Rays retain Kapler, but outfield still in doubt

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The Rays assured themselves of entering 2010 with a fourth outfielder by re-signing free agent Gabe Kapler to a one-year, $1.05 million contract on Tuesday, but it’s still a mystery just who he’ll be playing behind next year.
Kapler’s role in 2009 was to start over Gabe Gross in right field against lefties. The platoon worked out exquisitely early on. Kapler had an 839 OPS in 113 at-bats prior to the All-Star break, while Gross came in at an OBP-heavy 802 as the starter against righties. Maybe that’s not spectacular, but they also played quality defense and they combined to cost the thrifty Rays a total of $2.225 million for the year.
Unfortunately, Gross, in particular, collapsed after that. He hit just .160 with a 512 OPS after the break and lost most of his playing time to Ben Zobrist after Akinori Iwamura returned. Kapler also fell off to a 681 OPS. For the season, he hit an exceptional .276/.379/.552 in 145 at-bats against lefties and a dreadful .150/.190/.167 in 60 at-bats versus righties.
Gross is unlikely to return next year, so it’s unclear what Kapler’s role will be. The Rays could opt for only a minor change and stick with Carl Crawford in left and B.J. Upton in center, with Matt Joyce, the return from the Tigers for Edwin Jackson, taking over as the right fielder against right-handers. However, the Rays were clearly disappointed by Joyce’s play this season and didn’t even give him a September callup.
The Rays have other options. Crawford is a year away from free agency and would fetch a high price in trade. Upton’s stock is well down, but he’s also getting talked about as a trade possibility. He’s more likely than Crawford to go. Zobrist appears to be penciled in at second base, but the Rays could throw a changeup and opt to keep Iwamura, forcing Zobrist to the outfield. Sean Rodriguez, a longtime Angels prospect acquired in the Scott Kazmir deal, could also compete for outfield time, and top prospect Desmond Jennings may be a factor by the middle of the season.
If the Rays don’t have a left-handed-hitting outfielder for Kapler to platoon with, he’d likely be useless to the team. He’s a liability when starting against righties, so he’s not someone who would fare well if forced into the lineup on a regular basis by injuries. The 34-year-old is worth the $1.05 million committed to him, but he needs to be used correctly. The Rays should have waited to see if he was still going to be the right fit for the team.

Marcus Stroman named World Baseball Classic MVP

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United States starter Marcus Stroman was named Most Valuable Player of the World Baseball Classic after helping lead the U.S. to its first ever WBC title on Wednesday night in an 8-0 victory over Puerto Rico. Stroman flirted with a no-hitter through six innings, but gave up a double to lead off the seventh before being relieved by Sam Dyson.

Stroman also pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings against the Dominican Republic in Pool C play on March 11. He struggled in Pool F play against Puerto Rico last Friday, surrendering four runs in 4 2/3 innings.

The WBC MVP award understandably goes to a player of the winning team. However, Wladimir Balentien of the Netherlands deserves special mention. In 26 at-bats during the WBC, he hit a double and had a WBC-high four home runs, 12 RBI, and 12 runs scored while putting up a .615/.677/.1.115 batting line. That’s MVP-esque as far as this tournament is concerned.

U.S. blanks Puerto Rico 8-0 to win first World Baseball Classic title

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The United States handed Puerto Rico its first loss in the World Baseball Classic, winning 8-0 for its first title in the fourth iteration of the tournament.

Puerto Rico starter Seth Lugo was matching Marcus Stroman zero-for-zero through the first two innings, but the U.S. broke out for a pair of runs when Ian Kinsler deposited a two-run home run just beyond the fence in left-center at Dodger Stadium. The U.S. tacked on two more in the fifth on RBI singles from Christian Yelich and Andrew McCutchen, pushing the lead to 4-0.

Meanwhile, Stroman was dealing. The right-hander, normally seen in a Blue Jays uniform, held Puerto Rico hitless through his first six innings, giving up just a lone walk. The U.S. put together a long rally in the top of the seventh, scoring three runs on three hits, two walks, and a hit batter. Stroman came back out for the seventh but immediately served up a double down the left field line to Angel Pagan. U.S. manager Jim Leyland immediately lifted Stroman from the game, bringing in Sam Dyson who escaped the inning without any further damage.

Pat Neshek allowed a leadoff single to Yadier Molina to begin the eighth, but induced a double-play, then worked around a two-out walk by striking out Kenny Vargas to end the frame.

In the ninth, David Robertson took over. He induced an infield pop-up from Enrique Hernandez. After Pagan singled up the middle, Francisco Lindor sharply grounded out to Eric Hosmer at first base for the second out. Finally, Robertson closed it out, inducing Carlos Correa to ground out to third base, making the U.S. 8-0 victors over Puerto Rico to win the World Baseball Classic.

Puerto Rico had an admirable run, defeating Venezuela, Mexico, and Italy to get out of Pool D undefeated. Then, in Pool F, it beat Venezuela again as well as the U.S. and the Dominican Republic to move to the semifinals. It narrowly edged Netherlands 4-3 in the semifinals to get into the finals.

The U.S. lost to the D.R. but beat Canada and Colombia to get out of Pool C. In Pool F, the U.S. lost to Puerto Rico and defeated the D.R again as well as Venezuela. The U.S. took down Japan in the semifinals to advance to the finals to play Puerto Rico.

The U.S. joins Japan (twice, 2006 and ’09) and the Dominican Republic (2013) as countries to win the World Baseball Classic. The 2017 tournament was a rousing success, setting attendance records, drawing over one million fans to ballparks to take in the games. It will hopefully encourage commissioner Rob Manfred and others to make a concerted effort to make the 2021 tournament bigger and better.