3:56 PM CST, March 2, 2013
One thing to keep in mind about baseball: It's all good.
Big-league baseball. Minor-league baseball. College baseball. Pony League baseball. Even, gasp, international baseball.
While many North American fans dismiss the World Baseball Classic — and many MLB executives who discourage their players from participating loathe it — it is a fun event that makes spring training even better than normal. This year's event started late Friday night in Taiwan and will end March 19 at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
Here's a look at the 10 best storylines in the event, to help you get the DVR set.
10. Barry Larkin as Sparky Anderson: The Hall of Famer managed Brazil to an upset in a 2012 qualifier in Panama and now takes his crew of unknowns — including 16-year-old reliever Daniel Missaki — to Japan, where it will face Cuba, Japan and China.
9. Tryout camp for pitchers: The group of unsigned big-leaguer pitchers in the event includes Cubs castoff Carlos Zambrano (whose $91.5 million contract lasted three or four years longer than his good fastball), Jose Valverde (84 saves the last two years) and Chien-Ming Wang.
8. Ryan Braun doesn't care what you think: The 2011 MVP is the best hitter on an American roster that includes Giancarlo Stanton and David Wright, and opted to play the event despite the embarrassing tie to the Biogenesis clinic as well as his lawyers getting him out of a 50-game suspension after a positive PED test in the '11 playoffs.
7. It's hot in the Dominican kitchen: Lots of people thought the Dominican Republic could dominate this event, but it hasn't happened. It lost to Cuba in the 2006 semifinals and was embarrassed to lose twice to the Dutch in '09, when players treated the WBC like an island party over spring break. Tony Pena replaces Felipe Alou as manager.
6. Cuba knows the feeling: The Cubans have pointed to this since failing to advance to the Final Four in 2009, a shock that prompted Fidel Castro to write a column saying the event was rigged against his team. Castro didn't like being in the same half of the draw as Japan and Korea — he said it hurt the three best teams in baseball, showing Team USA the back of his ancient hand — and that's the case again. The semifinal pool in Tokyo should include Cuba, Japan, Korea and the Netherlands, and be crazily competitive.
5. Those rocky Canadians: Embarrassed by Italy in Toronto four years ago, a loss that forced Canada to send a team to Germany to play against England, Germany and the Czech Republic in a September qualifier, they head to the first round in Phoenix reeling from Russell Martin's desire to be used as a shortstop, not a catcher. That gives University of Illinois product Chris Robinson a chance to catch. Joey Votto remains on the fence.
4. Venezuelan excellence: No lineup will be better than the one built around Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, who should have Carlos Gonzalez and Marco Scutaro hitting in front of him and Pablo Sandoval behind him. The Venezuelans are deep up the middle, with Elvis Andrus and Asdrubal Cabrera available to play shortstop and Miguel Montero and superstar-in-waiting Sal Perez behind the plate. With no Felix Hernandez, the pitching is suspect.
3. How good is Jose Abreu? No. 79 on the Cuban roster, the slugger who had a 1.583 OPS in the 2011-12 Serie Nacional headlines the group of international stars MLB scouts are studying closely. Other rarely seen players to watch are Cuban outfielder Alexei Bell and Japanese ace Kenta Maeda (a Greg Maddux type who is 24 and high on MLB radars).
2. Asian domination: Can anyone stop Japan, the two-time defending champ, and Korea, which has been the second-best team in the tournament? Those countries met in the 2009 final and the '06 semifinal and have combined for a 24-9 record in the event. With the first two rounds played in Japan, Ichiro Suzuki, Yu Darvish and the other 16 Japanese big-leaguers are skipping this year's event.
1. American determination: Can manager Joe Torre win with a U.S. team that has gone a disappointing 7-7 the first two WBCs, never reaching the Final Four? The roster is not as good as it could be with the starting pitching, especially suspect other than NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey.
Together again: Daisuke Matsuzaka, the biggest story in baseball six springs ago, quietly is trying to win a starter's role with the Indians. He's one of seven guys fighting for the last two spots in a rotation that Justin Masterson will head again with the erratic Ubaldo Jimenez second and Brett Myers third.
It helps Matsuzaka's chances that the Indians' manager is Terry Francona, who was with the Red Sox when he helped win the 2007 World Series.
"His smile brings a calmness to me," Matsuzaka, 32, said.
Bouts of wildness and eventual Tommy John surgery sidetracked Matsuzaka's career, but Francona says he looks the same as he did when he arrived from the Seibu Lions after twice being MVP of the WBC. The key will be finding if he still can wiggle out of jams like he did in his prime.
The other guys competing for jobs are Trevor Bauer, Zach McAllister (very capable of having a breakout season), David Huff, Corey Kluber and comeback guys Carlos Carrasco and Scott Kazmir.
Familiar results: Jon Garland never had great stuff but always could get groundouts with his trademark sinker. It's back in action as he attempts a comeback with the Mariners after not pitching in 2012.
Garland, an 18-game winner with the White Sox in 2005 and '06, got three groundouts against Giants regulars during a scoreless inning Thursday.
"It was definitely a little weird," Garland told the Seattle Times. "But it felt good to get out in a true game situation.''
Garland, 33, could provide first-half innings as the Mariners await the arrival of a thick wave of prospects, including right-hander Taijuan Walker and left-handers Danny Hultzen and James Paxton.
New face: Prospects Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal helped the Cardinals get within one victory of the World Series last fall and could play big roles on manager Mike Matheny's team this season. But they're not the only pitchers making Cardinals fans smile.
Right-hander Mike Wacha, a first-round pick from Texas A&M last June, turned in an eye-popping outing against the Mets in his Grapefruit League debut, prompting catcher Yadier Molina to say he could pitch in the bigs "right now.''
Wacha struck out three and allowed one hit in two innings, picking up where he left off in the minors a year ago. He was used in relief after piling up college innings and struck out 40 in 21 innings. Wacha, who stands 6 foot 6 and throws in the mid-90s with a devastating changeup, is likely to open the season at Double-A Springfield alongside Carlos Martinez, another very impressive pitching prospect.
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