SAN FRANCISCO—Javier Vazquez accompanied Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez to AT&T Park’s interview room before Sunday’s World Baseball Classic semifinal.
Had Puerto Rico added the veteran righthander as an injury replacement/reinforcement? It seemed plausible that perhaps Vazquez, who had been on the Puerto Rican preliminary roster, had recovered sufficiently from his late January knee surgery to give it a go. Considering the plight of Puerto Rico’s pitching—it will start minor league vet Mario Santiago tonight against Japan—it seemed plausible.
When a reporter asked Vazquez what it’s like to throw to a catcher the caliber of Yadier Molina, Vazquez ended any speculation.
“Well,” he said, “I’m not throwing to him. But he’s definitely the best.”
Later, Vazquez added, “I’ve been preparing for the World Classic with this purpose in mind, and well, it couldn’t happen. Of course I’m sad. But this team has played so well. I’m here with the team and the boys are doing a great job. The pitchers are doing a great job.
“And Santiago’s been a great pitcher. He’s been a winner. I think that I’m waiting for so much great stuff from him, and I think that we have a pitcher who is great.”
In reality, Santiago has not been great. He’s a 28-year-old who was a 16th-round pick in 2005 by the Royals. He pitched in the Korean Baseball Organization last season after spending seven seasons in the Royals organization and has signed as a free agent in January with the Dodgers.
Santiago, who has averaged just 5.77 strikeout per nine innings as a pro in the U.S. minors, pitched in the Puerto Rican League in winter ball but was just 1-3, 8.64 in 17 innings this winter. He started against Team USA in the first game of Pool 2 and took the loss, giving up five hits and three runs in 4.1 innings.
Vazquez is playing catch, he said, but was not added to the Puerto Rican roster. “I’m done playing,” he said.
Puerto Rico wishes that were not the case, and their strong performance in the WBC to date without him has come as a surprise. With Vazquez, Puerto Rico might have been seen as a favorite. Instead, it ranks with the Netherlands as one of the tournament’s biggest surprises.
Don’t Blame The Draft
Rodriguez took a question about the oft-repeated belief that the draft has hurt baseball in Puerto Rico. Many scouts ascribe to the theory that the installation of the draft in 1989 has hurt baseball on the island.
“If you had told me five, seven years ago when right after the draft started in Puerto Rico that that was part of not having more big leaguers (from Puerto Rico), I would say yes,” he said. “But that was more than 20 years ago. We haven’t been able to make adjustments.
“I don’t blame the draft. I have to blame the system in Puerto Rico. We have to take responsibility and we have to make adjustments. The game is about adjustments. So we have to make it happen.”
It has started to happen. The Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, essentially a baseball-centric boarding school, had its first player drafted in 2004 and has produced 69 drafted players since then, topped by 2012 No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa. He became the first Puerto Rican drafted No. 1 overall when the Astros took him last year and signed him for $4.8 million.
Correa and WBC team member J.O. Berrios, a righthander the Twins took in the supplemental first round last year, could signal a revival of baseball in Puerto Rico. Where once Puerto Rico was producing stars such as Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar and current Puerto Rican team hitting coach Carlos Delgado, the top players from Puerto Rico in the majors now are Molina and Carlos Beltran, both here playing in the WBC.
Players and coaches from Puerto Rico often celebrate the fact that Puerto Rican 16-year-olds remain in school rather than signing, as players from the Dominican Republic and other countries do. After all, Puerto Rico is a part of the United States; its citizens are American citizens, and its education system is much better than that in the Dominican.
Indeed, there are dozens of Puerto Ricans in college baseball, which apparently is of no concern to scouts. The baseball industry has seemed to expect that Puerto Rico’s production in the 1980s was normal, instead of thinking that it was out of the norm or a peak.
However, future Puerto Rican teams in the WBC should be stout, as it appears Puerto Rico is starting to have an upswing in talent again. Aside from Correa and Berrios, Puerto Rico also can lean on 2011 first-rounders Javier Baez (Cubs), Francisco Lindor (Indians) and George Springer (Astros). Other minor leaguers of Puerto Rican descent include Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, 2012 Reds first-rounder Nick Travieso, Yankees farmhands Cito Culver and Angelo Gumbs, Royals 2010 first-rounder Christian Colon, and 2012 Marlins third-rounder Avery Romero.
“I don’t know if too many people picked Puerto Rico to be in the final (four),” Dominican manager Tony Pena said. “They have done a great job.”
Ain’t Gonna Be No Rematch
The Dominican Republic famously lost twice to the Netherlands in 2009 during the WBC, failing to advance out of the first round. D.R. manager Tony Pena said this team does not have revenge on its mind when it plays the Dutch again Monday night in the second semifinal.
“What is in the past, is in the past,” he said. “I think we are here to play a game. They beat us. I was no part of it. Like I told my boys, I don’t even want to talk about it. I want my team to concentrate on where we are.”
Where the Dominicans are is the cat-bird seat as the lone undefeated team remaining in the WBC. Of course, this stage of the Classic is one-and-done, so going undefeated is meaningless in a way, but that 6-0 mark has evinced a Dominican team with a stellar, athletic infield, deep lineup and powerful bullpen that Pena has deployed effectively.
The bullpen is so central to the Dominicans’ fortunes, Pena brought it up in response to a question about the Netherlands’ addition about Jurickson Profar to its roster.
“We cannot think about it, what they have done roster-wise,” he said. “We have to think about what we have to do. If we have a report or not, we have to go with what we have. Our bullpen is the root of this team, and it’s not my role to go through my bullpen (for) tomorrow.”
Pena has focused so much on his team to this point, he admitted he doesn’t know much about the Netherlands, particularly about lefthander Diegomar Markwell, who will start for the Dutch on Monday night.
“I’m sorry. I am not familiar at all. We are not familiar at all,” Pena said. “And that’s no joke. I know Andruw Jones. I know (Andrelton) Simmons. I know (Wladimir) Balentien, some others, but I don’t know too much about (Markwell). And it’s not to be rude.
“You will probably say, ‘You should know this.’ But we didn’t have no time or chance to check the roster yet. Our concentration is to go out and play one game at a time . . . But we will do our homework. I promise you that. We will do our homework.”