World Baseball Classic Impacts Tribe Players in Tournament and in Goodyear
By Mike Brandyberry
With the opening of the World Baseball Classic this morning in Fukuoka, Japan, the Indians camp in Goodyear, Ariz. is preparing for five of its players to report to their respective countries today. Their departures from the Tribe’s camp will have varied effects on everyone involved.
Cleveland has five players playing for four different countries: Vinnie Pestano (United States), Asdrubal Cabrera (Venezuela), Carlos Santana (Dominican Republic), Mike Aviles and Giovanni Soto (Puerto Rico).
Closer Chris Perez was supposed to pitch for the United States, but was shut down Friday with subscapularis strain in his right shoulder. Perez is not expected to throw for seven to 10 days and will miss three to four weeks of game action. He will miss the World Baseball Classic, and Opening Day currently is in jeopardy.
Indians Manager Terry Francona has had clear communication with WBC managers about how pitchers will be used. Starters are restricted to a 65-pitch limit. Team USA Manager Joe Torre does not intend to use relief pitchers for more than one inning and not on back-to-back days.
“We’re not concerned about them over using our guys,” Francona said during his daily press conference on Wednesday. “They’ve been very upfront about taking care of our guys.”
For Pestano, he gets to fulfill his lifelong dream of pitching for his country. When he was in college, he skipped class to watch the original Team USA work out at his college complex at California State Fullerton. Seven years later, he will be a right-hander in the bullpen.
“All my life I have waited for the opportunity to play for my country,” Pestano said. “You watch the Olympics your entire life hoping one day you will be able to represent your country and to be a part of something like that. This isn’t the Olympics, but it is baseball’s version, and I’m extremely honored to say I am going to get the chance to represent my country.”
Pestano leaves Goodyear to report to Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, just minutes away, but the remaining WBC Tribe participants must travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Soto, the youngest and least experienced Indian, will represent Puerto Rico in Hiram Bithorn Stadium, just five minutes from his boyhood home.
Soto, however, has struggled this spring with the Indians in two appearances. He once was slated to start a game for Puerto Rico, but has not been able to complete an inning for the Indians this week. He opened the Cactus League season for the Indians last Friday, getting only two outs against Cincinnati and retiring only two more on Tuesday against Kansas City.
“We really like him,” Francona said of Soto. “The reason we let him start that game was because he is going to the WBC and he is potentially going to start. We need to talk to Edwin (Rodriguez) about this because he hasn’t got through an inning yet, so we need to sit down and figure that out.”
It will not be difficult for Francona to discuss Soto’s usage. In addition to being manager of the Puerto Rican team, Edwin Rodriguez is the Tribe’s Double-A Manager. Despite Soto’s struggles this spring, Francona says the Indians never considered keeping Soto home from the WBC and are not concerned with his bumpy spring.
“We’re not seeing the good in him yet in games, but we will,” Francona said. “I think it is probably speeding up and trying to do too much. He was so down (on Tuesday). He’s just trying to do too much. You’ll look up in July and he’ll be fine.”
From a pitching standpoint, losing Pestano and Soto to the WBC will not affect the Tribe’s staff. Currently, the Indians are struggling to get enough innings for all their pitchers in camp. Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and T.J. House pitched in a simulated game on Wednesday to complete their work on their scheduled day, because the exhibition game did not have enough innings. However, on the position player side, the door swings wide open for some players.
“The guy that jumps out right away would be Gomes,” Francona said Thursday in his daily press conference. “He’s been coming in catching. He and Lou (Marson) will start going every other day, like Santana has been. It will be really good for him. I think he’s caught enough that he can do it physically.”
Yan Gomes and Aviles were acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays for right-handed reliever Esmil Rogers on Nov. 3. It was one of the first moves in a busy winter for the Indians. Santana is expected to be the starting catcher for the Dominican Republic, giving Gomes, who will remain in Goodyear, a chance to compete for an Opening Day roster spot on the Tribe’s bench. So far, Francona has been impressed with Gomes.
“(He’s) pretty damn good,” Francona said of his initial impression of Gomes. “You try not to let guys’ at-bats influence how you view their defense, because that can happen real easily. Catching-wise, I think we’ve all thought he’s been real solid. The initial returns have been real solid.”
Gomes is 4 for 8 in five Cactus League games this spring, with two doubles and a home run. He is the first Brazilian-born player to appear in the Major Leagues. Gomes helped the Brazil team qualify for the WBC in November, going 4 for 12 and driving in the lone run of the 1-0 qualifier final against Panama. But he decided not to play this spring in order to improve his chance to make the Tribe. Brazil lost 5-3 this morning to two-time defending champion Japan after leading for most of the first six innings.
“It was extremely exciting,” Gomes said of playing in the qualifier. “It was such an honor to represent your country and to win the qualifier when you aren’t supposed to be sniffing it. It really brought a lot of excitement to the country. Hopefully it will get things going in Brazil to open up the game of baseball.”
While Gomes uses Santana’s participation in the WBC to make the Tribe, two young shortstop prospects in the organization also will see extended time in big league camp since both Cabrera and Aviles — the team’s top two shortstops — will play in the tournament. Cabrera’s 25 home runs in 2011 are the most in a Major League season by a Venezuelan shortstop.
Cabrera and Aviles’ participation in the tournament will extend opportunity to Juan Diaz and non-roster invitee Luis Hernandez, as well as top prospects Ronny Rodriguez and Francisco Lindor. Lindor is the second rated prospect in the Tribe’s organization behind Trevor Bauer. The 19-year-old switch-hitter played last season at Low-A Lake County after being the eighth overall pick in the 2011 First Year Player Draft. Bauer was selected third by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Rodriguez is rated the No. 4 prospect in the Tribe’s organization and likely will begin this season at Double-A Akron. He played at High-A Carolina in 2012, playing both shortstop and second base.
“It’s fun for our staff to see these guys,” Francona said about the chance to see the two young shortstops.
Conceptually, the WBC might be an innovative idea, but the timing seems to frustrate some organizations as they prepare for the upcoming Major League season. Despite 17 new players on the 40-man roster and a new coaching staff, Francona doesn’t think the tournament and subsequent roster shuffling will affect the Tribe.
“We’ve done a lot up to this point, so I feel pretty comfortable,” Francona said. “We’ve put everything in, so when the guys get back, we’ll go over them. By then we will have made some cuts, so it will be a smaller group and we can personalize some of the stuff a little bit more, but I feel comfortable where we’re at.”
Photo: Cleveland Indians