Humbled by a first-round exit in the World Baseball Classic, a superstar willed his team to gold in the subsequent tournament through his leadership and bat.In 2013, that was the narrative for Robinson Cano and the Dominican Republic.In 2017, that could be the story of Jose Cabrera's Team Venezuela.• Get
Humbled by a first-round exit in the World Baseball Classic, a superstar willed his team to gold in the subsequent tournament through his leadership and bat.
In 2013, that was the narrative for Robinson Cano and the Dominican Republic.
In 2017, that could be the story of Jose Cabrera's Team Venezuela.
• Get World Baseball Classic tickets
The future Hall of Fame first baseman has shown a powerful sense of purpose in advance of the upcoming Classic, including the informal workouts he organized over the offseason. In late January, Cabrera tweeted photographs of himself alongside Venezuelan teammates Jose Altuve and Carlos Gonzalez during those sessions.
:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::
And upon arriving at the Tigers' spring camp this month in Lakeland, Fla., Cabrera acknowledged to reporters that Venezuela is in "bad shape" -- a reference to political and economic strife there -- and expressed hope that the Classic can bring the country together.
"I'm so happy Miguel has taken on that voice about what's going on in Venezuela," Venezuelan manager Omar Vizquel told MLB.com this week in a telephone interview. "The energy he has around the players is great. To bring them to Miami and work out together in the offseason says a lot about him as a leader. He's the one who called everybody. That week they were practicing in Miami, it was set up by him.
"That shows you how [important] it is to him that we play well in this tournament. He's taking things seriously. He's brought everybody on board. He's the captain. And when the captain talks, everybody's got to listen."
A focused, slugging Cabrera could be the difference for Venezuela in the deepest first-round group: Pool D in Jalisco, Mexico, against Italy, Puerto Rico and the host country. The Venezuelans also will benefit from the presence of Felix Hernandez, who did not pitch in the Classic four years ago.
Mexico advanced through pool play in the first two Classics and was three outs from doing the same in 2013, before a stunning rally by Italy in what proved to be the decisive game. Pool D begins March 9 with a rematch -- this time, on Mexican soil -- and Italy will step into the raucous atmosphere without Anthony Rizzo and Jason Grilli, key members of the 2013 team. Sam Gaviglio, Alessandro Maestri, A.J. Morris and Jordan Romano are candidates to start on the mound for Italy in the tournament.
Mexico should have a distinct home-field advantage, as evidenced by passionate fan support at this month's Caribbean Series in Culiacán. And the pitching staff will be strong; Yovani Gallardo, Jaime Garcia, Miguel Gonzalez and Jorge De La Rosa are rotation options for the first round, with Roberto Osuna, Sergio Romo, Oliver Perez, Joakim Soria and Carlos Torres in the bullpen.
Still, Puerto Rico won silver in the 2013 World Baseball Classic -- and it is a better team now, with dynamic infielders Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and Javier Baez joining icons Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina. Lindor will be the primary shortstop -- coming off his Gold Glove Award and World Series berth -- but Correa is likely to make at least one start at the position during pool play.
Vizquel -- the iconic Indians shortstop -- said Lindor -- the current Indians shortstop -- is "one of my favorite players to watch in Major League Baseball."
A critic could point out that Puerto Rico's pitching staff lacks an ace of Hernandez's profile, with Hector Santiago, Seth Lugo and Jose Berrios the top starting options. But remember that Molina coaxed the 2013 staff to the championship game with a less accomplished rotation: Giancarlo Alvarado, Nelson Figueroa, Orlando Roman and Mario Santiago.
As with Puerto Rico at shortstop, Venezuela has an abundance of elite talent at second base between Altuve and Rougned Odor. Altuve will be the primary player there, with Odor possibly starting at second base in one game and otherwise getting at-bats as the designated hitter.
• 2017 World Baseball Classic rules
Martin Prado and Yangervis Solarte are expected to play third base, with Royals veteran Alcides Escobar at shortstop. Vizquel said Odor isn't a candidate for the left side of the infield -- where he last played in the 2013-14 winter ball season -- out of respect to the Texas Rangers.
"I don't want to put him into a position where I'm going to compromise him," Vizquel said of Odor. "In an emergency, maybe we'd consider him for left field. He's said he can play any position."
So for the most part, Cabrera and Altuve -- close friends from their hometown of Maracay -- will play side by side.
"Those guys love each other," Vizquel said. "As you can see, a lot of the new prospects from Venezuela are coming from Maracay. There's been a huge explosion of players there. Every time I see a young Venezuelan in the big leagues, I ask, 'Is that guy from Maracay?' It seems like everyone's coming from there. There are a lot of opportunities in Maracay -- a lot of schools, a lot of fields available."
And as the Classic begins, two of the city's favorite sons want desperately to give their homeland a reason to celebrate.
PLAYER TO WATCH
The World Baseball Classic can offer fans a glimpse at prospects who are about to impact Major League teams. That should be true for Team Mexico's Alex Verdugo, a 20-year-old native of Tucson, Ariz., who ranks as the Dodgers' No. 2 prospect, according to MLBPipeline.com. Verdugo, a left-handed batter who plays primarily center field, could reach Dodger Stadium before the end of 2017.
THE KEY GAME
Venezuela vs. Puerto Rico, March 10, 9 p.m. ET
This will feel like a must-win for both teams, given the daunting task of facing Mexico on home soil later in pool play. King Felix is lined up to start; for a six-time All-Star who has yet to appear in the postseason, it will feel like Game 1 of the World Series. He won't disappoint.
The World Baseball Classic runs from March 6-22. In the U.S., games will air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN will provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. will have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. Internationally, the tournament will be distributed across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.
Venezuela and Mexico advance.
Jon Paul Morosi is a columnist for MLB.com.