Sunday, February 26, 2017

Gallardo named WBC opener starter; will Adrian play?

With the 2017 World Baseball Classic less than two weeks away, Mexican National Team manager Edgar Gonzalez has announced his five-man starting rotation for the tournament, which will see the Verdes Grande open their Pool D schedule in Guadalajara with a March 9 game against Italy at Estadio Charros.

Gonzalez has named Yovani Gallardo, Miguel Angel Gonzalez, Jaime Garcia, Luis Mendoza and Jorge De La Rosa as his pitching starters.  All have significant major league experience.  Gallardo, Gonzalez and Garcia are currently on 40-man MLB team rosters, De La Rosa recently signed a minor league deal with the Diamondbacks and Mendoza is prepping for his fourth season with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan's Pacific League.  The Fighters are training in Arizona this month.

The 30-year-old Gallardo is the expected starter for Mexico's opener against Italy.  A 2010 All-Star while pitching for Milwaukee, Gallardo was traded by Baltimore to Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto's merry-go-round in Seattle after going 6-8 with a 5.43 ERA for the Orioles in 2016.  After ten MLB seasons, the 6'2" Gallardo has a career 108-83 record, including 72 wins for the Brewers between 2009 and 2013.  Although he's not likely to pick up a bat in the WBC, the 2004 second-round draft pick for Milwaukee wouldn't be out of place doing so.  He's come up to the plate 476 times in his big league career and while his .200 average won't turn any heads, the right-hander's 12 homers and 42 RBIs have shown he was anything but an automatic out for opposing moundsmen.

He'll face an Italian team that is not a pre-WBC favorite to advance beyond Pool play but could surprise observers in Jalisco next month.  While manager Marco Mazzieri will not have the services of Chicago Cubs All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo for the tournament after the latter opted to play preseason games in Arizona instead of the WBC (he hit .235 in the 2013 tourney), Italy's roster includes Cubs minor league outfielder John Andreoli as well as Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli, Royals receiver Drew Butera, Mariners switch-pitcher Pat Venditte and Indians first baseman Chris Colabello.

While Gonzalez has his starting rotation set and a strong bullpen featuring the likes of Roberto Osuna, Yoakim Soria and Oliver Perez, the former Padres infielder continues to plug holes among his position players.  After A's outfielder Khris Davis backed out of playing for Mexico earlier this week, Gonzalez' latest alteration came after infielder Daniel Castro pulled out of the WBC because he wants to concentrate on making the Colorado Rockies roster.  Castro signed with the Denver club as a free agent over the winter after the 24-year-old Guaymas native hit .217 over 80 games with Atlanta in 2015 and 2016 after callups from AAA Gwinnett.

Castro will be replaced on Mexico's roster by 19-year-old infielder Luis Urias, a Padres minor leaguer.  Although the slight (5'9" and 160 pounds) Urias is a longshot to reach San Diego this year, the big club has high hopes for him after he was named Rookie of the Year in the Class A California League last summer after batting .330 to lead the league, adding 26 doubles and 71 runs scored for Lake Elsinore. He's primarily been a second baseman in three minor league seasons, but is expected to see a lot of time at shortstop in training camp.  Urias is said to likely be heading to Class AA San Antonio of the Texas League.

Gonzales did receive some needed good news this week when younger brother Adrian's tennis elbow, which has limited him in the Dodgers' camp thus far, has improved enough the the All-Star first baseman is more likely to be in the Mexican lineup at the WBC.  "El Titan's" participation in the Classic as a player was in doubt after the Los Angeles organization told him to lay off swinging a bat for two weeks, but the longtime linchpin of the Verdes Grande lineup is said to be more likely to be in Guadalajara in two weeks.  With bats in tow.
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On an unrelated note, one infielder who definitely would've been a boon to Mexico's WBC fortunes in his prime was Aurelio Rodriguez, the late former MLB infielder regarded by many as the best third baseman in his country's history.  A member of Mexican baseball's Salon de la Fama since 1995, Rodriguez spent all or part of 17 big league seasons as one of the top glove men in the game with a throwing arm that Tigers broadcaster Paul Carey called a "howitzer."  Rodriguez died at age 52 when he was struck by a car while walking a sidewalk during a visit to Detroit for a card show in 2000. Weird fact:  Of the three major league players who've had the first name of Aurelio (Rodriguez, Lopez and Monteagudo), all three played for the Tigers and all three were killed in car accidents.

Aurelio Rodriguez' body was brought to Los Mochis, where he had played winterball for the Caneros, and thousands attended his funeral, including Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo.  His remains were interred at Estadio Emilio Ibarra Almada, where his cross still stands atop the ballpark.  Rodriguez' loss was also felt in Detroit, where he'd been an extremely popular player, often venturing into the inner city to conduct clinics.  Fred Feliciano, a one-time community relations manager for the Tigers, has been quoted as saying, "He was really the first prominent Hispanic figure in the Detroit community."

Fast forward to 2017.  In his "En la Pelota" column for Puro Beisbol, columnist Juan Vene says that Rodriguez' tomb now lies in ruins.  According to Vene, politician Mario Lopez was behind the effort to place the Cananea product's remains behind the fence in the ballpark's right field corner.  Lopez then neglected it thereafter (not even visiting the site) and no maintenance has ever been performed on it.

It's easy to say this as I write from a location much closer to Canada than Mexico, but Aurelio Rodriguez deserves better.  Heroes should never be forgotten, especially where thousands once cheered their exploits.