The quadrennial tournament is far more popular outside of the U.S. and the M’s many foreign players are excited about representing their countries.
Robinson Cano gave a surprised look to the question as if to say, “Shouldn’t you already know the answer to this?”
Perhaps the two Dominican Republic jerseys hanging in the unoccupied locker next to his provided enough of a response to the query: Are you going to play in the upcoming World Baseball Classic?
But Cano dutifully answered anyway.
“Well of course I’m going to play,” he said, smiling. “They’ve already asked me a while ago.”
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He’s got a title to defend.
Cano and Nelson Cruz were part of the Dominican Republic team that rolled through the 2013 WBC, not losing a game and defeating Puerto Rico 2-0 to win the championship.
“It was like a dream,” Cruz said. “We won every single game. We had fun. It was a blast.”
Cruz isn’t missing out on a chance to play.
“Yeah, I’m definitely going to play,” he said. “I think it’s something the Dominicans are looking forward to. We definitely want to play. It’s something we are proud to do.”
That pride, particularly from countries other than the U.S., has helped the WBC maintain a level of popularity. Players from Latin American countries revel in the chance to represent their home on a high stage. The Asian countries have also embraced the WBC. The U.S.? Not so much.
The Mariners could have several players on their 40-man roster and under contact for next season that could be participating in the WBC, which has not released its schedule yet. Felix Hernandez (Venezuela), Edwin Diaz (Puerto Rico), reliever Arquimedes Caminero (Dominican Republic), Dae-Ho Lee (Korea), Kyle Seager (United States), reliever Pat Venditte and catcher Mike Zunino (Italy), pitcher James Paxton and top prospect Tyler O’Neill (Canada).
Neither Nori Aoki or Hisashi Iwakuma participated for Japan in 2013. But they did play in 2009. Outfielders Leonys Martin and Guillermo Heredia and pitcher Ariel Miranda aren’t allowed to play for Cuba because they defected.
“I will play if they ask me,” Lee said through interpreter D.J. Park.
After not playing for Venezuela in 2013, Hernandez said he plans to play in 2017.
“Oh, I’m playing,” he said. “The last time we were dealing with my contract and I couldn’t go. I want to play so bad.”
Rookie reliever Edwin Diaz has already decided to represent Puerto Rico. It’s something that he’s wanted since his days growing up there.
“I went to the games with my family in 2006 and 2009 and I remember following in 2013 and using it to motivate me,” he said. “I’ve already talked with several players in the big leagues from Puerto Rico. We are all going to play.”
Diaz ripped off the names of Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez and Yadier Molina.
“We should have a pretty good team,” he said.
Some general managers are hesitant to let their pitchers participate, but Jerry Dipoto is amenable to the situation.
“I’m very supportive of it,” the M’s GM said. “To me, if players want to go, then we’ll encourage it. It’s always a little iffier with the pitchers because of their preparedness. If the pitcher knows before time, if he’s been requested before time and he knows he’s going to head to the WBC and he’s taken extra care in his preparation to make sure that his pitch count is ready to go, then I have no issues.”
That’s what Hernandez plans to do.
“I’m going to start working out earlier, probably in Miami for a little bit and then go to Venezuela,” he said. “I might ask for permission to throw in winter ball for a few innings to keep my arm in shape and then show up for spring training ready to go.”
Diaz started throwing early last year to be ready for the Mariners’ minor-league minicamp this spring, so he’ll have little adjustment. He also hopes to throw a few innings in winter ball.
“And I will go to spring training early this year,” he said.
Cruz and Cano are also going to move up their workouts and try to get some at-bats in winter ball.
But it’s the late asks that makes Dipoto worry. He has a pretty good idea about his candidates.
“Usually you know,” he said. “Going to into it, it’s hardest to predict the Team USA guys. You know Team Venezuela is not putting together a team without calling on Felix. There’s pretty good chance that Korea is going to call Dae-Ho. Those are generally a given, but with the U.S.-born players, it’s a very much harder to predict.”
Each year, the U.S. has dozens of players that opt not to play and it scrambles to fill out its roster. It doesn’t have the draw that it does for foreign-born players. Kyle Seager wouldn’t be one asking out. He wants to play.
“Oh, man, that would be pretty exciting,” he said. “I haven’t been asked. That would be definitely something cool to do.”
Seager had hoped to play on a Team USA college team at North Carolina.
“I almost did my sophomore year of college, but it didn’t work out,” he said. “I talked to them and we went to Omaha for the College World Series and they never called back.”
The U.S. has a solid crop of third basemen, but an infield with Kyle and Corey Seager is a possibility.
“More like left side of the bench for me,” Seager joked. “But it would be a very cool opportunity.”