Team Canada’s first test was qualifying for the World Baseball Classic.
Earlier this week in Germany, the Canadians passed that exam with flying colours, outscoring the opposition by a 38-9 margin en route to a perfect 3-0 record in their WBC qualifying pool.
Now that they know their spot in the March 7-19 event is secure, the next challenge is fielding a roster that includes all of the country’s top baseball talent, especially on the mound.
Since the qualifying tournament took place in the middle of the MLB season, most of the Canadian squad was comprised of minor leaguers, many of whom are likely to lose their roster next spring to major-leaguers.
Three years ago at the WBC, Team Canada fielded a starting lineup that included the likes of Joey Votto, Justin Morneau, Jason Bay, and Russell Martin. All four are likely to suit up again and when you add in Brett Lawrie and Michael Saunders, the Canadians shouldn’t have a problem putting runs on the board.
There is far less major-league depth however on the mound, which is why much of Team Canada’s attention leading up to the Dec. 3 roster deadline will be focused on Ryan Dempster.
Three years ago, the 35-year-old, Gibsons, B.C. native took a pass on the WBC shortly after signing a three-year, $52 million deal with the Chicago Cubs.
The Texas Rangers right-hander would be the ace of the Canadian staff but he will also be a free agent again this winter with his participation in the WBC in doubt.
It’s noteworthy that the roster deadline for the 2013 WBC is a full six weeks earlier than it was three years ago. Without mentioning Dempster by name, Team Canada director of national teams Greg Hamilton admits he is somewhat concerned about the timing of the new deadline.
“Personally I think that’s a little early given the nature of some of the players we’ll want, where they may be in their thought process relative to their participation,” he explained in an interview earlier this week. “I can’t speak for other countries but I can pretty confidently say they’re going to need more time too.”
Beyond Dempster, other potential Canadian starters include Scott Diamond, Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis and Shawn Hill. The 25-year-old Diamond is in the midst of wrapping up a fine season with the Minnesota Twins, while Bedard and Francis have struggled in 2012 and Hill has spent of his year pitching in triple-A.
But next spring if Team Canada hopes to advance beyond the round robin stage for the first time, Hamilton says they’re going to need all the major league arms they can muster.
“We’re very good on the front end of our roster, but we need to get the guys, certainly on the mound with the pitching,” he said. “Everything works from there. We’ve got to get the pitching that you need in this type of tournament to be successful.”
Should the starters do their job, Hamilton hopes to be able to call on Chicago White Sox setup man Jesse Crain and Milwaukee Brewers closer John Axford to help close things out.
“You don’t go in looking for the participation medal when you play in these events,” said Hamilton. “For us, we feel that we can compete against the best in the world at any level now.
“We don’t say that in an arrogant way, we’re just confident that we belong with the best teams in the world and on any given day we can compete against them.”
The International Baseball Federation apparently agrees, as evidenced by Canada’s No. 5 placing in the latest edition of their world rankings.
But when the time comes this winter for the likes of Dempster and others to declare their WBC intentions, Hamilton says he’ll be OK with whatever decisions are made.
“Obviously they have to be a point and time where they’re healthy and it makes sense, but I think they’re excited to wear the Canadian uniform and play,” he explains, pointing to the likes of Votto, Morneau, Bay and Martin. “I don’t anticipate it being any different this time around.”
Well, perhaps with one possible veteran exception on the mound.