Team USA will gather Sunday in Phoenix to begin preparations for the World Baseball Classic, but there’s an unexpected item of business for general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. and manager Joe Torre to address before then.
USA must find a new relief pitcher, after Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez was forced to withdraw from the tournament because of a right shoulder strain.
“He was really pumped up for this, so this is doubly disappointing,” Garagiola said. “The player’s health and the season are the paramount concern, and he and the Indians will do what they can to make sure he’s ready for Opening Day. It’s too bad for Team USA, and I feel badly for him.
“From the minute Joe (Torre) reached out to him, last December or January, he was enthusiastic, sending out tweets. We’ll miss him. We wish he was part of the team.”
Garagiola said he expects to replace Perez with a reliever, so there’s no sense in wondering if Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw will suddenly change his mind and join the team.
Ideally, the U.S. would have an elite closer to pair with Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel, who may be unavailable for certain games because of WBC pitch restrictions. But Garagiola pointed out that a number of relievers on the U.S. roster have closed in the big leagues.
“I don’t know how terribly important it is (to have another established closer),” Garagiola said. “We have a lot of people on the pitching staff who have closing experience: Kimbrel, (Heath) Bell. (Luke) Gregerson has closed. (Glen) Perkins has closed. I think we’ve got a lot of closers.
“If we add another one, that’s great. If we don’t, we have plenty of people already. With versatility of the bullpen, I don’t think we’re limited to finding a ‘quote-unquote’ closer.”
A number of the top American-born closers — Jim Johnson, Jason Motte, Joe Nathan and Joel Hanrahan — previously declined offers to pitch in this year’s WBC, according to reports.
Arizona Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz could emerge as one candidate to replace Perez. Putz pitched for USA in the ’09 WBC and is already training in nearby Scottsdale with his team. The Diamondbacks likely would support Putz’s participation, as the organization has been heavily involved in planning for the tournament and will host first-round games at Chase Field and Salt River Fields.
USA has nine relievers at the moment: Kimbrel, Bell, Gregerson, Perkins, Jeremy Affeldt, Mitchell Boggs, Steve Cishek, Tim Collins and Vinnie Pestano. Derek Holland, a starter with the Texas Rangers, could serve in a bullpen role if he’s not chosen for the rotation during pool play.
USA opens WBC play Friday, March 8, against Mexico at Chase Field. After failing to reach the championship game in the first two tournaments, some observers have suggested the U.S. faces intense pressure to win the title this time.
Garagiola doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think so,” he said, when asked if he feels the weight of those expectations. “Joe and I were talking today. We’re just excited. There’s been a lot of work put into this on everybody’s part, including Tony Clark at the MLBPA. It’s exciting to know that, in a couple days, these guys are going to be here, on the field, and we’re going to see this team as a team.
“Joe was saying today that he’s getting the managerial butterflies again. We all feel the same way. It’s going to be a really special moment, when that pitcher winds up, we look in the other dugout, and there’s Mexico. The players are fired up. Once they get here in the same clubhouse, they’re going to look around, saying, ‘Wow, this is a pretty good team.’”
— Jon Paul Morosi