Filled with stars, Team D.R. has sights on Classic title
'Right now, I don’t think I’d make the team,' GM Nelson Cruz said.
“I don’t remember who was talking about it, maybe it was Juan Soto who said he saw the NBA Olympic team where they had so many stars,” Dominican Republic general manager Nelson Cruz told me in a phone call. “And it was like a Dream Team. That’s basically what we have.”
Soto is right.
When you look at the roster the D.R. team is putting out for the 2023 World Baseball Classic, it’s hard not to think of them as the one of the tournament favorites. It's a lineup that might be better than any to ever appear on a diamond together -- an unfair, unyielding array of talent.
There are proven names like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Manny Machado, Rafael Devers and Juan Soto.
There are up-and-coming phenoms like Julio Rodríguez , Wander Franco and Jeremy Peña.
There’s ace Sandy Alcantara on the mound … with World Series champ Cristian Javier ready in the No. 2 slot.
There’s young fireballer Camilo Doval coming out of the bullpen.
The team is so good that their GM/player Cruz – a man with nearly 500 big league homers – might not even get any playing time.
“Right now, I don’t think I’d make the team,” Cruz laughed.
Think of it this way: Of the top 10 players in WAR in 2022, two are from Team D.R. (Alcantara, Machado). Rodriguez, Devers, Machado and Soto were all in the Top 20 in baseball for OPS in 2022.
Alcantara is the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner. He led MLB in complete games, shutouts and innings pitched.
Breakout star Javier helped the Astros pitch the second World Series no-hitter in 118 seasons.
J-Rod is the reigning AL Rookie of the Year winner.
Peña was the 2022 ALCS and World Series MVP.
Machado was the NL MVP runner-up.
Soto led all of MLB in walks.
Nobody has hit more homers over the past 13 years than Cruz.
Veteran Robinson Canó has the second-best WAR among active players.
Of the 30 men projected to play for the team, there are a combined 40 All-Star appearances, 18 Silver Sluggers and eight Gold Gloves.
And even with an all-time great infield and elite starting pitching, Cruz says his best weapon might be his bullpen. Three key members of the Astros World Series team – Rafael Montero, Hector Neris and Bryan Abreu – will bring along a winning mentality, while lefty Gregory Soto (3.28 ERA, 30 saves) and young fireballer Doval (2.53 ERA, 27 saves) could get the ball to close out tight games and, as Cruz said, “take us to the finals and win the whole thing.”
Any way you look at it, it’s a barrage of weapons coming at you from every direction. And it all came together rather seamlessly. I mean, who wouldn’t want a chance to play on one of the greatest teams ever assembled?
“It was easy,” Cruz told me. “This year, all the players told their agents to call me because they wanted to be part of the team. The recruiting was easy … We’re friends, we’re pretty close off the field. We keep in touch, we talk a lot.”
Playing in close to 20 seasons for multiple teams, Cruz has, of course, been teammates with some of the stars on the D.R. roster. But there are a few he’s excited to see up close he’s never really seen on a nightly basis.
“The biggest star is probably Devers for ones I haven’t played with,” Cruz said. “Vladdy Guerrero, Julio Rodríguez …”
Although they likely won’t fully practice together until late February or early March, Cruz says the team has had some informal gatherings. The crew met up on both Soto’s and Cruz’s farms in the D.R. in early December and did some youth clinics before the New Year.
As a GM, Cruz mentions there are new things he has to be involved with. There are more meetings, and more discussions about flights and hotels, but he credits a good staff with taking care of a lot of those extracurricular aspects. He says it’s been fun to view things from the other side of the game. And although he knows there will be lots of press conferences and day games and a busy schedule that mimics postseason baseball, Cruz will try to institute one training technique that has helped keep him in playing shape for so many seasons.
“Yeah, hopefully we have a place to go and take naps,” he said.
Even with such an unreal assortment of athletes, the tournament won’t exactly be a cakewalk for the Dominican team. Sure, they’ve stocked up … but so have other nations.
Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt lead perhaps the best USA lineup ever, Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani joined up with Japan, Francisco Lindor and Javier Báez paired up for Puerto Rico and Freddie Freeman signed on for Canada.
“They’re all gonna be really good teams,” Cruz said. “Venezuela and Puerto Rico are strong teams. Even the ones we’re gonna play, Israel and Nicaragua. Anyone can be a surprise.”
Cruz knows firsthand about these surprises: he recalled his 2009 D.R. team, the tournament favorites, being ousted in the first round by the underdog Netherlands. Pool D in Miami will feature some stiff competition including Israel, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. But Cruz thinks his team might have a big advantage over others: Crowd size. The GM is expecting swaths of fans from the Dominican to show up at loan Depot Park – the country is the closest of the five in Pool D to South Florida’s Magic City. Even the LIDOM finals – one of the biggest baseball events all year on the island – won’t compare to the fervor for this year’s Classic.
“The whole country is pumped,” Cruz said. “I have calls coming from everywhere asking about tickets. Anyone who has my contact number is reaching out about how they can get to the games.”
It'll all make the team on the field seem that much more powerful.