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March 7, 2013

On the Beat

Fighting for Béisbol Prominence

by John Perrotto

Let’s not kid ourselves. The biggest reason for holding the World Baseball Classic is to generate more interest in Major League Baseball internationally, which means more merchandise sold on MLB.com and more MLB.tv subscriptions purchased. When it comes to MLB, like all professional sports, it is about creating more revenue streams.

However, MLB’s altruistic version of the WBC is that it will grow the game globally and make baseball more popular in countries where it doesn’t have much of a foothold. Spain is that kind of nation.

Spain pulled a shocker in a WBC qualifier at Jupiter, Fla., last September by beating Israel in the final. Now the Spaniards are in the WBC first round and will play in Pool C along with the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela at San Juan. Their first game is Friday night against host Puerto Rico at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

Spain seemingly has no chance of being one of the two teams to survive its pool and move on to the second round in Miami. In its first exhibition game against a major-league team on Tuesday, Spain was routed 10-0 by the Pirates in Bradenton, Fla., even though Pittsburgh did not play any of its regulars. However, Spain manager Mauro Mazzotti thinks his team has already won just for the fact that one of the Spanish television networks has a reporter embedded with his squad and the nation’s two largest-selling newspapers are regularly printing stories about the WBC.

“The sports pages in Spain are pretty much all soccer with Real Madrid and Barcelona FC,” Mazzotti said. “Still, we are least getting some attention, and that’s good for the sport. A lot of people in Spain do not know much about baseball, but hopefully we can change that in this tournament. I don’t know how we are going to fare, but it will be a success if we raise the profile of the sport.”

Spain right-hander Eric Gonzalez admits that raising that profile will be difficult. Baseball holds such a low place in Spain’s sporting realm that he is the only Spanish national on the roster, and he was born in the Canary Islands. Gonzalez played for four seasons in the Padres’ farm system after being their 24th-round draft pick in 2009 from the University of South Alabama. He spent last year with Lake Erie in the independent Frontier League

“It’s a complicated situation,” Gonzalez said. “People in Spain love soccer, and it’s always going to be the No. 1 sport in that country. We understand that. Baseball is a complicated game with a lot more rules than soccer, and I think that is part of the reason why it is not as popular in as many countries as it is in the United States and Latin America. What we’re hoping to do is, by competing against some of the very best players in the world, that people in Spain will take interest and try to learn more about the sport.”

Spain, though, is an overwhelming underdog, as it has just two players with major-league experience. Reliever Rhiner Cruz made 62 appearances in his debut with the Astros last season, while first baseman Barbero Canizares played in five games for the Braves in 2009. The rest of the squad consists of current or former minor leaguers from Latin American or the United States who are of Spanish descent.

Outfielder Danny Figueroa and his brother, infielder Paco, both reached the Triple-A level in the Orioles’ farm system after playing collegiately at the University of Miami. They have been integral figures on the Spanish national team and two of the few players on the roster who have actually visited Spain. Their father is a native, and they have upward of 20 cousins in the country. While Danny knows the Spaniards are big underdogs, he believes they draw strength from the victory over Israel.

“We’ve got a tight-knit group that has been together for a while now, and we really believe we can compete with anybody,” Danny Figueroa said. “We know what we’re up against. We’re going to be playing against all-star teams in San Juan, but we also know that anything can happen in any given baseball game. We don’t expect to go down there and get beat three times.”

And how would the sports fans of Spain react if their home team upset one of the traditional powers?

“I hope they’d be excited,” Gonzalez said. “That’s why we’re doing this. Even though most of us are from other countries, we take pride in putting on this uniform. We were waving the Spanish flag when we beat Israel. There was a great deal of pride when we won, and it was emotional. Hopefully, the people in Spain will notice if we do something like that again.”

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The most-scouted player in Florida this spring has been Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello. He is expendable because of the emergence of left-hander Drew Smyly and could be used as trade bait for a closer, as rookie right-hander Bruce Rondon has struggled with control in exhibition games. A scout who has watched Porcello this spring feels he could become a valuable member of some team’s starting rotation.

“He’s throwing hard, his fastball has been real firm, and his slider is really improved,” the scout said. “His game is always going to be getting ground balls, and if you put him on a team that can catch the ball in the infield—unlike the Tigers—he could have a lot of success. It seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s just 24, and there’s room for him to really blossom.”

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It looks increasingly likely that Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal may need to begin the season on the disabled list because of a strained elbow. That leaves either Ronny Cedeno, signed as a free agent in the offseason, or 2012 stretch drive and post-season hero Pete Kozma to fill the void.

Cedeno hit .259/.332/.410 with four home runs in 186 plate appearances for the Mets last season, and Kozma batted .333/.383/.569 in 82 plate appearances with two homers and two stolen bases. Kozma contributed 1.2 WARP, while Cedeno was barely above replacement level at 0.1.

One scout who regularly covers the Cardinals believes Kozma should be the choice: “I know he played over his head last September and he’s not going to hit like that,” the scout said, “but he’s a much better option. He’s a lot more consistent than Cedeno, and he’ll catch the ball when it’s hit to him. Cedeno might make spectacular plays, but he boots too many routine balls.”

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Opening Day is a little more than three weeks away, and free agent right-hander Kyle Lohse remains unsigned because teams would prefer not to forfeit a first-round draft pick as compensation. It seems unlikely Lohse would have enough time to get ready to start the season in a major-league rotation if he does not sign in the next few days, or that he will get the reported three-year, $45-million contract he is seeking.

Most front-office types believe Lohse would be best served settling for one of the one-year “pillow” contracts that his agent, Scott Boras, has become famous for, then go back to free agency next winter. Another possibility for Lohse is to sit out until after the amateur draft ends June 8, because the signing would no longer be subject to compensation. One FOT believes Lohse is wise to keep holding out.

“Eventually, someone is going to need a starting pitcher badly enough that they will pay him,” the FOT said. “You also have to remember that his value is never higher than it is now. He went 16-3 last season (for the Cardinals). He’s not going to go 16-3 again. He’s coming off a career year, and he needs to take advantage of it.”

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The Phillies’ Chase Utley isn’t the only veteran second baseman who appears to being enjoying a rebirth on the Gulf of Mexico this spring. The Orioles’ Brian Roberts is opening eyes on the Grapefruit League circuit.

“He looks great,” said one scout who has watched Roberts regularly in the early part of the exhibition season. “He’s moving really well, and he just looks healthy again. I know his injury history, and it would be foolish to think he can play 150 games, but I have been really impressed. He looks like the old Brian Roberts so far.

Roberts has been limited to a combined 115 games over the last three seasons. He appeared in just 17 games last year.

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Athletics left fielder Yoenis Cespedes lived up to the hype of a four-year, $36-million contract as a rookie last season. The Cuban defector hit .292/.356/.505 with 23 home runs and 16 stolen bases in 540 plate appearances while producing 4.3 WARP. Scouts in Arizona are expecting even bigger things from the 27-year-old this year.

“It’s night and day between this spring and last spring,” one scout said. “He was just feeling his way along. Now, he is playing with so much confidence, and he’s done a great job of learning how to hit breaking balls. You could get him out with breaking balls last year, but he’s crushing them now. As tough as (O.co Coliseum) is on hitters, I could still see him having a monster year.”

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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