The last time Panamanian slugger Carlos Lee took the field with his teammates in World Baseball Classic qualifier action, it ended in disappointment. Instead of celebrating a berth to the 2013 WBC tournament, Lee had to watch as underdog Brazil punched its ticket to the 16-team field, waving its flag
The last time Panamanian slugger Carlos Lee took the field with his teammates in World Baseball Classic qualifier action, it ended in disappointment. Instead of celebrating a berth to the 2013 WBC tournament, Lee had to watch as underdog Brazil punched its ticket to the 16-team field, waving its flag over his home field in Panama City.
Fast forward nearly 3 1/2 years, and WBC qualifier action is coming back to Rod Carew Stadium. Lee will be back in the dugout wearing the red and blue threads of his native country again this weekend, only as a manager instead of a player.
Colombia and Spain will open the four-team Panama City WBC qualifier on Thursday afternoon, before Panama hosts France later that night. By the time Sunday evening rolls around, a new entrant into the 2017 WBC tournament will be crowned by virtue of a modified double-elimination bracket.
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The Panama City WBC qualifier is one of four being held around the globe in 2016 to finalize the field for next year. While Australia defended its home turf in Sydney and secured its spot in the 2017 WBC, another qualifier will be held simultaneously this weekend in Mexicali, Mexico, before the final one will be held in Brooklyn, N.Y., in September.
Panama enters the qualifier looking to reach its third WBC tournament, after going a combined 0-5 during the 2006 and '09 tournaments. Spain looks to return after making the 16-team bracket as a surprise entrant in 2013 before going 0-3 on the world stage. Colombia and France, meanwhile, have never reached the WBC tournament.
On paper, and according to a recent interview with Lee by Colombian publication El Heraldo, Team Colombia is the favorite to emerge out of the four-team qualifier and reach the 2017 Classic.
Colombia, led by current Arizona Diamondbacks Minor League coach Luis "Pipe" Urueta, features 16 affiliated players on its 28-man roster, the most of any team in Panama City. Urueta, who was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, served as a first-base coach for his country during the 2012 WBC qualifier, so he experienced his the team's defeats firsthand.
While Colombia will be without established MLB players -- like Atlanta pitcher Julio Teheran, White Sox righty Jose Quintana or the Solano brothers, Donovan and Jhonathan -- emerging youngsters like Mets second baseman Dilson Herrera have the Colombians feeling good about the direction of their program, which features former MLB star Edgar Renteria as its general manager.
"It makes me very proud," Herrera recently told MLB.com. "A few years back, there were just two or three [Colombians in MLB]. Now it's nine or 10. It makes me very proud to be a part of that group and see that baseball's really growing in Colombia."
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Joining Herrera amongst Colombia's affiliated players are right-handed pitchers Nabil Crismatt (Mets), William Cuevas (Red Sox), Jhonatan Escudero (Cardinals) and Yeizer Marrugo (Orioles); left-handed pitchers Carlos Diaz (Giants), Kevin Escorcia (White Sox), Gregory Nappo (Marlins) and Dewin Perez (Cardinals); catcher Jesus Posso (Phillies); infielders Mauricio Ramos (Royals) and Adrian Sanchez (Nationals); and outfielders Tito Polo (Pirates), Harold Ramirez (Pirates), Reynaldo Rodriguez (Twins) and Carlos Vidal (Yankees).
Of all the players who will be taking the field at Rod Carew Stadium this weekend, none are more decorated than Panama catcher Carlos Ruiz. The 37-year-old and 10-year MLB veteran, who was named an All-Star in 2012, is one of 10 affiliated players on the host nation's roster. Others include right-handed pitchers Dario Agrazal (Pirates), Harold Arauz (Phillies), Paolo Espino (Nationals), Ariel Jurado (Rangers) and Humberto Mejia (Marlins); left-handed pitchers Alberto Baldonado (Mets) and Andy Otero (Braves); and infielders Javier Guerra (Padres) and Edmundo Sosa (Cardinals).
Lee isn't the only ex-big league star to be leading a team this weekend in Panama. Three-time MLB All-Star and 2003 National League Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne will manage France's squad. Gagne, a native of Quebec, Canada, recently coached as a guest instructor for the Los Angeles Dodgers in late February. Among the players on Gagne's roster, only catcher Andy Patz (A's) is currently an affiliated player.
Tigers director of Latin American player development Manny Crespo will manage Spain after serving as the country's bench coach during the 2013 WBC. Crespo's squad currently features four affiliated players: right-handed pitchers Rogelio Armenteros (Astros), Lazaro Leyva (Orioles) and Carlos Sierra (Astros); and infielder Luis Guillorme (Mets).
Alex Espinoza is a contributor to MLB.com.