There certainly will be a Kansas City Royals presence in this spring’s World Baseball Classic.
In theory, the international tournament could feature nearly half of the club’s starting lineup with catcher Salvador Perez, shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., second baseman Nicky Lopez and first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino all committed, as well as a potential Opening Day starting pitcher in Brady Singer.
The Royals will have a lot of acclimating to do during spring training with a bevy of new coaches on the major-league staff under new manager Matt Quatraro.
With several of those key new faces coming from outside of the organization — including pitching coach Brian Sweeney, bench coach Paul Hoover and Quatraro — spring training figures to be an important time for players and coaches to get on the same page.
The absence of core players could be challenging, but the Royals won’t stand in the way of players participating.
“We’ve always been supportive of it,” Royals executive vice president and general manager J.J. Picollo said this week at the MLB Winter Meetings in San Diego, Calif.
“I think it’s healthy for the game. It’s interesting for fans. I think the players enjoy it. They like playing for their home country, especially Venezuela, the Dominican, U.S., Japan. They really enjoy playing for their home countries.”
Picollo did acknowledge that for some players the choice to participate comes with an added element of risk — because they’re competing for a job with a new manager and new coaches taking part in the evaluation process during spring training.
“Our message is we’re not going to tell you yes or no, you can play or you can’t play,” Picollo said. “But understand that this is where you are on our roster. This is what you’re competing for. With new eyes helping to make those decisions, it could influence and impact where you end up coming into spring training. That’s just the truth of the matter.”
Picollo was insistent that the Royals won’t hold participation against any player, the point being that they should all factor that into their decision beforehand.
Asked by The Star about drawbacks to the WBC falling during his first spring training in his new position, Quatraro said, “Yeah, I think there’s some. The continuity just won’t be there the whole time. But I think that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those guys that you wouldn’t want to take away from them. We’ll get through that.”
Salvy a “core” piece for Venezuela
The Royals’ seven-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove Award winner and four-time Silver Slugger Award winner, Perez was involved in one of the most high-profile scares involving an MLB star and the WBC during the 2017 tournament.
Team Italy player Drew Butera, a teammate of Perez’s at the time with the Royals, collided with Perez while trying to score a run in the ninth inning. Perez was helped off the field and taken to the hospital and examined for a knee injury in the aftermath of that collision. Perez avoided serious injury.
Team Venezuela manager Omar Lopez, Houston Astros first base coach, said there was no issue getting the OK from the Royals for Perez to participate in this year’s tournament.
“Everything is good,” Lopez told The Star at the MLB Winter Meetings. “Everything is set up. We got the approval from the Kansas City Royals about three or four months ago. He’s with us.”
Lopez described Perez as part of the core of the Venezuelan team along with Detroit Tigers slugger and former AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, Astros second baseman and former AL MVP Jose Altuve and Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña.
Asked if he had leaned on Perez and the others to recruit players, Lopez replied, “Not recruiting, but getting people on board. The most important thing here in the WBC and anything in baseball is what the players want and whether the players like it.
“It’s hard to make everybody happy, 30 to 35 guys. But when you have four or five leaders, that’s your core.”
Lopez said that Team Venezuela hoped to have catcher Willson Contreras on the team as well once he signed with a team and got the OK from his new club.
Contreras reportedly agreed to a five-year deal with the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday.
Perez will likely share some of the catching duties with Contreras.
A development experience
The roster for the tournament will eventually be trimmed to 30 players.
Team USA general manager Tony Reagins said he was not sure whether the breakdown would end up with 15 position players and 15 pitchers or 14 vs. 16 one way or the other. He said they’re still adding players and that the interest list is “fluid” with players able to be added or taken off.
Witt and Singer figure to be two of the less-established players among the group, but Reagins framed being part of Team USA as a major development opportunity.
“There’s guys that are on that interest list that I think it will be very very beneficial for them to be a part of it,” Reagins said. “I think it could propel their game, just being around guys like (Mike) Trout or Ken Griffey Jr. as a hitting coach or Andy Pettitte as a pitching coach or Dave Righetti as a bullpen coach. Just being around guys like Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt.
“Having those type of guys and having a young guy be around that, even if that young guy doesn’t play a lot, the experience and the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the game that’s ever done it — I think it could propel their careers.”
Italy wants to make a run
Lopez and Pasquantino were both in Italy earlier this offseason as part of a Team Italy trip. Former Hall of Famer Mike Piazza serves as the team’s manager.
“I think the first thing (is) that we want players that are hungry and committed to playing for Team Italy and wanting to win the World Baseball Classic,” Team Italy assistant coach Blake Butera said. “In past years, we’ve had a lot of high-profile players that have played for us, but we haven’t had a ton of success.
“Right away, Nicky and Vinnie were both all in for Team Italy, and they wanted to not only play but to make a run at this thing. Those are the type of players we want and the type of players that we’re looking for.”