Venezuela is in a state of sociopolitical turmoil. President Hugo Chávez is dead, and it’s not clear how the country will operate when he is no longer in office. A recent kidnapping attempt on the family of Detroit Tigers pitcher Brayan Villarreal underscored the risks of wealth and status in a stratified and unstable society.
But then there are the baseball diamonds, at home and abroad, where Venezuela is healthier than ever.
If the World Baseball Classic can be won by the sheer inertia of a narrative, then we can expect Team Venezuela to dance on the infield at AT&T Park on the night of March 19. Collectively, Venezuelan players are coming off perhaps their most decorated season in more than a century of baseball in the country. And most of those stars have signed up to play for the national team at the WBC.
• Miguel Cabrera, who is expected to start at first base for Team Venezuela, is the reigning American League Most Valuable Player and the majors’ first Triple Crown winner in 45 years.
• Pablo Sandoval, the projected third baseman, became only the fourth player in history to swat three home runs in a World Series game. He was named Series MVP after his Giants swept Cabrera’s Tigers.
• Without second baseman Marco Scutaro, the Giants probably wouldn’t have reached the World Series at all. He batted .500 in San Francisco’s seven-game triumph over St. Louis in the National League Championship Series and was named NLCS MVP.
• Anibal Sanchez, likely to be Team Venezuela’s No. 1 starter, came to Detroit from Miami in a midseason trade and pitched impressively in the postseason, going 1-2 with a 1.77 ERA.
• Seven Venezuelans were named to the All-Star Game, five of whom – Cabrera, Sandoval, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, and shortstops Elvis Andrus and Asdrubal Cabrera – will play in the WBC.
While a considerable amount of the media attention leading into the WBC has focused on who isn’t playing for Team USA – Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Mike Trout, et al – Team Venezuela has had a remarkably high turnout among its top players.
Ace pitcher Felix Hernandez pulled out last month to facilitate the completion of his $175 million contract extension with the Seattle Mariners – a sign that his employer wasn’t necessarily wild about the notion of him pitching for another entity so quickly after a massive payday. Johan Santana, victimized by injuries over the past several seasons, is behind schedule in preparing for the season and won’t participate. Jose Altuve, the Houston Astros’ dynamic 22-year-old second baseman, isn’t on the roster, either.
But that’s pretty much it. For all the country’s domestic travails, Venezuelan players are among the most patriotic in all of baseball. As Miguel Cabrera told me before spring training, when I asked about the objections of some clubs to their players’ participation in the WBC, “Everybody’s got to respect what we’ve got to do for our country.”
Venezuela has more active major leaguers than every country with the exception of the United States and Dominican Republic. It wasn’t an accident that the teams with the most Venezuelan-born players in the majors – the Tigers and Giants – met in last year’s World Series.
The country’s talent is reflected in what should be one of the best everyday lineups in the WBC: 2011 All-Star Miguel Montero, franchise-player-in-the-making Salvador Perez or veteran Ramon Hernandez behind the plate; Miguel Cabrera at first; Scutaro at second; Andrus or Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop; Sandoval at third; Martin Prado, Gerardo Parra and Gonzalez across the outfield.
If the Venezuelans have a weakness, it’s that their pitching staff lacks a No. 1 or No. 2 starter other than Sanchez. The rest of the rotation could be Jhoulys Chacin (intriguing but inconsistent), Henderson Alvarez (numbers regressed in Toronto last year) and Carlos Zambrano (still unsigned for 2013). The bullpen is thin, too, relying on some relievers (Francisco Rodriguez, Juan Rincon) who are past their primes.
But it will be a shock if Team Venezuela fails to advance out of pool play in Puerto Rico – which begins Thursday against the Dominican Republic – and even if they fall short of the WBC semifinals in San Francisco. And assuming Venezuela makes it that far, who’s going to bet against Sandoval and Scutaro in a huge game at AT&T Park? For a nation that can claim the Triple Crown, AL MVP, World Series MVP, NLCS MVP and richest pitching contract in baseball history, a WBC title wouldn’t seem at all out of place.