Puerto Rico eyes Classic contention

Puerto Rico eyes Classic contention

NEW YORK -- From boom to bust and back again, the citizens of Puerto Rico have seen turbulent times take hold of their nation's baseball landscape in recent years. Though the trouble actually began years prior, it slammed directly into the public consciousness two Augusts ago, when the Puerto Rican Winter League -- an island staple and a training ground for Major League players -- folded after 69 seasons.

As a result, one of the world's foremost baseball powers endured a winter without the sport, irking Puerto Rican players and citizens alike. But a mere year later, baseball has returned. The Winter League is back and come March, the island nation will host a pool at the 2009 World Baseball Classic, overseeing a team that boasts more than enough talent to win it all.

"I think as everybody knows here, baseball in Puerto Rico has been fading," free-agent infielder Alex Cora said. "Having the tournament again next year is going to be huge for our country to get back to show the passion that we have for this game."

It's a passion that has extended from Hiram Bithorn to Roberto Clemente to Bernie Williams, and now to the group that will represent Puerto Rico at the second World Baseball Classic. As they were at the inaugural event three years ago, the Puerto Ricans will be among the favorites to win in 2009. And that quest starts with a lineup that should rank among the most dangerous in the world.

Officially, no roster spots have been filled, though several players have made their desires known.

Assuming reigning National League Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto plays -- he wasn't initially sure if the Cubs would approve -- Team Puerto Rico could potentially feature a catching tandem of Soto, Yadier Molina and Ivan Rodriguez, a lethal combination of offense, defense and experience. Rodriguez took most of the reps behind the plate in the inaugural Classic, batting .238, and this time could be something of a mentor for the younger backstops.

"You get to represent your country and your island," Rodriguez said. "It's nice."

Team Puerto Rico should also benefit from the presence of Carlos Delgado, whose elbow tendinitis limited him to just one plate appearance in the inaugural Classic. Along with generating more than a few MVP votes, Delgado's midsummer resurgence with the Mets gave his countrymen reason to believe that their all-time home run king could anchor the middle of the Puerto Rico lineup.

Possible Team Puerto Rico Roster
Position
Name
P
Fernando Cabrera
P
Willie Collazo
P
Pedro Feliciano
P
Ivan Maldonado
P
Joel Pineiro
P
Saul Rivera
P
J.C. Romero
P
Jonathan Sanchez
P
Javier Vazquez
C
Yadier Molina
C
Geovany Soto
C
Ivan Rodriguez
IF
Carlos Delgado
IF
Felipe Lopez
IF
Ruben Gotay
IF
Ramon Vazquez
IF
Alex Cora
OF
Carlos Beltran
OF
Alex Rios
OF
Lou Montanez

"We were asked, and I said that I would love to play for Puerto Rico," Delgado said. "So I'm looking forward to that. In 2006, I was banged up. I didn't have the opportunity to play, so this is going to be a great chance to represent my country."

The rest of the projected lineup, despite lacking the firepower of, say, the Dominican Republic or Team USA, can still hold its own in international competition. Carlos Beltran and Alex Rios, both of whom hit home runs in the inaugural Classic, should be back. And most of the rest of the 2006 lineup could also return.

One concern is that Mike Lowell, an offensive and defensive standout at third base, isn't likely to play after his late-September hip surgery. But he wasn't present in 2006, either, and Team Puerto Rico should have enough infielders to make up for his absence.

Pitching, on the other hand, will present an entirely different problem -- one that can't be solved so easily. Despite ranking second with a 2.08 ERA in the inaugural Classic, Team Puerto Rico can't rely on its 2006 rotation of Javier Vazquez, Joel Pineiro and Dicky Gonzalez. Vazquez should return in similar form, but Gonzalez missed all of Japan's 2008 professional season due to injury, and Pineiro has posted a 22-25 record and 5.44 ERA in three big league seasons since the 2006 Classic.

Few young Puerto Ricans have made an impact on the Major League's pitching ranks in the interim, though 26-year-old Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez could join Vazquez and Pineiro in one potential three-man rotation.

The Puerto Ricans boast a bit more firepower in their bullpen, which in 2006 included nine pitchers who combined for an 0.36 ERA in 25 innings. The one reliever who closed out a game, Fernando Cabrera of the Orioles, should join fellow incumbents J.C. Romero of the Phillies and Pedro Feliciano of the Mets -- and possibly newcomer Saul Rivera of the Nationals -- in the 2009 bullpen.

And together, those players will look to restore some good vibes for a team that started out with so much promise in 2006.

Fortune faded quickly in the inaugural Classic for Puerto Rico, which won all three of its opening-round games before dropping two of three in the second round. Nearby baseball powers Cuba and the Dominican Republic advanced from that pool, putting a sour spin on what could have been a boon for Puerto Rican national pride.

This time, Team Puerto Rico will host a first-round pool filled with geographic neighbors, including Panama, the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands -- a team typically composed of players from Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles. Round-robin games between those teams will be played at San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium, familiar to Major Leaguers as a part-time home for the Expos in 2003 and 2004.

Two winners from that pool will then advance to second-round play at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. Semifinal and final games will be held at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.