With the first World Baseball Classic game taking place between Cuba and the Netherlands last night at 11 p.m., competitive baseball between some of the game’s brightest stars has officially kicked off. As players like Mike Trout for the United States of America and Rafael Devers for the Dominican Republic get ready to represent their countries, both of their teams have been picked as the clear favorites to duel in the championship. While both of these rosters are indeed stacked from head to toe, I believe that one in particular has the potential to compete with both of them.
That roster is Puerto Rico, a team that comes to play with some terrific talent. While they did sustain a huge blow to their roster with the loss of former All-Star Carlos Correa, you can’t count this team out.
First, I’d like to point out the leadership of this team before I talk about anyone that will be taking the field. Making his managerial debut, legendary catcher Yadier Molina will be leading this roster of talent and he’s certainly a terrific choice. Beyond the multiple All-Star appearances and World Series rings that he’s collected throughout his career, he brings a wealth of experience to a team that will certainly need it. While Team U.S.A. is easily my pick for the best collection of coaches throughout the tournament, I’d argue that Team Puerto Rico is second with Molina and multiple former big-leaguers with championship experience like José Molina and Alex Cintrón.
That brings me to the actual roster. When you’re looking to contend for a championship like Puerto Rico is, you need to bring everything you’ve got, and this team certainly fits that. One of the positions that I feel is the most underrated on this team is at catcher, with both Martín Maldonado and Christian Vázquez suiting up in the red and blue. Both have been consistent major league options, and even Maldonado is coming off a World Series win in 2022. That level of constant success should serve this team well.
However, where Puerto Rico really shines is in their infield. While there are some question marks, there’s certainly a ton of potential. Although Javier Báez is coming off of one of the worst seasons of his career, the World Baseball Classic should give him a prime opportunity to get himself back on the right track. At his best, he’s an elite defensive infielder with great pop at the plate, but he’ll certainly need to return to the second basemen that fans grew to love if Puerto Rico has any shot at beating some loaded rosters in the tournament.
Players like Francisco Lindor need no introduction; another excellent season with the Mets showcased why he’s one of the best shortstops in baseball. He’s easily the top hitter on this ballclub while also providing great defense on the field.
Along with Lindor, there are even players from the last time Puerto Rico came close to winning it all. When Kiké Hernández was back with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017, he was also proudly wearing his island’s colors. While the team once again finished second in the tournament, the same result from their 2013 roster, he’ll have the opportunity to finally hoist up the World Baseball Classic trophy in 2023.
Another question mark comes with the outfield of this roster. While its top player, Eddie Rosario, is coming off of one of his worst seasons in the MLB, according to Braves camp, that’s for a very good reason: Rosario couldn’t see the ball that well after eye surgery, and miraculously struck out just 10 times in 44 plate appearances. Hitting coach Kevin Seitzer claims that “He looks so much better, and way better than at any point last year.” If Rosario is truly back to his old self and is hitting the ball at his best, that’s big for a team that’s virtually devoid of much help in the outfield, other than Hernández, who can play the outfield and infield as a key utility player.
The team’s starting rotation is its weakest area, but also has the potential to be sneaky good. After pitching for Team U.S.A. in the 2017 tournament and earning the illustrious award of Most Outstanding Player, Marcus Stroman now joins Puerto Rico and José Berríos slides in at second in this team’s rotation. Stroman can certainly be solid as the ace of this staff, but Berríos is a bigger question mark after a down year in 2022. While he pitched well in 2021, he went completely off the rails in a season that saw his ERA shoot up to 5.23 and allow the most hits of his career. Just like Báez in the infield, the hope is that Berríos can also flip the switch and play like his best self.
The bullpen remains anchored by the 2022 Reliever of the Year in Edwin Diaz, but the main problem is that the Mets closer is not allowed to pitch on consecutive days with the season nearing. While this could be an issue, Diaz voiced that if Puerto Rico were to make it to the championship round, he believes that they’ll allow him to pitch on back-to-back days despite the rule.
While plenty of fans might sleep on Puerto Rico, especially with teams like the Dominican Republic and U.S.A. pushing out elite rosters, there’s certainly potential with this lineup considering the news that has come out ahead of the tournament. Players that have struggled in 2022 could have a resurgence in the tournament, while others could continue to their success from last season. With all that in mind, one thing is for certain: Baseball fans are certainly going to have some fun throughout the month of March.