FORT MYERS, FLA. – In 2009, Puerto Rico reached the second round of the World Baseball Classic. In 2013, it lost to the Dominican Republic in the championship game.
If Team Puerto Rico is going to take the next and final step, a quintet of Twins players will likely have a hand in it.
“I think we are a pretty good team, the best team we have had than the previous WBCs,” righthander Jose Berrios said. “We’re young. We have a lot of energy, and hopefully we can bring that championship back.”
The WBC returns for the fourth time, and 10 players from the Twins organization — five from Puerto Rico — are on rosters for the tournament. Pool play begins Monday in South Korea. The final is scheduled for March 22 in Los Angeles.
Some estimates have this event generating over $100 million in revenue. Not bad, but the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil made more than $4 billion. The WBC has a way to go, but MLB claims it is growing.
So is Puerto Rican baseball. Berrios, lefthander Hector Santiago, first baseman Kennys Vargas and outfielder Eddie Rosario are all leaving Twins camp on Monday to join Team Puerto Rico in Guadalajara, Mexico, for pool play. A fifth player from the Twins organization, righthander Dereck Rodriguez, is going too. He’s the son of recently elected Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez.
They will join a team that includes Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor, Houston shortstop Carlos Correa and Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Baez — three of the game’s great young players. Outfielder Carlos Beltran and catcher Yadier Molina are the sages of the group.
The five other players from the organization who are participating in the WBC are minor leaguers. Righthander Todd Van Stennsel, lefthander Lachlan Wells and outfielder Aaron Whitefield are with Australia. Righthander Yohan Pino and first baseman Reynaldo Rodriguez are with Colombia.
And, for those of you Twins-a-holics, there are 20 folks with Twins connections in the tournament, including former players Justin Morneau, Samuel Deduno, Drew Butera, Luke Hughes and Sam Fuld. Make it 21 if you count senior director of communications Dustin Morse, who is the press agent for the Netherlands team.
Puerto Rico, which is in Pool D, opens play on Friday against Venezuela. Saturday, it faces Mexico in what could be viewed as a revenge match. A Puerto Rican team won the Caribbean Series right before camp opened as Caguas defeated Aguilas, Mexico, 1-0 to win the title in a game played in Culiacan, Mexico.
“It will be a crazy crowd, that’s for sure,” Santiago said. “But it will be fun.”
The island had experienced a down cycle in producing top prospects, but things are back on the upswing. One reason has been construction of a couple of baseball academies, including one funded by Beltran.
Puerto Rican prospects are being selected higher in the draft. Berrios was selected in the first round in 2012. Rosario was selected in the fourth round in 2010. Correa was the first overall pick in 2012, one spot in front of Byron Buxton.
Vargas was an undrafted free agent in 2009 who was overweight with no skills at first base. Now he is in the WBC and has a chance to make the Twins’ Opening Day roster.
“I am expecting a lot from the team,” Vargas said. “I’m really excited to be part of the team, to represent Puerto Rico, the colors.”
Berrios and Santiago will make three starts before heading to the WBC, where they will be kept on their normal progressive schedule to be ready for the season. Twins manager Paul Molitor has made sure Vargas and Rosario receive plenty of playing time before they leave. Both will make the long bus ride from Fort Myers to West Palm Beach on Sunday to play the Washington Nationals before heading to Mexico on Monday. Molitor even played Rosario in center field Friday against Philadelphia in case he’s needed there during the tournament.
“Here’s a long road trip, but [Rosario] is going to go on it,” Molitor said. “So is Vargas, just to get some at-bats. I’ve been trying to be at least respectful of their situation and get them ready.”
The Twins brought a few more players to camp to absorb the WBC-related losses. They also will be allowed to communicate with their players during the tournament. That’s very important for someone like Berrios, who is making mechanical adjustments and will return to camp trying to win a spot in the rotation.
“Totally, we will always be in contact,” Berrios said. “As soon as it is over — hopefully after the final — I will be back to work again.”