Morneau baffled by Martin's Classic withdrawal

Catcher's late decision not to participate leaves hole in Canada's lineup

Morneau baffled by Martin's Classic withdrawal

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Russell Martin's last-minute decision to withdraw from the upcoming World Baseball Classic has left Team Canada with a major void in the heart of its lineup.

Martin announced on Sunday that he was no longer willing to take part in the tournament. The news came as a major surprise to Baseball Canada and the teammates he was set to join in less than two weeks.

Team Canada first baseman Justin Morneau appeared disappointed with the turn of events and admitted that it's a major blow to the club's chances in a group that also includes the United States, Italy and Mexico.

"With so many left-handed hitters, it obviously affects the balance of our lineup," Morneau said during an interview with the Canadian media prior to Tuesday's game against the Blue Jays. "He's an established Major League hitter that has had some success.

"Obviously, we're going to miss him, but we're going to have somebody there who wants to be there and is going to be honored to put the jersey on and be a part of it. Whoever's there will have to find a way to get it done."

Martin's decision to withdraw has less to do with not wanting to play for Canada and more to do with a bizarre desire to play shortstop. He expressed his interest in playing up the middle during the offseason and reiterated that request again this spring.

The 30-year-old has played a handful of games at third base and second base during his Major League career, but never shortstop. Despite that, he began taking ground balls there during the spring in an attempt to prepare for the tournament.

That plan came to screeching halt when both the Pirates and Baseball Canada indicated they were not comfortable with the idea. The whole process has left his would-be teammates on Team Canada rather confused.

"It's kind of hard for me to understand," Morneau said. "Obviously, if you want to learn your pitching staff, new team, it's important as a catcher to learn those guys and he signed [in Pittsburgh] for two years.

"If that was the case, I think we'd all be fine with it. But the desire to play a new position is kind of what has everybody wondering what the decision-making process was behind that. When we get there, we'll be there with everybody who wants to be there and with somebody who's capable of playing shortstop."

Martin played a key role on Team Canada during the last Classic in 2009. The club recorded a surprise victory over the United States, but was still eliminated in the first round after disappointing losses to Italy and Mexico.

The hope was that this year would be different. But the club already is reeling from the loss of injured starter Scott Diamond and a declined offer by right-hander Ryan Dempster. Martin's sudden departure just made things a lot tougher.

Martin was replaced on the roster Monday by Phillies Minor Leaguer John Suomi. He'll compete for playing time with Chris Robinson, who is an eight-year Minor Leaguer without any big league experience. With all due respect to those two candidates, they pale in comparison to the skill set the three-time All-Star Martin would have brought to the table.

"I don't know what he was thinking," Morneau said when asked about the odd timing of Martin's decision to withdraw. "If he wanted to get down in camp and see how his body reacted to catching or whatever it was, obviously he was the No. 1 option for a reason, but the timing of it is a little difficult with trying to find someone to replace him.

"Everyone knows catchers are very hard to find, so that's part of it, but I think he waited as long as he could to see if it was possible and it didn't work out for him."

The news isn't all bad for Team Canada these days, as Reds first baseman Joey Votto continues to make progress in his return from a torn meniscus suffered last season. Votto was considered a questionable inclusion for the Classic at the start of Spring Training, but it appears more and more likely that he will play.

Votto will remain at Reds camp while Team Canada trains, as he will continue to be monitored by Cincinnati's medical staff. The Reds and Team Canada will then decide if he's able to go, but all signs seem to be pointing toward the 2010 National League MVP joining his fellow countrymen.

"I sent him a text a couple of days ago, he said everything is going good," Morneau said. "We're counting on having him there. I talked to [director of national teams] Greg Hamilton, he said everything looks good so far.

"We expect to have him there, which would obviously be huge. He's probably the best left-handed hitter in the game right now. So to have him on our team makes a huge difference in our lineup."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.