Classic adds drama to March

Originally Published: March 21, 2006
By Rob Neyer | ESPN Insider

Before we get on with the rest of our spring, I want to tie up some World Baseball Classic loose ends; let's start with an e-mail from a fan...

Felix: Rob, normally I love your work, but I think your last column is a bit on the provincial side. You say you'd be happy to consider any evidence that the U.S. wouldn't beat Korea or Mexico four straight (assuming the Americans had their best players), but it seems to me that after Korea went 6-1 in the WBC, and the U.S. fell flat on its face, at least some of the onus falls on you to provide evidence in support of your position. I'm skeptical of your claim, "If their players really were that good, we'd already know more of them." Not only do you fail to cite any reason or rationale as to why this would be the case, but there is also the question of whether the most talented teams always win -- the Dominican Republic being an obvious example. Plus, there is a pure logical inconsistency in saying that the best team doesn't always win, but then in the same breath predicting that the U.S. would beat Korea four straight in a seven-game series.

Rob: No, the most talented team does not always win. Which was exactly my general point. However, the most talented team generally does win ... if it plays enough games against the less-talented team. I do understand your confusion, though. My column, as you read it, did include the following: "...I suspect that if the U.S. played Korea in a best-of-seven series, the U.S. would win four straight. Ditto for Mexico."

But that's not what I wrote. Due to an editorial change -- due, I must admit, to my own unclear writing -- a key portion of my argument was omitted. What I actually wrote was this: "I suspect that if the U.S. played Korea in a best-of-seven series of best-of-seven series, the U.S. would win four straight. Ditto for Mexico."

The portion in italics is what was left out. I don't think the U.S. would win four straight games in each best-of-seven series. They'd sweep one or two, they'd lose a game in one or two, they might even lose twice in one series. But I sincerely believe the U.S. would have to play a great number of best-of-seven series against Korea before they'd actually lose one.

Aside from all the great baseball, all the bad baseball, and all those Koreans named Lee, what most struck me about the World Baseball Classic is how much attention it took away from spring training ... and that's a good thing.

Look, spring training is lovely ... if you're in Florida or Arizona and actually sitting in the sun watching the meaningless games. But I generally "enjoy" spring training from a few thousand miles away, and for the most part, it's a crashing bore. As near as I've been able to tell this year, after nearly a month of spring training, there is exactly one big story: Alfonso Soriano's insubordination. Granted, that's not just a big story; that's a big story. But here at ESPN.com, we've got nine full-time baseball writers, and as interesting as Soriano might be, once you've told a few different versions of the joke about Frank Robinson's head exploding, there's only so much more you can say. Once the season gets going (and I think we're all ready), there's plenty of material for everybody. But March without the World Baseball Classic -- and I think Steve Hirdt is right; we'll miss it next year -- is a month relatively bereft of drama.

You don't believe me? I've been following the American League this spring with a great degree of interest, for my own selfish and particular reason. And I can honestly say that with the exception of the Red Sox and Yankees both trying to figure out how you make a five-man rotation out of eight men, just about the most interesting things happening in the league are things that, save a few teams, will be completely forgotten by June.

Does it really matter who wins the job as backup catcher for the Indians? Even if Kelly Shoppach loses the job to Einar Diaz, if Shoppach hits in the minors and Diaz doesn't hit in the majors, they'll switch places before long anyway. And that's the way it is with most of these battles, whether it's backup catchers or fifth outfielders or utility infielders or fifth starters or (most of all) sixth and seventh relievers.

There is one battle I'm watching, if only because it seems so absurd if you're looking only at the numbers. Down in Lakeland, there's a spirited fight for the job as the Tigers' No. 5 starter involving Justin "Zoolander" Verlander, Joel "Zoom-Zoom" Zumaya, Ramon Colon and Jason "Grillmeister" Grilli. Those first two nicknames are real and the last one's made up ... which is OK, I think, because the supposed abilities of the last one are made up, too.

Not to be unkind, but Grilli has no business being considered for a rotation when talents like Verlander and Zumaya are around. Grilli is 29, and in 94 major-league innings, he has a 6.20 ERA. No, 94 innings is not a lot. But his Major League Equivalent ERAs in '04 and '05 -- most of which he spent in the minors -- were 6.47 and 5.38. I'm sure there are pitchers with Grilli's career profile who eventually became serviceable major-leaguers. Good luck finding them, though.

Colon's future is brighter, but he's 26 and never has been anybody's idea of a top prospect. Meanwhile, Verlander and Zumaya both rank among the best pitching prospects around. The tricky thing is that, while Verlander is the slightly better prospect, he's also the less experienced, with only 130 professional innings (vs. 410 for Zumaya).

At the moment, Verlander seems to have the inside track, which probably is a good thing if the Tigers have ambitions for first place (and that's not as far-fetched as you might think). But my central thesis still holds; even if they give the job to Grilli, if everybody pitches according to form, Verlander will have the job within a month or two anyway. And it's not likely that the pennant race will hinge on an extra month or two of a rookie starting pitcher.

The World Baseball Classic is better than spring training, and spring training is better than winter. But there's nothing better than watching (most of) the world's best players playing games that really count. With no pitch limits.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes for Insider two or three times per week. To offer criticism, praise or anything in between, send an e-mail to rob.neyer@dig.com.

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