Talented Canadians to face familiar issues building roster for 2023 World Baseball Classic

Canada starting pitcher Nick Pivetta throws during the first inning in a first-round game of the World Baseball Classic against Colombia, Saturday, March 11, 2017, in Miami. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

TORONTO – Abraham Toro closely followed the 2017 World Baseball Classic, both as a fan of the Canadian national team and a hopeful participant down the road.

The versatile middle infielder from Greenfield Park, Que., was a second-year professional bound for A-ball in the Houston Astros system at the time, but figured he’d have a shot at making the roster the next time the tournament rolled around.

With the fifth edition of the event set for next spring Toro, now a member of the Seattle Mariners, is ready to suit up.

“Yeah, 100 per cent,” he says. “I’ve always been open to playing in the World Baseball Classic, it’s something like a goal for me. Just representing the country where you grew up playing is something to look forward to.

“I feel like we have a lot of young guys – Josh Naylor and Tyler O’Neill are pretty good. I don’t know if Joey Votto will play, I hope so, but there’s a lot of talent for sure.”

Toro’s interest is a boon for the national team given the lack of depth among Canadian middle infielders and bolsters a potentially strong core that could also include Freddie Freeman (who played for Canada in 2017), Mike Soroka, Nick Pivetta, Jameson Taillon, Cal Quantrill, James Paxton, Rowan Wick and Matt Brash.

The question that always lurks in the background for Canada, of course, is whether all its top players, especially pitchers, are willing and able to get permission from their clubs. Each decision is vital since the Canadian pool isn’t nearly as deep as powerhouses like the United States, Dominican Republic and Japan, who are capable of fielding multiple competitive rosters.

Votto, just activated from the COVID-19 injured list and trying to work himself out of a difficult early-season slump, isn’t sure about his plans for next spring. Pivetta, a member of the 2017 team that went 0-3 in Miami, and Taillon, who threw four innings of two-run ball against the Americans as a 21-year-old prospect in 2013, both want to play but will need to check with their teams first.

Others will face the same delicate dance, too.

Votto’s decision will be especially weighty for Canada given his place in the sport. He suited up in both 2009 and 2013, but passed in 2017 because he felt he needed spring training to address some performance issues.

As for 2023, “I haven’t thought about it,” he says. “I was asked the question from a Canadian teammate, and I really didn’t have the answer at the time just because I hadn’t thought about it. With the changes to baseball over the last two-plus years, I’m trying really hard not to get ahead of myself. There’s just been so many changes and I don’t even know if there will be a tournament, so I can’t even speak on that.”

A hopeful sign for Canada is that his perspective on the tournament’s impact on preparations for a season has evolved since the last edition. While the need to ramp up for meaningful competition earlier than usual has been a red flag to some, Votto now feels that “playing more intense games earlier in the year is probably a better thing for me, if I’m honest.”

“We’re going to be on an international stage. Nobody wants to embarrass themselves. Everybody wants to represent themselves, their family and their country well. You want to perform,” he continues. “And that taps into something that is really hard to replicate in spring training. When you’re cornered or you’ve got your back pushed against the wall, I feel like there’s something else that comes out of a player and it’s worked for me in the past. That would definitely help me help speed up my preparation for the season, I think.”

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Pivetta, who had just touched triple-A, and Taillon, who was at double-A, both had their development accelerated by pitching for Canada in the Classic.

Their usage came with restrictions and if they do end up on the 2023 squad, strings would once again surely be attached.

“It’s definitely on my radar,” Pivetta, who graduated to the Philadelphia Phillies after facing Colombia in 2017 and has since become a pillar in the Boston Red Sox rotation. “Obviously it’s going to be up to the Red Sox to allow me to do that. It depends on how we end here, where we’re at. I always want to play, but ultimately it’s up to them.”

Taillon’s situation is even more complicated as a pending free agent, meaning he’d potentially have to leave a new team that just signed him. Born in Texas to Canadian parents through whom he obtained citizenship, he’s familiar with the politics of Classic participation, getting the nod to pitch as a prospect in 2013 while getting discouraged from going in ’17 by Ray Searage, his pitching coach at the time with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“I weighed the pros and the cons and for me (in 2013), the pros outweighed the cons by a lot,” Taillon, now with the New York Yankees, explains. “You get a 21-year-old kid who gets to play on that stage against those hitters, for me that was a huge experience. When you get to the big-leagues, the field doesn’t seem as big and when you’re facing big name guys, you’re like, ‘Hey, I’ve already done this before.’ The cons (in 2017) would be not getting to work with your regular catchers, not getting to work with your regular pitching coaches.”

One difference now is that the usage of video and data technology in recent years, combined with the remote strategies normalized by the pandemic, may lead to additional flexibility.

“You can keep your team in the loop,” says Taillon. “If you go into it with a professional mindset, it’s just the same as pitching in spring training.”

Health issues will play into the calls for Soroka and Paxton, who are both working their way back from injuries right now, while Quantrill, Wick and Brash will surely have to navigate workload concerns.

Still, Taillon called his 2013 experience “a career and life memory” and he remembers being able to “really feel the camaraderie” after being welcomed into the group, led by Justin Morneau. “Canadian baseball players take a lot of pride in representing the country,” he says, “whereas some other countries you have more established guys who might not want to play. I feel like they’re going to be represented pretty well.”

Pivetta agrees but at the World Baseball Classic, the roster a national team can put together isn’t always reflective of the talent pool it can draw from.

“Everybody being healthy we should have a pretty good team, as long as each individual organization allows their guys to play,” says Pivetta. “The hardest part is obviously starting pitching. We do have quite a few really good starters in the big-leagues right now. We have really good hitters, as well. We could really put something good together. It just depends.”

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