Week Ahead: Teams prep for Spring Training

Sydney to host World Baseball Classic qualifier; free agents still remain

Week Ahead: Teams prep for Spring Training

The roar of dust and diesel kicks up as football is left in the national sports rearview mirror. Pitchers and catchers are straight ahead, with nothing blocking the roads to get there.

That's what's on tap for the week ahead in Major League Baseball: big rigs following a wonderful procession, carrying the precious gear and belongings of the 30 teams of the American League and the National League all the way to their spring homes in Arizona and Florida.

But that's not all. There's also significant hardball action happening on the other side of the world and some free-agent players back here at home who are eagerly awaiting phone calls to find out where they'll be bunking down this spring.

Snow might be on the ground outside a good portion of the ballparks as the rest of the caravans roll toward the magical first reporting date of Feb. 15 and the inevitable grind toward October, but sunshine, fresh-cut grass and the smack of horsehide to leather are on the immediate horizon.

• Spring Training first workout dates

"This is the first day of spring right here, isn't it?" Marty Bokovitz, the Indians' assistant home clubhouse manager, said last week when his team's trucks left Progressive Field for the much warmer climes of Goodyear, Ariz.

"When the trucks roll out, everybody gets excited. Spring is starting. Baseball's back. It should be a holiday."

There will be something approaching the excitement of a holiday in Sydney this week as the baseball world gets fired up once again for the official beginning of the long process that will lead us to the next World Baseball Classic, set for March 2017.

Only 12 of 16 teams have already been determined for the fourth installment of what has become the world's premier international baseball tournament, which means the other countries will earn the remaining spots on the field by winning qualifiers. The first, between Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Philippines, will be held from Thursday-Sunday at Blacktown International Sportspark in Sydney.

• World Baseball Classic complete coverage

The Sydney qualifier will be the first of four, with four-team mini-tournaments set in the coming weeks to determine three other teams to round out the field. The others will be held in Mexicali, Mexico, from March 17-20 (with Mexico, the Czech Republic, Germany and Nicaragua competing), in Panama City from March 17-20 (Colombia, France, Panama and Spain) and in Brooklyn, N.Y., from Sept. 22-25 (Brazil, Great Britain, Israel and Pakistan).

The four winners of these qualifiers will join the 12 countries that already earned automatic bids based on their 2013 Classic results: the defending 2013 champion Dominican Republic plus '13 runner-up Puerto Rico, 2006 and '09 Classic champion Japan, plus the United States, Canada, Cuba, Italy, Korea, the Netherlands, Venezuela, China and Chinese Taipei.

Australia looms as the heavy favorite in this week's qualifier considering the home-field advantage and the Major League talent on the field, which includes former and current big leaguers Travis Blackley, Peter Moylan, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Luke Hughes and Trent Oeltjen.

Back in the United States, it's a week before Spring Training starts in earnest and there are still quite a few big-time players available to sign on the open market.

Shortstop Ian Desmond still finds himself without a full-time gig despite having averaged 22 home runs per season for the past four years and only being 30 years old.

Third baseman David Freese, who hit 14 homers for the Angels last year and will turn 33 in late April, hasn't yet agreed to terms with a team for the 2016 campaign.

The same goes for first basemen Pedro Alvarez and Justin Morneau, outfielders Dexter Fowler and Austin Jackson, starters Yovani Gallardo, Mat Latos, Tim Lincecum and Alfredo Simon, and relievers Tyler Clippard, Tommy Hunter and Greg Holland.

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.