Colómbia Primed for Baseball Ascendancy

Third in a series of World Baseball Classic previews

By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)

Colómbia Primed for Baseball AscendancyMARYVILLE, Tenn. – With a tradition of international competition dating back seven decades, Colómbia was a natural choice for selection to the World Baseball Classic’s qualifying round.  The country is rated at No. 20 by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), but boasts a number of MLB players, two World Cup gold medals, and a professional league founded in 1948.

After first participating in the Baseball World Cup in 1944, Colómbia quickly burst on the international scene, winning a silver medal in 1945 before hosting the tournament’s next edition in 1947.  They claimed their first gold medal that year, topping eight other teams in one of the largest tournaments to that date.

Colómbia again hosted in 1965, and once more claimed gold.  They rose to prominence during 1970-74, earning four other medals in the World Cup and a bronze at the 1971 Pan-American Games.  Between 1978 and 2003, however, they appeared only three times in the Cup, with little success.

In recent years, the nation has once more been participating at an international level.  In 2008, in their first major tournament action in several years, Colómbia was last in the America Cup, which meant they did not qualify for the 2010 World Cup.  In March 2010, they competed with three other nations in the South American Games, losing a 10-8 thriller to highly-rated Venezuela in the title match.

In the qualification round for the 2011 Pan American Games, Cólombia played with a very young roster and finished 1-4.  The games were actually quite close, with a 3-2 loss to Puerto Rico, two-run defeats to the Dominican Republic and Panamá, and a 9-2 win over Aruba.  Much of the current roster saw action in the series, hosted by Puerto Rico.

The two most distinguished Colombians are a pair of shortstops, Édgar Rentería and Orlando Cabrera.  Cabrera, 38, will not play in the qualifier, but Rentería will bring the experience of 16 major league seasons and three World Series, his performances in which garnered him two MVP awards.  The native of Barranquilla, a baseball hotbed in Colómbia, is so synonymous with baseball in the country that the domestic league is nicknamed “Team Rentería” and funded in large part by him.

Rentería, still only 36, is the all-time leader for Colombian players in most categories.  These include games (2,152), hits (2,327), runs (1,200), home runs (140), RBI (923), stolen bases (294), and walks (718).  Only Cabrera has more doubles or triples.  Like Cabrera, Rentería last played in 2011.

“People here in Colómbia, they’re excited to see the national team go to the World Baseball Classic,” Renteria told MLB.com. “And, to me, it’d be nice because I’ve been in a World Series before and now I have a chance to play for my country with Colómbia.”

The club’s manager is Eduardo Pérez, a Cuban-American, who played for 13 seasons in the majors and one in Japan.  He has managed for several seasons in Puerto Rico and was named the 2008 Manager of the Year there.  Rentería was an obvious choice, but Pérez, recently named bench coach for the Houston Astros, had a large selection of players in crafting his 28-man squad.  There are 74 Colombians signed to big league organisations, and many players have already returned to Colómbia for the Colombian Baseball League (CBL), which runs from mid-November through January.

The final roster features a mixture of minor league and CBL veterans, a few of which have received major league playing time.  Unfortunately, Colómbia’s three best pitchers have only just settled in with their MLB teams and were denied permission to participate.

This is a major disappointment for the nation, as the Atlanta Braves’ Julio Teheran is ranked as the fifth-best prospect in the game and José Quintana just finished a noteworthy rookie season for the Chicago White Sox (6-6, 3.76 in 22 starts).  The third, Ernesto Frieri, had 23 saves, struck out 13.4 batters per nine innings and finished with a 2.32 ERA for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Colómbia can take some solace in knowing that their pitching staff should be stronger in future years, as the nation had never produced a big league hurler until 2006, but had Teheran, Quintana, and Frieri this year.  The team will feature, however, an exciting pair of hitters in brothers Dónovan and Jhonatan Solano, who burst on the scene this summer.

Dónovan, the younger Solano at 24, debuted with the Miami Marlins on May 21, and soon earned a spot in the regular lineup.  Through his first 24 games, he hit .368 and played all over the diamond.  For the season, he hit .295/.342/.375 with seven stolen bases in 93 games.  He settled in at second base, only committing two errors in 58 games.

The infielder began appearing on more scouting reports during the 2011-12 CBL season, when he hit .363 and led the league in hits (57), home runs (8), and slugging percentage (.618).  Solano also appeared in Colómbia’s last major tournament at the Pan-American qualifiers, going 3-for-10.  Despite play mostly second this year, Manager Pérez has the flexibility to play Dónovan at 2B, SS, 3B, or in the outfield.

Jhonatan Solano also made his debut this year as a catcher for the Washington Nationals.  Beset by injuries to their backstops, the Nationals called the elder Solano (27) up from the minors and in twelve games, he hit .314/.351/.571 and threw out 3-of-8 runners trying to steal.  Though only a career .250 hitter in the minors, he is a strong defensive catcher with a good arm (career 33 per cent throwing out baserunners) and has international experience at the Pan-Am games, where he was 2-for-8.

Rentería and the Solano brothers will form part of the offensive core, but they will joined by several veterans.  The most experienced are Jolbert Cabrera and Carlos Villalobos.  The former will have one last chance to outshine his more famous younger brother, Orlando Cabrera, in what may be his last appearance with the team.  In 2010, he was 3-for-15 with a four-bagger in the Pan America Games.

Jolbert Cabrera is 39 and has played 19 seasons in the US, Japan, Mexico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic.  He is a career .272/.335/.377 hitter at all levels and has played every position except catcher and pitcher, though he will most likely play right field or first base for Colómbia.  In 2012 in Mexico, he hit .147 in 10 games, but is only one year off a campaign in which he hit .300/.339/.529 in the Mexican League.

Carlos Villalobos, 37, is even more well-travelled than Cabrera.  In 15 seasons, he has put on uniforms in the Dominican Republic, the USA, Mexico, Taiwan, Colombia, and Italy.  Playing mostly third base, he has accumulated a career line of .306/.377/.468 and will be counted on in the heart of the order.

2010 was a kaleidoscope year for Villalobos.  January found him in Cólombia, finishing the CBL campaign with a .306 average. He then took off a few weeks off to prepare for the South American Games in March, where he led Colombia to a silver medal, clubbing two homers in the process.  Villalobos next suited up for Godo in Italy during the summer, tying for the lead league in homers with six and hitting .304/.365/.504 in 33 games.

By October, he was in Puerto Rico for the Pan-Am tournament and went 4-for-20 before the cancellation of the CBL season that year gave him a well-deserved rest.  Perhaps worn out after an exhaustive year, Villalobos has since played only in Colómbia’s winter league.

The other key hitter in the lineup will be first baseman Reynaldo Rodríguez.  Thanks to his stellar plate discipline, Rodríguez served as an atypical leadoff hitter in 2010 Pan-Am Games, where he was 5-for-19 with two doubles and a stolen base.  He will likely slot in at number three with the updated roster.

Rodríguez, only 26, has reached AA-ball with the Boston Red Sox and has totalled an impressive batting line of .290/.363/.508, with 60 stolen bases and 57 home runs.  He is a career .333 with .536 SLG in 169 CBL games and was the 2008 league MVP.

The four starting infielders will be backed up by six young minor leaguers, most of whom have outfield experience.  One name to watch will be Ismael Castro, who played nine seasons of minor and independent league ball, most recently in 2010.  He hit .296 with good pop, and started at the keystone sack in the Pan America Games, leading the team in hits (6), doubles (3), and average (.333).  He had a single and a double against Panamá. With the arrival of Dónovan Solano and the presence of Rentería, he will likely be on the bench.

Cabrera will be joined in the outfield by Jorge Cortez, Steve Brown, and Diover Ávila, one of whom will likely serve with Castro as the designated hitter.  Cortez was 4-for-14 for Colómbia in the 2010 Puerto Rico tourney, while Ávila, a CBL star, split time with Steve Brown in center field.

Brown, who batted ninth, had an RBI double and a sacrifice fly against Panamá and added a homer against Aruba.  He is a veteran of the US independent leagues, and spent 2012 in Quebec, hitting .257/.334/.409 and collecting 29 stolen bases in 95 games.

Jhonatan Solano split time behind the plate with Jair Fernández in Colómbia’s last international tournament.  Fernández has a rifle arm, gunning down 39 per cent of stolen base attempts.  He is fresh off a career year, stroking a 263/.336/.407 line, mostly in Double-A.  Luís Martínez, a minor league veteran, had a cup-of-coffee with the Texas Rangers this year, and will share backup duties with Yamid Haad, who has 14 minor league seasons and 18 major league games under his belt.

Martínez is one of few players on the rosters not raised in Colómbia as he was born in Miami to Colombian parents.  Even for him, the opportunity to join a roster of very patrioticColómbianos in the Classic was an exciting one.  Martínez remarked to the Colombian Baseball Federation, “[Heritage] calls. SI always wanted to represent the country of my roots. So I am here very motivated.”

Colómbia’s lineup from the Pan American Games should remain almost unchanged, with the exception of Rentería.  A likely starting nine would be as follows:

Steve Brown – CF
Donovan Solano – 2B
Reynaldo Rodríguez – 1B
Carlos Villalobos – 3B
Édgar Rentería – SS
Jolbert Cabrera – RF
Jhonatan Solano – C
Jorge Cortez – LF
Diover Ávila – DH

The pitching staff has less experience internationally, but does have several positive attributes as a unit.  All of the staff has at least two seasons of minor league ball to their credit, with a few that have accrued significant experience.  The hurlers are also adept at keeping balls in the yard, allowing less than a home run per inning collectively.  Additionally, most have good strikeout rates while limiting walks, which will be an advantage against some of less experienced batters in the bracket.

Without the trifecta of major league pitchers, the group has no distinguishable leader.  Likely to earn a starts is Javier Ortiz, the veteran of the group with 11 professional seasons in the US and an appearance at the 2010 South American Games.  He has a career record of 44-47, pitching briefly in the Mexican League this year after a strong performance in the CBL last winter.  He finished 8-1 with a 2.07 ERA in Colómbia’s domestic league.  Along with Villalobos, he is the only Colombian to see playing time in Europe, recording an 8-3 record thanks to a 1.71 ERA for Cariparma Parma in 2007.

Others potentially in line for starts are Sugar Marimon, Ivan Julio, and Sergio Gómez.  Marimon has a 4.36 ERA in 88 games, mostly starts, in the minor leagues.  Julio was 6-2 with a 3.11 with a 3.77 strikeout-to-walk ratio.  Despite being in a rookie league, he pitched into the seventh inning regularly but did not wear down, finishing 4-1 with a  2.35 ERA in last eight starts.

Gómez is a rising Red Sox prospect who was named to the Gulf Coast League All-Star team after a stellar season.  The righty was 5-4 with a 2.89 ERA and struck out almost a batter per inning while allowing very few walks.  His 5.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio was second in the minor leagues, despite only turning 19 in August.

The bullpen should be anchored by Luís Torres and Dayan Díaz.  Torres, 33, was signed as an infielder but switched to pitching in his late-20s and has been on the national team since.  He pitches in the CBL and was 1-0 with two saves and a 2.16 ERA last winter, earning the save in the championship game.

Díaz is a pitcher in the Houston Astros system and had a dominant 2012.  Serving as Single-A Lexington’s closer, the right-hander totalled a 1.85 ERA and struck out 9.9 batters per nine innings.  His career ERA in the minors is 2.13.

“We have an advantage over other countries because most of the players [have been] playing in the [Colombian] national tournament and [will] come with good pace, while the other teams will have to gain experience with each other,” declared Manager Pérez. “We arrived here to win and we are very positive because we believe in Colombian talent.”

Colómbia’s first game is on Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. in Rod Carew Stadium in Panamá City.  They will take on No. 14 Nicaragua, who advanced to the quarterfinals in the Pan Am Games.  Brazil and host nation Panamá will also compete for the right to advance to the 2013 WBC.

All games are televised on www.worldbaseballclassic.com.

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About Gabriel Fidler

Card Sharp is devoted to my chief indoor hobby-baseball (and occasionally football [that's soccer to you Americans], hockey, American football, and basketball) card collecting.
This entry was posted in Caribbean, Colombia, Latin America, South America, World Baseball Classic and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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