International: Claxton Shield Preview

Australia's top national tournament kicks off

Defending champion Western Australia will have to fight off traditional powers Queensland and Victoria to repeat as champions of the five-team Claxton Shield Championship, the top pro tournament in Australia. The 16-game regular season and ensuing championship, now in its 75th year, will most likely choose the roster for the 2009 World Baseball Classic for Australia.

"Western Australia (Perth) is the standout," said Queensland manager Peter Yates. "Their pitching is extremely strong and they have powerful hitters."

Joining the trio will be New South Wales, whose alumni include Australia's most notable major leaguer, Rays reliever Grant Balfour, and South Australia, which has invested heavily in sports psychology to try and end a 29-year drought between championships.

Queensland Rams
Manager: Peter Yates
First Claxton Shield: 1939
Championships: 9 (Last in 2006)
Professional Players/Current*: 9/7
Victoria Aces
Manager: Phil Dale
First Claxton Shield: 1934 (inaugural)
Championships: 21 (Last in 2007)
Professional Players/Current*: 10/5
New South Wales Patriots
Manager: Shane Barclay
First Claxton Shield: 1934 (inaugural)
Championships: 13 (Last in 2005)
Professional Players/Current*: 10/4
Barbagallo Perth aka Western Australia Heat
Manager: Don Kyle
First Claxton Shield: 1937
Championships: 10 (Last in 2008)
Professional Players/Current*: 13/5
South Australia
Manager: Ron Harvey
First Claxton Shield: 1934 (inaugural)
Championships: 15 (Last in 1980)
Professional Players/Current*: 5/1
*—rosters based on initial rosters on Dec. 2.
Victoria and Queensland, on paper, look as strong as can be," said New South Wales manager Shane Barclay.

Play began Dec. 2 over five days near Sydney, and a 10-game showcase will take place, prior to home and away series from Dec. 12 until Jan. 18. The second- and third-place teams will then play in a three-game playoff from January 23-25, before the regular-season champion faced the winner, Feb. 6-8 in another three-game playoff.

Perth, also commonly referred to as Western Australia, won last year's championship over New South Wales.

"It's going to be tough; these are the best players in Australia. Every state has bragging rights and each thinks their state is the best," said Victoria manager and WBC pitching coach Phil Dale. "We'll see at the end of the day."

Perth could be the team to beat, opening play with five current minor leaguers and a roster of 13 of 19 players who have played professionally in the U.S. The is are looking to become the third team over the last three decades to win back-to-back titles. New South Wales was the last team to win back-to-back titles in 2004-05, while Queensland won back-to-back titles twice in the 1980s. Western Australia also won three straight in the mid-1970's.

"Our club won last year with a very young team and we believe with another year's experience under our belt, we again will be very competitive," said Western Australia Manager Don Kyle. "Our pitching is sound and we have hitters that will be tough outs."

Kyle believes that the offense will be centered around 19-year-olds Matt Kennelly (Braves), who will play first base, and catcher Chris House (Blue Jays). Righthander Brendan Wise (Tigers), an eighth-round pick in 2005 out of a Kansas junior college, should anchor the pitching staff. The 22-year-old Perth native finished 2008 in Double-A Erie, going 2-1, 3.30 over 44 innings. Other affiliated pitchers include former Phillies farmhand Mark Kelly, righthander Liam Hendricks (Twins) and Dylan Peacock (Angels).

However, Peacock and Perth were hammered in the first game, losing 8-2 to Queensland.

"Western Australia is the benchmark," said South Australia manager Ron Harvey. "They look to keep rolling. The traditional powers are still Queensland and Victoria."

Victoria, which has won a record 21 championships since the Shields' first year in 1934, finished fourth in 2008 after winning it all a year earlier. The Aces feature two infielders and past Futures Gamers who played in the Majors in 2008 and who should carry their offense. Minor league free agent Justin Huber, a past Mets and Royals top 10 prospect, and Phillies infielder Brad Harman lead the way for the Aces.

Dale, the Braves' scouting supervisor in Australia, expects his pitching to get stronger as spring training approaches and more players get ready for their overseas professional careers. The Aces offense and experienced lineup, as a number of coaches noted, is the team's strength.

"The question is going to be, how are we going to keep the runs down (this first weekend)," said Dale. "We have enough offense."

Queensland boasts the most titles since 1982, nine, and last won in 2006. The Rams feature seven current minor leaguers, the most of the group, including Drew Naylor, who has a 3.78 ERA over 43 minor league starts for the Phillies organization.

"Defensively we are good in the infield and have speed in the outfield," said Yates, one of four teams to win a title over the last four years. "Our pitching will get better as the tournament goes on."

New South Wales is the former home of Grant Balfour, who is likely to take some time off after pitching the Rays into the World Series in October. He should be ready for the World Baseball Classic.

"We're not expecting it," said Barclay of Balfour pitching for him at least early on. "I know he'd like to take part in it."

Three players with more than 10 years of professional experienced retired for NSW in Glenn Williams, Brendan Kingman and Chris Snelling, forcing a youth movement.

"I'm pleased," said Barclay on his team's progress, which features four current minor leaguers (such as Padres righthander Alessio Angelucci and Mets catcher Patrick Maat), and 10 players who have played professionally, led by 2004 Olympic hero Chris Oxspring. "We've got a lot of young professionals . . . We've got a lot of good young pitchers as well. Defensively, we are good all around, but we lack power and experience in run producing."

South Australia has emphasized the mental side of the game to get them back to the top. A once storied franchise, South Australia won 10 championships in 14 years from 1957 to 1971 but has not hoisted the Shield since 1980.

"We're looking to build consistency over a number of years," said SA Manager Ron Harvey, who is himself teaching his players the mental aspects. "We're working on the mental side of the game to give us an edge. A bit of flair and passion. To take charge when it is presented to them . . . We are trying to do this with a range of activities and going back to traditionally what made us successful."