Whether you were waiting for it or not, the World Baseball Classic is almost here. The international shindig kicks off in Tokyo on March 5 and runs through the final at Dodger Stadium on March 23. In an attempt to get you quickly up to speed with what's going on, BLS will be running occasional team previews (and more) as the event nears.
Pool: D, San Juan
'06 WBC finish: Went 3-0 in first round of pool play, but failed to advance after going 1-2 in second round
First game: Saturday March 7, vs. Panama
Five questions to ask about Puerto Rico
Will Puerto Rico's MLB players once again come strong? When it comes to Caribbean countries, only the Dominican Republic produced more major leaguers (137) in 2008 than Puerto Rico (39). In addition to that depth, Puerto Rico is also blessed with star players who don't hesitate to participate when asked by their country. (Must be the Roberto Clemente in them.) Good to go this time around are Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Alex Rios, Geovany Soto, Felipe Lopez and Mike Aviles, who was one of '08s breakout success stories. The willingness of Puerto Rico's players is perhaps best exhibited by the catching position. Backing up '08 NL Rookie of the Year Soto is Yadier Molina (wonder how the brothers decided?) and eventual Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez (who, frankly, could use the audition time). Since they're butting heads with Panama, the Dominican Republic and, uh, the Netherlands in pool play, they can use all the players they can get.
• Can PR's pitching staff withstand the loss of Joel Pineiro? Heh. WBC aficionados will remember that it was the mediocre Pineiro who tearfully pulled out of the WBC last month after learning that manager Jose Oquendo wanted him to come out of the bullpen instead of serving as a starter. "That'll show them!" Pineiro may (or may not) have said. "Don't they know I had a 5.15 ERA with St. Louis last season?" But Puerto Rico, which traditionally has produced better position players than pitchers, should be just fine without Pineiro. The Braves' Javier Vazquez again serves as the staff ace and will be backed in the rotation by righty Ian Snell of the Pirates and lefty Jonathan Sanchez of the Giants. Meanwhile, Pineiro will be missing out on being part of a bullpen that includes Javier Lopez of the Red Sox and J.C. Romero of the Phillies. (Luckily for Puerto Rico, Romero's 50-game drug suspension doesn't apply to the WBC.)
• Are we really going to see Bernie Williams back in action? Yup. Although Williams hasn't played an inning since not accepting the Yankees' offer of a non-guaranteed contract in 2007, he'll be taking a break from jamming with the Miami Sound Machine to spend some time in Puerto Rico's outfield. Williams was born in San Juan and played for Puerto Rico in '06, tallying two homers and five RBI in six games. Also, those of you wondering about his playing shape shouldn't worry much, Williams says. He recently spent a conditioning stint with the Yankees in Tampa and says his quad — which he strained in Puerto Rico's Winter League — is feeling better and should hold up.
• How much of a homefield advantage will the Puerto Ricans hold? Tough to say. Puerto Rico hosted Pool C in 2006 and the home team went a perfect 3-0 at 18,000-seat Hiram Bithorn Stadium, which was named after the first Puerto Rican to play in the major leagues. However, the second-round Pool 2 was also held at the stadium in '06 and Puerto Rico was bounced after turning in a 1-2 record. That mark included a 4-3 elimination game loss to Cuba, a team that Puerto Rico had mercy-ruled in the first round.
• Hey, why does Puerto Rico have the same flag as Cuba? Uh, it's not the same flag, guy. People have been making that mistake for decades and it's said that if you displayed a Puerto Rican flag during the '50s, there was a good chance a pinko-fearing Fed would've attempted to stuff you into Sen. McCarthy's briefcase and haul you in front of a Congressional hearing or two.
However, as you can tell by the side-by-side comparison below, the two countries use the same design as both were born during their countries' fight for independence from Spain. The difference, of course, comes in the allocation of the colors. Puerto Rico's star is surrounded by blue, while Cuba's five-pointer is surrounded by a red that represents the color of the patriots' spilt blood. (I find a good way to remember which is which is to equate Cuba's red meshes with its government's outlook.)
Cuba and Puerto Rico start the WBC in different pools and won't even have a chance to play unless they both make the semifinals. But given that Puerto Rico was bounced from the tourney by their neighbors to the west last time, their meeting would be a much anticipated matchup — even if it might take some of us a few more seconds to identify who's rooting for who.
* * *
Previous WBC previews: Korea (Jan. 9); Venezuela (Jan. 13); Australia (Jan. 21) Mexico (Jan. 27); Netherlands (Jan. 29); South Africa (Feb. 4); China (Feb. 16), Italy (Feb.17) Japan (Feb. 18), Canada (Feb. 20), Chinese Taipei (Feb. 23); Panama (Feb. 24); Dominican Republic (Feb. 26)