WBC will have a distinct Blue Jays flavour in 2017

Hazel Mae talks with Ross Atkins about the Toronto Blue Jays bringing in Steve Pearce and what the team still needs to do this offseason.

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. – The Blue Jays’ spring training squad could be especially light this March – and not just because of the all-but-guaranteed departures of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista.

The fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic takes place this spring, and there could be as many as a baker’s dozen of Jays asked to play for their (or their grandparents’) countries in the 16-nation tournament.

As part of the first day of the Winter Meetings, the WBC managers met with the media, and at least five of them want to get their hands on some Blue Jays with, shockingly, Marco Mazzieri’s Team Italy taking the largest number.

Jason Grilli has pitched for Italy in each of the three previous tournaments, and if Mazzieri has his way, Joe Biagini will join him this time around. Chris Colabello, who has been outrighted off the Jays’ 40-man roster but is still in the system, has already committed to play, and Italy is likely interested in Darrell Ceciliani as well.

Edgar Gonzalez’ Team Mexico will be asking for a trio of Blue Jays in Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna. He expects to at least get the closer.

“(Osuna’s) very important," said Gonzalez. "He’s excited to be a part of it. Hopefully the process of getting permission from the Blue Jays goes right, but I think he’s all in for it and I’m excited to have somebody like that that’s so young and so good.”

Estrada, with his back issues, and Sanchez, having jumped from a career high of 133 innings to 203.2 this past season, might have trouble convincing the Blue Jays that they’re better off at the WBC than they are in Dunedin.

Blue Jays’ general manager Ross Atkins says "first and foremost we want to put them in the best position to have success doing it – that meaning pitching in the WBC. Secondarily, what that means for the rest of their season and ultimately what it means for the long term of their career."

When a player’s health is a possible issue, Atkins said the strategy will be to "communicate with the player, communicate with the team, communicate with our (high performance) staff and come up with what we think is the best thing that covers those three aspects of the decision (success at WBC, success in the 2017 season, long-term career success)."

The Blue Jays may also have concerns about Marcus Stroman, who threw 215 1/3 innings this past season – almost 50 more than he ever had before – but Team USA General Manager Joe Torre says Stroman is "over the moon" at the chance to represent his country, and it sounds as though Torre is, too.

"You get a wish list," said the Hall of Famer, "and you think of certain guys that, when you watch them pitch over the course of the year, that they’re special. (Stroman) certainly is in that category."

Torre also confirmed that Stroman will start for Team USA, as opposed to working out of the bullpen. He may even get the start on March 12, when the States takes on Team Canada.

Stroman may be the only Blue Jay asked to play for Team USA, though. Rockies’ third baseman Nolan Arenado has already committed to playing, which might leave Josh Donaldson out of the mix.

"We have not (talked to Donaldson)," said Torre. "When we get players at every position, we want to make sure they’re going to get their work. So when you start stacking positions, it’s not fair to any of them."

But Torre did leave the door open to Donaldson wearing the stars and stripes. "We have a DH," he added. "I’m not really concerned about the defensive part of it, I just want to make sure they’d get the at-bats that they’d get with their team in spring training."

Team Israel wants to have Kevin Pillar on their side. "You bet we have (talked to Pillar)," said Israel’s skipper Jerry Weinstein. "He’s a key piece to that puzzle. He would obviously be our centrefielder. Obviously it depends on how he rehabs from his thumb injury."

Both the return from injury and that fact that Israel plays in Pool A – with games in Seoul, South Korea – could stand in the way of Pillar’s participation.

As for the squad representing our home and native land, Greg Hamilton and Ernie Whitt are hoping for a pair of Blue Jays. They’d love Dalton Pompey to be their leadoff man and centre fielder, and they’re happy to be getting their hands on Russell Martin again – the Jays’ catcher having skipped the 2013 tournament to acclimate himself with his new Pirates’ teammates.

But it’s not likely that we’ll be seeing Martin strap on the catcher’s gear.

"I’m excited that (Russ) wants to play," said Whitt, who will be managing Team Canada for the fourth time. "Pretty much, he can play wherever he wants to. If he wants to play some middle infield, we’re more than welcome to let him do that. With permission from the Jays, of course."

According to Atkins, he has that permission.

"The discussion has been that he’ll most likely play the infield," said the Blue Jays GM. "It’s such an incredible opportunity. Will I worry as I watch? Sure. But we’re supportive of the program, supportive of Russ. That’s where it starts. If it’s something that Russ really wants to do, then we’ll figure out a way to put him in the best position to have success."

The other Blue Jay wearing the red and white will be first base coach Tim Leiper, who will cross the diamond to coach third for Team Canada, as he has for each tournament so far.

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