Thursday, February 14, 2013

Team Canada WBC Preview - Part 1

World Baseball Classic Preview - Team Canada
I'll (Ewan) be previewing the World Baseball Classic over the next couple weeks, starting out with a 3 part preview of Team Canada.  Today focusing on the schedule, manager, and key player.  Next week, on Monday I'll be breaking down all the hitters individually, and then Tuesday I'll do the same with the pitching staff.  Then next week I'll look at the other teams in the pool with the Canada (Mexico, United States, & Italy).  As we get closer to the games I'll be looking at the matchups and previewing each individual game
    The Canadian team comes into the 3rd World Baseball Classic looking to advance to the 2nd round for the first time.  The Canadians have drawn what seems to be a favourable pool, with USA, Italy, and Mexico.  One could expect the Canadians to lose to the Americans (though we did upset them in 2006), and beat the Italians, which would mean the tournament will likely come down to a matchup against an evenly matched Mexican team.  If you only catch one game of this year's tournament, the March 9th game against Mexico is the one to watch.  
Manager & Coaches
    Back to manage for the 3rd time is all-time Blue Jay great Ernie Whitt, and is backed up by the who's who of famous Canadian ball players like Larry Walker (Hitting Coach), Stubby Clapp (Bench Coach), Denis Boucher, and Paul Quantrill (Sharing the pitching coach duties).  
    I personally would've been a lot happier had Canada gone another direction with the skipper.  While Whitt did redeem himself to a certain degree by leading Team Canada to an upset Gold Medal in the recent Pan-Am Games, in previous World Baseball Classics I've been very critical of Whitt's passive in game tactics as well as his lineup construction.  
    For example, in both the previous WBCs Whitt has gone with one of the team's weakest hitters in the leadoff spot (Pete Orr in 2006, & Chris Barnwell in 2009), and predictably has gotten next to no production out of that spot.  I'm aware its just a 5 game sample, but the .053/.143/.053 production from those two players wasn't that far from what you would've expected.
   This was most obvious in the 2006 tournament.  The team was heading into an elimination game against the Mexicans, and was riding high after a historic upset of the Americans.  In the two previous games the team's best player had been center fielder (and #9 hitter) Adam Stern.  Stern was having the week of his life, hitting .715/.750/1.571, meanwhile leadoff man Pete Orr had recorded just one slap single.  Despite this Whitt left Stern in the 9 spot, and he picked up one of Canada's 3 hits, while Orr again went hitless.  Now this probably didn't matter, as Canada got blown out, but this is the type of rigid thinking that's plagued Whitt's managerial career.
    Another concern I have about Whitt is his inactivity in game.  During the 2 games in 2009, Whitt never once even put a runner in motion, let alone stole a base.  This type of strategical play (or lack there of) just doesn't work in a tournament, where one loss means so much more than it would during a season.  Whitt did use a pinch hitter 3 times during the tournament, however 3 of them were to pinch hit for leadoff man Chris Barnwell, which begs the question why he was in the leadoff spot in the first place?
    Given these tactical flaws, and the team's lack of success, I was really hoping to see some new blood at the helm (Like Walker for example).  Instead I'm left hoping that Whitt has learned from his mistakes, and things will be better this time around.
   Honestly, I'm not holding my breath.
Key Player

Jameson Taillon
    With the top 4 Canadian Pitchers all missing from the tournament (Dempster, Francis, Diamond & Harden) the burden will fall to the flame throwing Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon to carry the Canadian team.  His connection to Canada is tenuous at best, since he was born in Florida, and raised in Texas.  However since both his parents are Canadian, he holds duel citizenship, and will proudly be donning the maple leaf on his chest for the first time.
     Since being drafted 2nd overall in 2010, the Pirates have been very careful with their prized ace prospect.  Even despite that Taillon arrived in AA late in the season, and was utterly dominant in his 3 outings there.  
     His fastball is a true plus-plus pitch, sitting 94-96, and touching as high as 98, with a good amount of arm-side run to it.  As with any young pitcher his command can waver from time to time, and his long arm action doesn't hide the ball very well, however when his heater is going its about as good as it gets.
    The primary secondary offering you'll see from Taillon is a dominating hammer curveball, which I've seen comparisons to Ben Sheets' elite offering when its working.  It shows strong 11-5 tilt, and has some late breaking action like a slider.  When his curve is on he has two near elite pitches that are as good as anyone's in the game.
    His third pitch is a still an emerging changeup that will be critical if he's going to have success against major league calibre left handed hitters.  With this pitch still a question mark, manager Ernie Whitt is going to have to be careful when he's going into a lefty heavy part of opposing lineups.
    For Canada to advance, its tournament is likely to come down to a matchup against the Mexicans on March 9th.  Given that the other main option for the Canadians is minor league journeymen Shawn Hill, this start MUST go to Taillon.  First of all, he's the only pitcher on the Canadian roster with the possibility of a dominant outing.  Also, since the only notable left handed batter in the Mexican lineup is Adrian Gonzalez, I think that will allow Taillon from having to rely on his changeup too much.
    This is a lot to ask of a 21 year old who has just 18 innings above A ball, but with a depleted pitching staff, he's the best option we have.
     As always you can follow me on Twitter @Mentoch.

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