PHOENIX — On the fence about playing for the United States in advance of the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Mike Trout took a pass, saw the joy on the American team as it rolled to a championship, and knew he’d made a mistake.
“I regretted that I didn’t do it,” the three-time American League MVP said during a recent conference call, adding later: “I wanted to be part of it.”
Well, with the tournament back after two years of pandemic postponement, Trout is a part of it this time, suiting up for the United States, which begins defence of its title Saturday against Great Britain in Pool C at Phoenix’s Chase Field.
Trout’s change of heart is no minor matter for an event that still faces institutional resistance from executives around the majors, who chafe at handing over their players to various national teams, even as owners continue to give the Classic their blessing.
The Americans, seeking to join Japan as two-time champions, would have had a boffo roster featuring defending NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt and 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts even without Trout, but it’s all the more impressive with him.
Add in that it’s his first chance to play in games of consequence since his only post-season appearance back in 2014, and there’s some symbiosis here — the Classic gets more credibility, Trout gets a real chance to win something that matters.
That will be only part of the intrigue in the desert, where the Americans should advance easily, while Mexico seeks to fend off challenges from Canada and Colombia, plus won-just-by-getting-here Great Britain. Here’s a look at the five squads:
Manager: Ernie Whitt
WBC history: Canada is making its fifth appearance at the WBC but is still seeking its first trip beyond the first round. Had a particularly tough go at the 2017 tournament, going 0-3 while being outscored 21-3.
Projected lineup: C Bo Naylor; 1B Freddie Freeman; 2B Edouard Julien; SS Otto Lopez; 3B Abraham Toro; LF Jacob Robson; CF: Tyler O’Neill; RF: Jared Young; DH Denzel Clarke/Owen Caissie
Projected pitching staff: SP Cal Quantrill; SP Rob Zastryzny; SP Noah Skirrow; SP Mitch Bratt; CL Matt Brash; RP John Axford; RP Scott Mathieson; RP Adam Loewen; RP Phillippe Aumont
Need to know: The outlook for Canada would be much different with Joey Votto, Josh Naylor, Mike Soroka, Nick Pivetta, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Romano, Zach Pop, and Rowan Wick in the fold, but they still have enough talent to do some damage and find their way into the second round. They’ll definitely need step-up performances from the pitching staff, a mosaic of one-last-go-veterans and not-yet-there youngsters around the excellent Cal Quantrill, to make it happen. Either way, the youth on the roster, led by Bo Naylor, Edouard Julien, Denzel Clarke, Owen Caissie, and Mitch Bratt, bodes well for 2026, when the next Classic is expected to be held.
Manager: Jolbert Cabrera
WBC history: Colombia returns to the World Baseball Classic after a strong debut in 2017, when they beat Canada, lost 3-2 in 10 innings to the Americans, and nearly upset the Dominican Republic, having the potential winning run thrown out at the plate before falling 10-3 in 11 innings.
Notable Players: Gio Urshela, who played 19 games with the Blue Jays in 2018 before his Yankees break out a year later, and Harold Ramirez, who helped double-A New Hampshire win an Eastern League title in 2012, front a lineup also expected to include Athletics prospect Jordan Diaz.
Notable Pitchers: Jose Quintana’s withdrawal earlier this week due to a stress fracture on a rib leaves behind Julio Teheran, Nabil Crismatt and Reiver Sanmartin to anchor the pitching staff.
Need to know: No one should be caught by surprise by the Colombians this time after they nearly played giant-killer six years ago. Losing Quintana hurts but they still have six 40-man roster players on the team, led by Harold Ramirez, Gio Urshela, and Oscar Mercado, along with enough supporting talent, veterans Teheran, Jorge Alfaro and free agent Donovan Solano among them, to be a threat. Like the Canadians, they’ll need to be opportunistic with their pitching, trying to find the right spots to use their best arms.
Manager: Drew Spencer
WBC history: The Brits are making their tournament debut after beating Spain 10-9 to win the Regensburg qualifier last September.
Notable Players: Trayce Thompson of the Dodgers is the only active big-leaguer among the position players. Fellow outfielder Darnell Sweeney appeared in two games for the Blue Jays in 2018 while speedy farmhand Chavez Young was traded to the Pirates this winter for depth arm Zach Thompson. Mariners catching prospect Harry Ford crushed in the qualifiers and was ranked No. 64 in Baseball America’s most recent Top 100.
Notable Pitchers: Ian Gibaut of the Reds is the only active big-leaguer on the pitching staff, although Vance Worley (667 career innings) and Michael Roth (36 innings) also have experience in the majors. Graham Spraker is a former Blue Jays draft pick signed by the Rays to a minor-league deal last month.
Need to know: The British market is an interesting one for Major League Baseball, which is seeking to establish a real foothold in Europe in an effort to broaden the game’s reach and expand its revenue streams. The St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs play in London this summer (the Toronto Blue Jays are up for a series there, too, perhaps as soon as next year) and an appearance in the WBC, even if only a happy-to-be-here stay, should help further build interest.
Manager: Benji Gil
WBC history: Mexico advanced to the second round in the first two editions of the tournament before bowing out in the first round at 1-2 in both 2013 and 2017.
Projected lineup: C Austin Barnes; 1B Joey Menese; 2B Jonathan Aranda; SS Luis Urias; 3B Isaac Paredes; LF Randy Arozarena; CF Alek Thomas/Jarren Durran; RF Alex Verdugo; DH Rowdy Tellez
Projected pitching staff: SP Julio Urias; SP Jose Urquidy; SP Taijuan Walker; SP Patrick Sandoval; SP Javier Assad; SP Adrian Martinez; CL Giovany Gallegos; RP Luis Cessa; RP JoJo Romero; RP Jesus Cruz
Need to know: While the Americans are the obvious favourites to win Pool C, the always competitive Mexicans look to be the likeliest to join them in advancing out of the group. Randy Arozarena, Jonathan Aranda, Rowdy Tellez, and Alex Verdugo are the heart of a difficult-to-navigate lineup, while starters Julio Urias, Jose Urquidy, Taijuan Walker, and Patrick Sandoval should give the offence a chance to do its thing. That combination could make Mexico, usually a tough out at the Classic, particularly troublesome if it reaches the quarters, as they’re expected to have Urias lined up for the elimination round.
Manager: Mark DeRosa
WBC history: The world’s dominant power in baseball moved past second-round exits in both 2006 and 2013, plus a semifinal loss in 2009, by finally winning it all in 2017.
Projected lineup: C J.T. Realmuto/Will Smith; 1B Paul Goldschmidt/Pete Alonso; 2B Jeff McNeil; SS Trea Turner/Tim Anderson; 3B Nolan Arenado/Bobby Witt Jr.; LF Kyle Tucker; CF: Mike Trout/Cedric Mullins; RF: Mookie Betts; DH Kyle Schwarber
Projected pitching staff: SP Lance Lynn; SP Merrill Kelly; SP Miles Mikolas; SP Adam Wainwright; SP Brady Singer; CL Ryan Pressly; RP David Bednar; RP Devin Williams; RP Jason Adam; RP Kendall Graveman
Need to know: Just look at this roster, it’s stupid loaded and DeRosa doesn’t have a bad option. It’s better and deeper than the group that won it all last time out — Tanner Roark started against Japan in the semis, for crying out loud — and the whole why-can’t-the-U.S.-win-the-Classic thing is out the window. At the same time, the Americans know they’re expected to win and baseball can get weird in small samples, and the tournament’s spring build-up timing only amplifies that. Exhibit A is the way Adam Loewen, a highly touted prospect yet to touch double-A, shut down a superstar-laden group in Canada’s upset 8-6 win during the inaugural Classic. Hence, take nothing for granted, even American exceptionalism.