DETROIT -- The question came up to Tigers manager Brad Ausmus at last week's Winter Meetings: Would he have a challenge evaluating reliever Bruce Rondón for potential roles if he's away representing Venezuela at the World Baseball Classic?"I think it's probably good for him to be around some of those
DETROIT -- The question came up to Tigers manager Brad Ausmus at last week's Winter Meetings: Would he have a challenge evaluating reliever Bruce Rondón for potential roles if he's away representing Venezuela at the World Baseball Classic?
"I think it's probably good for him to be around some of those guys," Ausmus said, then quipped, "although it seems like half their team is Detroit Tigers."
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He might be exaggerating, but not by much. And it's not just Venezuelan players.
:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::
As the Tigers make plans with Spring Training two months away, they're preparing to be without several players for a stretch as they represent their countries. That's nothing new for Detroit, which has had enough star power over the years to see them called to past Classics. This time, though, it's not just the stars. In at least a couple of cases, including Rondon and top relief prospect Joe Jimenez, the Tigers could see younger players getting the experience of international competition.
Detroit, for its part, stays out of it. Still, with a heavy representation of Venezuelan players, and with Detroit first-base coach Omar Vizquel managing Venezuela and former Tigers great Carlos Guillen as its general manager, Detroit officials at least know their players are in good hands. Likewise, with former Tigers manager and current special assistant Jim Leyland managing Team USA and Jeff Jones as the pitching coach, the familiarity factor is a benefit.
"If they want to play, I understand that," Ausmus said last week regarding the Classic. "And if they don't want to play, I understand that side of the argument, as well. I don't broach it."
The big names are no surprise. Miguel Cabrera, a constant on the Venezuelan team, was among the stars on the initial list released at the Winter Meetings last week. Victor Martinez's agent, Wil Polidor, tweeted on Sunday that the Tigers' designated hitter will play for Venezuela once again.
Closer Francisco Rodríguez has also expressed interest, Vizquel said last week, and Tigers officials are expecting he'll take part. It would be an adjustment for him compared to past springs, when he has pitched to a specific timetable to make sure he throws just enough innings to be ready for the season. But it shouldn't be a serious concern.
Rodriguez's potential presence could make things easier for Rondon, the hard-throwing right-hander whose Major League career has had stops and starts for four years. With 45 strikeouts and 23 hits allowed over 36 1/3 innings in 2016, Rondon has caught the attention of Vizquel and Guillen.
The motivation could reap rewards for Rondon with the Tigers, who have watched him struggle to find his better form in Spring Training.
"We've been talking to him," Vizquel said, "and we want Rondon to get his mind straight up and focused into the game right away. I hope that he can get into Spring Training ready and in shape. And if there's any reason we see that he's not in shape or we need to work longer, maybe we have to take another decision."
If the WBC can be a motivation for Rondon, it could be a springboard for Jimenez, the fifth-ranked prospect in the Tigers' system according to MLBPipeline.com. He has tweeted his interest in pitching for his native Puerto Rico.
Jimenez, who turns 22 next month, rose from Class A Advanced Lakeland to Triple-A Toledo last year, and he had a strong case for a September callup. General manager Al Avila has said repeatedly the Tigers want him gaining more experience with the Mud Hens before bringing him up, but the competition could provide the next-level test he needs to impress.
One Tiger who appears unlikely for Team Venezuela is Aníbal Sánchez, who has pitched for the team in the past but is coming off back-to-back shaky seasons in Detroit.
On the American side, while Ian Kinsler wasn't among the initial list of players announced, the Tigers' second baseman confirmed to MLB.com that he expressed his interest in playing for Team USA when asked by Leyland and the MLB Players Association. He was waiting to hear back as of last week, but Leyland all but confirmed at the Winter Meetings that Kinsler would be a part of the team.
Though Justin Verlander expressed interest in pitching for Team USA, the Tigers' ace is unlikely to take part. Leyland said they had a good conversation about the tournament format and Verlander's meticulous Spring Training buildup, and they decided it might not be an easy match.
All Tigers who take part in the World Baseball Classic will report to Spring Training with the Tigers in mid-February. They'll leave for their respective national team camps in late February or early March, then return whenever their national team run is over.
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast.