After an exciting but ultimately deflating 2022 Cleveland Guardians season, a lot of us have been counting down the days until baseball returns. For those looking to scratch their Major League Baseball itch a little early this year, the World Baseball Classic is now less than one month away. Just last week, all 20 participating countries released their rosters and the players involved in the WBC began reporting to camp on Monday in order to begin preparing for their early starting season.
The WBC has become a baseball tradition that has grown in terms of respect and interest each time it has been held. To this point, many of the best players in the world are participating in this iteration of the WBC. Mike Trout has taken the mantle as Team USA captain. Two-way star and possibly the most talented baseball player in the world, Shohei Ohtani will both pitch and hit for Japan. Eight current or former Most Valuable Players including reigning National League MVP Paul Goldschmidt are partaking in this year’s contest.
I love that the game’s stars have embraced the tournament, but as we shift focus from looking at the tournament overall to our own Cleveland Guardians, something is a bit of a surprise. In earnest, most of our best players aren’t participating. But before we get to who isn’t participating, let’s talk about who from the Guards will be suiting up for their country…
Guardians second baseman Andres Gimenez, a breakout All-Star that won a Gold Glove and finished 6th in AL Most Valuable Player voting in 2022, will play for his native Venezuela. Gimenez will not play at second base, where he was handed the game’s greatest defensive honor last year, but will play shortstop so that the less defensively versatile Jose Altuve or less defensively inclined Gleyber Torres can play second. Gimenez stands to be part of Venezuela’s A-squad (the tournament occurs during Spring Training so expect everyone to play at least a little) and hit in the lower part of their batting order.
Gutsy right-handed #3 starter Cal Quantrill will suit up in the red maple leaf for his home Canada. He will be joined by Guardians prospect and catcher of the future Bo Naylor, quite probably making up a Guardian-only battery at some point during the tournament. Quantrill projects to be one of two Major League-caliber starting pitchers for Canada, while Naylor seems to be the more talented of their two catchers. With the tournament being scheduled during Spring Training, teams will give playing time to their entire squads, but it figures that if Canada makes a deep run Naylor will be the catcher used in key games. This could be a positive for both Naylor and the Guardians as it could afford him the opportunity to play in games and get at-bats against a vast array of talent including potentially in some more intense moments.
The only other Guardians regular that will appear in the WBC is relief pitcher Enyel De Los Santos. In signing De Los Santos before the 2022 season, Cleveland was able to transform him from a journeyman relief pitcher to a dependable member of one of the sturdiest bullpens in MLB. He sported a 3.04 ERA in 53 1/3 innings pitched in 2022, earning the invitation to be included in what is an incredibly formidable bullpen for the Dominican Republic. De Los Santos will team up with a bevy of relievers with wicked stuff such as Bryan Abreu, Diego Castillo, Camilo Doval, Rafael Montero and Hector Neris. The DR has arguably the best bullpen in the tournament.
While De Los Santos, should make strong contributions to the Dominican Republic, the Guardians could have contributed in an even bigger way to the DR’s roster with two more obvious inclusions. For one, what would have made the Dominican bullpen just all that much more devastating would have been if Guardians closer Emmanuel Clase had committed to joining the squad? Also adding third baseman and perennial MVP candidate Jose Ramirez to their lineup would have provided an embarrassment of riches in terms of talent on the right side of their infield. However, both players elected not to play. Ramirez’s reasoning for not playing in the tournament is easy to explain as he had surgery on his thumb over the course of the off-season. Playing competitive baseball on an earlier-than-usual schedule is probably not the best course of action for his recovery. In Clase’s case, there doesn’t appear to be a specific ailment (good news in its own right). Still, with Clase being such a fireballer, perhaps he doesn’t feel good about heating up his arm so early into the season. In general, top-tier pitching talent tends to commit less often to the WBC, whether it be starters or relievers and regardless of team or county.
This is likely why Shane Bieber is not participating as well. Bieber is coming off of an effective, but admittedly slightly odd 2022 season. He put up great numbers, including a 2.88 ERA in exactly 200 innings and had a masterful post-season performance vs. the Tampa Bay Rays, but his fastball was two MPH slower on average in 2022 than any other season, suggesting that his velocity never fully returned to the levels seen before a shoulder injury in 2021. This, plus a $10 million price tag for his services in 2023, are likely reasons for Bieber and the Guardians to be prudent. He will report to Guardians camp though with a clean bill of health.
Other Guardians pitchers Triston McKenzie and Trevor Stephan would also have looked good in the red, white and blue of Team USA but were either not invited or turned down the opportunity. Little is known of the specifics but they certainly could have contributed. Regarding our neighbors to the north, Josh Naylor will not be joining his brother and Cal Quantrill on Team Canada. Josh Naylor’s absence comes in the name of not incurring any setbacks on his surgically repaired leg that held up in 2022 but is still somewhat tenuous. Naylor would likely have had to play the outfield for Canada as well, as they already have star first baseman Freddie Freeman.
If any other Guardian is a surprise to not be participating in the WBC, it would have to be outfielder Steven Kwan. And indeed, his exclusion from the tournament has its own story. Kwan was an AL Rookie of the Year finalist last year as well as a Gold Glove winner and is arguably the best contact hitter in all of baseball. Kwan is also American-born, so it is understandable that even with his budding talent he wouldn’t find a roster spot when more prominent and longer-established outfield stars like Trout, Mookie Betts and Kyle Schwarber have already taken up spots on the roster.
However, Kwan also has both Japanese and Chinese heritage, including grandparents that emigrated from the two countries. Players are typically eligible to play for a nation when their grandparents are native-born to that country, regardless of their own place of birth. Under this logic, Kwan is eligible to play for either Team Japan or Team China in the WBC, with both teams having qualified. Ohtani even tried to recruit Kwan to come to play for Japan in the WBC, an honor that might be just as great as any other bestowed on the Guardians outfielder in 2022. In turn, Kwan responded as enthusiastically open to the prospect but unfortunately, there was a problem. In order to be officially eligible, either Kwan or his parents would need to have a passport from Japan. The Kwan’s do not have any such passports and after additional appeal and deliberation by the MLB, Kwan was deemed not eligible to play for Japan. On top of that, the same rules apply to Team China, who will also be appearing in the WBC and with much more of a dearth of high-level talent. China certainly could have used a boost from a Major Leaguer like Kwan. Ultimately, the Guardians outfielder will be in team camp for the entirety of the pre-season solely due to paperwork.
On the other hand, four more Guardians farmhands will also be participating in the WBC. Most notable among them is pitcher Josh Wolf who was one of the prospects included in the Francisco Lindor trade. Wolf will pitch for Israel in the tournament after spending most of 2022 at Single-A Lynchburg for the Guardians.
Catcher and non-roster invitee to Spring Training Meibrys Viloria will suit up for his native Colombia. Viloria’s inclusion in the tournament is interesting because the Guardians currently have an opening at their backup catcher position with free agent signee Mike Zunino as their new starter and the aforementioned Bo Naylor likely getting everyday playing time at AAA Columbus. Viloria figures to be competing for the backup catcher role along with fellow spring invitee Cam Gallagher and current internal candidate Bryan Lavastida. How being away from the Guardians camp and pitching staff for a significant portion of Spring Training will affect Viloria’s chances is yet to be seen. Viloria does not project to be part of Colombia’s A-squad as the team also has current Padre backstop Jorge Alfaro among three other catchers.
Dayan Frias, a fellow Colombian and 2022 teammate of Wolf will also represent his native country and play in their infield. Frias had a very respectable On Base Percentage of .344 at Single-A Lynchburg last year. With four current or former Major Leaguers on their team including Gio Urshela and Donovan Solano, Frias will likely see time but not be a primary starter.
Lastly, pitcher Cade Smith will join Quantrill and Naylor as part of Team Canada. Smith threw 37 1/3 relief innings at AA Akron in 2022 with a strong 2.89 ERA and eight saves. He could pitch considerable innings for a bullpen that isn’t as naturally talented as others like the Dominicans.