feel good to follow those guys with the likes of Mark Teixeira, Brandon Phillips and Joe Mauer.
Yeah, that's a pretty decent lineup.
But, then come the real heavy hitters.
The Dominican Republic can trot out this batting order:
1. Jose Reyes, SS
2. Melky Cabrera, LF
3. Robinson Cano, 2B
4. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B
5. Adrian Beltre, 3B
6. Hanley Ramirez, DH
7. Nelson Cruz, RF
8. Carlos Santana, C
9. Carlos Gomez, CF
That lineup has just about everything you could want: speed at the top and bottom, power throughout and solid guys who will give you quality at-bats.
You thought that was good? Check out the Venezuelan lineup:
1. Elvis Andrus, SS
2. Marco Scutaro, 2B
3. Pablo Sandoval, 3B
4. Miguel Cabrera, 1B
5. Carlos Gonzalez, LF
6. Miguel Montero, C
7. Asdrubal Cabrera, DH
8. Martin Prado, RF
9. Gerardo Parra, RF
Um, yeah. That's pretty much the Dominican lineup, plus an added jolt of ridiculousness.
Good luck, WBC pitchers. Good luck.
Aside from the competitive aspects of the World Baseball Classic, it is always fun to look at the guys who are familiar to MLB fans who end up playing for countries the fans would not have anticipated.
Per the WBC rules, here are the guidelines that determine if a player is eligible to play for a particular country:
Each player on a Federation Team's approved Provisional Roster must be eligible to participate for that Federation Team. A player will be so eligible only if:
- The player is a citizen of the Federation Team's country or territory, as evidenced by a valid passport the player holds as of January 1, 2012; or
- The player is currently a permanent legal resident of the Federation Team's country or territory, as evidenced by documentation satisfactory to WBCI and the International Baseball Federation ("IBAF"), or
- The player was born in the Federation Team's country or territory, as evidenced by a birth certificate or its equivalent ; or
- The player has one parent who is, or if deceased was, a citizen of the Federation Team's country or territory, as evidenced by a passport or other documentation satisfactory to WBCI and the IBAF; or
- The player has one parent who was born in the Federation Team's country or territory, as evidenced by a birth certificate or its equivalent; or
Basically, if a player has a third uncle in a far-off land somewhere, there's a good chance he can suit up for that country. Or so it seems.
It makes for some interesting pairings, though.
For instance, in 2006, Andruw Jones and Jair Jurrjens were on the Netherlands roster. Mike Piazza and Dan Miceli suited up for Italy.
In 2009, American-born Adrian Gonzalez played for Mexico. So did Jerry Hairston Jr., who was born in Des Moines, Iowa. Jason Grilli and Frank Catalanotto's names end in vowels. Thus, they played for the Italian team.
This year's WBC is no exception. Jones and Jurrjens are still plugging away on the Netherlands. Grilli once again joins a host of Americans playing for Italy.
Does it mean anything as it pertains to the product on the field? Absolutely not.
It's just always funny to see all the faces in strange places.