Well its that time of the year, the eagerly awaited third installment of the World Baseball Classic has begun, and the Boys in Red set out in search of their first trip to the knockout stages. There have been no shortage of exciting moments in the first two events (2006, 2009) for Canada fans, from the 2006 upset win over the US in Phoenix, to the heartbreaking loss to the same Americans in 2009 at the Sky Dome (I still refuse to call it the Rogers Center). I was at then 2009 game and the atmosphere was nothing short of amazing. I can remember a young Phillipe Aumont coming on and getting a couple huge strikeouts in a close game. Alas it was not to be and Canada fell 6-5. However enough about the past, let’s take a look at the 2013 squad and what chances they have to make their first knockout round appearance!
Canada plays in a very similar pool to 2009, with the United States, Mexico and Italy. It will certainly be a tough task to advance, however not impossible. The Americans obviously come into the group as favorites with a lineup and pitching staff filled with established MLB stars (however there are many notables not present). Mexico seems to be the team that Canada will be battling with for second in the pool, with pitchers Yovani Gallardo and Sergio Romo, and First Basemen Adrian Gonzalez leading the charge. Here’s hoping that Canada can beat Italy this time, however; after their performance in 2009, we won’t be taking anything for granted this year. All in all, it is a difficult, but not impossible group for Canada to be place in, with the Canada v Mexico game on March 9th looking like it could be key to deciding who moves on alongside the United States. Let’s take a look at the squad manager Ernie Whitt will be trotting out for the first game on March 8th vs the Italians:
Catcher, which would normally be a strong suit for the Canadian team is looking very weak this year. George Kotteras (one of the league’s most underrated backups) has decided to stay in camp and fight for a job, while Russell Martin has made the odd and disappointing decision to opt out of team Canada. Martin, a new signing for Pittsburgh this winter had wanted to play shortstop for Team Canada this year, even though the last time he played was in High School. The Pirates, understandably wary at the idea of their big off-season signing (yes it’s the Pirates we’re talking about) playing out of position. They balked at the idea, and when Martin was told he had to catch bowed out. This leaves Canada with minor leaguers Chris Robinson and John Suomi. Robinson, who moved from Texas to Baltimore this off season is the expected starter. Robinson, a career .275 hitter in 8 minor league seasons should be able to contribute with both the bat and the glove in this tournament.
This position is certainly Canada’s strongest. You have a former NL MVP in Joey Votto as well as a former AL MVP in Justin Morneau. While Morneau no longer hits lefties as well as he did in his prime, he can still mash righties. Add this to Votto who is certainly in the discussion for best 1B in the league and you have a formidable 1-2 punch in the middle of the line-up. I would certainly expect these two to be batting 3-4 in the Canadian lineup, giving Canada a tandem I would put up against almost any team competing. Depending on the status of Votto’s injury, you could see either of these two playing the field, while the other DH’s. Also capable of playing first is Jimmy Van Ostrand, who absolutely mashed in the Qualifiers in Germany, but doesn’t stand to get many at bats in pool play.
Second Base/ Shortstop:
I’m combining these two positions because after covering Canada’s strongest position at first, the middle infield is certainly where we stand the weakest. I would expect Pete Orr to start at second, and while he’s one of my all time favorite players (I mean his last name is Orr, and he reminds me of Stubby Clapp) he doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table in terms of offense. While Orr has a career .297 average in the majors, he has never managed more than 61 AB in a season, so this number seems to scream small sample size. At short, I would expect Cale Iorg (son of former Blue Jay Garth) to start. Iorg, a prospect in the Detroit organization, holds a career .217 minor league average, so again, don’t hold your breath waiting for offensive production from these two spots.
Thankfully third is another strong-suit with Blue Jays Third Basemen and red bull fueled wonder Brett Lawrie getting the start. Now while Lawrie may have disappointed observers with his offensive performance in the 2012 season he was still a solid average, to slightly above average at the plate. Add in his great fielding abilities and you have a solid bat at the hot corner for the Boys in Red. Lawrie will likely bat two or three in the Canadian lineup, in front of the two sluggers. I would expect to see Brewers prospect Taylor Green backing up Lawrie at third.
Canada’s outfield is an eclectic bunch led by Mariners center fielder Michael Saunders and Phillies prospect Tyson Gillies. Both of these men can play center, however I’d expect the more experienced Saunders to get the nod with Gillies sliding over to left. Saunders had a brief cameo with the Mariners last year, and performed quite well posting a .900+ OPS. I would expect him to lead off for team Canada. Gillies played quite well for Canada in the qualifiers in September and will no doubt have a spot near the bottom of the lineup. Filling out the squad, and my pick for right field is Jays prospect Adam Loewen. Loewen was actually the starter for the win over the States in 2006, throwing 3.2 scoreless innings. However after repeated arm injuries Loewen was forced to give up pitching and move into the field. He has put up solid average numbers in the Jays system and I would expect him to slot in behind Votto and Morneau. Also listed on the roster as an outfielder is former Twins and current Brewers prospect Renee Tosoni.
The Canadian bullpen is stocked with experienced major leaguers such as Phillipe Aumont, Jessie Crain, and Brewers (sometimes) closer John Axford. All three of these relievers give Canada the ability to hold onto a lead late in a game and slam the door shut on opposing teams. The issue for Canada may be getting to the bullpen. Canada’s presumed number one starter at the time of writing is Sean Hill, who last appeared in the majors with the Blue Jays in 2011. Canada does have one wild card up its sleeve however, and that comes in the form of Pirates top prospect Jameson Taillon. The 21 year old Taillon was recently ranked as the number 11 prospect in all of baseball, and gives Canada a high upside power arm. While Taillon himself was raised in Texas, both of his parents were born in the Toronto area, thus giving him the opportunity to play for Canada.
The Round Up:
If I had to find a weakness in the Canadian team, it would definitely be up the middle, with the loss of Martin, the pitching and middle infield certainly being the biggest weak spots in this Canadian team. However, it’s not like Mexico is stocked with aces, and Canada certainly has a chance to compete with them, and hopefully not underestimate the Italians. If Canada puts together a good performance against the US, who are also missing many stars, there is even the chance for a sweep in the group stage. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, I for one would be content with simply moving on. The 8th of March certainly can’t come soon enough. Go Canada Go!