MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

McLaren views realistic goals for China in '17 WBC

Second-time skipper tempering expectations entering Classic

McLaren views realistic goals for China in '17 WBC

John McLaren is a baseball lifer, whose career as a coach, manager and player reads more like an old "TripTik" travel planner obtained from the American Automobile Association before hitting the road on an endless journey.

His day job now is bullpen coach for the Phillies under manager Pete Mackanin. McLaren's old buddy Larry Bowa is the bench coach. McLaren is happy to be out of the dugout and down in the 'pen.

"So I don't have to listen to Bo chirping," McLaren said with a laugh.

At 65, McLaren is about to embark on his second tour as manager of Team China in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. And that's no laughing matter.

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China has as much baseball history as it does adapting to a semi-capitalist economy. The sport was basically banished by Mao Zedong after the Chinese Revolution of 1949, only to be revived 20 years ago in preparation for the inaugural 2006 Classic, as well as the Chinese hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

China went 2-7 over the first three Classics, never making it out of the first round. In 2013 under McLaren, the Chinese lost badly to Japan and Cuba, and then beat Brazil, the only team that lost all three of its games.

China opens Pool B play again against Cuba in Tokyo Dome on March 7. Japan and Australia are the other two teams in the bracket.

McLaren said that with the current team, he must temper any expectations.

"We don't know who we are yet," he said. "But we feel like we're pushing the program forward, and that's all I want to do. We don't have any pitching depth, we don't have any power. We have to scrap. We have to do the little things."

McLaren looks ahead to Classic

McLaren will be helped this time by former Major League hurler David Bush, who replaced Bruce Hurst as the pitching coach. Jimmy Johnson, another Minor League lifer, is on his staff as the hitting coach, replacing Art Howe.

The Chinese have tapped the ranks of MLB's best and brightest to manage the club. Jim Lefebvre was the man in 2006, and then current Mets manager Terry Collins in '09 when China opened with a win over rival Chinese Taipei before losing to Japan and Korea. For the past two tournaments, McLaren has been the manager, and he's taken on the role with great gusto.

"I want to get people in China interested in baseball," McLaren said. "MLB is going to start streaming games on TV over there. I think it's going to be a big piece of the puzzle for the young kids there to watch baseball. All I know is that when you go to any Far East country -- Taiwan, Korea, Japan -- all you see on television is baseball. China never has had any baseball on TV before, so that's going to be a big, big step for China."

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced last year a new three-year deal with Le Sports -- a Chinese internet-based sports, content and communications company -- that will have exclusive rights to stream 125 big league games to the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Macau, beginning this season. The package includes regular-season games, the All-Star Game and accompanying events, and the entire World Series.

China is home to 1.4 billion people, about 20 percent of the entire world's population. In comparison, there are a little less than 324 million people in the U.S.

It's a huge untapped market for American spectator sports, particularly baseball.

"China is a crucial frontier for the development of baseball," Manfred said when he made the announcement. "Our new, prominent place on Le Sports platforms both reaffirms and expands our commitment to growing the game in China."

Any improvement by the Chinese in the Classic would also give the sport a huge local lift.

Pool B's most notable players

This year, they'll have veteran -- but retired -- MLB starter Bruce Chen to face the Cubans in the first game. Chen vied for a spot on the team in 2013, but couldn't arrange documentation of his Chinese heritage in time to play in that tournament.

Chen was born, and grew up, in Panama after his family immigrated from China. His grandparents were Chinese natives.

Now that the documents are aligned, Chen, 39, is facing another problem: He hasn't pitched in a game since May 15, 2015, for the Indians. Thus, Chen has spent the offseason trying to build up enough arm strength so he can help the Chinese team.

"I've been working out for about nine weeks, playing catch," said Chen, now in Cleveland's baseball operations department. "I've been getting a lot of help from the Indians. They've had me on a program to help get me back at least to where I was before."

Chen hasn't thrown to hitters yet, but expects to do so next week when the defending American League champs begin to report to camp in Goodyear, Ariz.

McLaren said the team will gather in Japan at the end of the month, and then play a few exhibition games in Osaka Dome before heading into pool play. Chen said he hopes to get a start in Osaka as a final tuneup to pitching in Tokyo.

That first game is the most important, because a loss early in the tournament puts any team at a tremendous disadvantage. Only two of the four teams move on to the next round: Pool E, also slated for Tokyo Dome.

"It's always an uphill battle for us, we take on that role," McLaren said. "We try to embrace it. We know it's not going to be easy. My expectations are different than the USA, Dominicans or Venezuela. We're trying to keep stepping forward. To win a game, that would be great. If something happened that we danced out of that round, it would be incredible. But we have to be realistic."

The World Baseball Classic runs from March 6-22. In the U.S., games will air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN will provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. will have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. Internationally, the tournament will be distributed across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.