This March will mark the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic, an ambitious event that has elicited precious little excitement and interest stateside. The relative indifference to the WBC within the US can be attributed to a number of possible factors, be it sports fans that aren't yet in baseball mode come March or a perceived lack of meaning behind a fairly new event that struggles to lure the game's best players and is seen by some as a glorified exhibition. Then again, some of that lack of interest could stem from the fact that the States has yet to even reach the final in the history of the event.
The Classic, which began in 2006, can be viewed as a marketing vehicle and cash grab in its most cynical form, but also represents an acknowledgment of how global the game has grown. Presently, one quarter of Major League baseball players come from a country other than the US. And lest you think that group is solely comprised of Dominican and Venezuelan imports, there are expected to be more than 20 countries represented on MLB rosters for the upcoming 2017 season.
Indeed, some of Major League Baseball's international talent isn't as immediately evident as, say, an Ichiro Suzuki or a Miguel Cabrera. There's a segment of players who, to the casual fan, probably seem like they represent just another American hurler or slugger. Of course, just because your last name isn't Ramirez or Gonzalez doesn't immediately make you American. There are a veritable array of talented Major Leagues who hail from locations outside the 50 states that you could be forgiven for assuming bled red, white and blue. In fact, maybe there will be a few WBC players who surprise as they don opposing uniforms.
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11 Chris Reed
The stacked roster for the 2012 World Futures team is a sight to behold five years later. You have blue chip stars like Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado, the tragically departed duo of Oscar Taveras and Jose Fernandez and a wide range of talented players who have begun blossoming in the majors in recent years. Most of the names on the World roster, from Fernandez to Sanchez to Rodriguez, read as being unmistakably foreign.
One name on the roster that seemed more suited for the opposing US side was that of Chris Reed. Make no mistake, though - the left-handed hurler was born in London, England and even represented Great Britain in attempting to qualify for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Because of his father's job, Reed spent the first year of his life in England before moving to Southern California. Currently in the Miami Marlins' system, the 26-year-old hasn't yet capitalized on his early promise, appearing in the majors for just a cup of coffee (or tea?) in 2015.
14. Liam Hendriks
Growing up in Perth, Australia, Liam Hendriks had a lot to live up to owing to his impressive athletic lineage. Both his father and grandfather had competed in the Western Australian Football League, with Hendriks appearing to chart the same path as a skilled Aussie Rules football player in his own right. However, that wasn't his only sports passion. He had come to love baseball after going against the grain by playing tee-ball instead of the more common Australian summer game of cricket.
While both sports were a big part of Hendriks' childhood, he ultimately had to choose between the two, opting to fully pursue baseball just two years before signing professionally with the Twins. Since then, Hendriks has done his home country proud. In Major League Baseball, he has now pitched in 150 games over six seasons as both a starter and reliever. Back home, that has meant being named Male Player of the Year by Baseball Australia in 2015 and a spot as the youngest member on Australia's 2009 World Baseball Classic roster.
13. Max Kepler
It may not seem notable that right fielder Max Kepler played high school baseball at a school named after John F Kennedy. What is notable, however, is that the school happened to be located in Berlin, Germany, where the 24-year-old was born and raised. His family settled there after his parents met and fell in love while performing in the same professional ballet company. Although he didn't inherit his parents' love of dance, he did attain considerable athletic talent as a skilled baseball player, tennis player and soccer player.
It was baseball that always came first, and his German upbringing actually helped give him a slight edge on a pro career. Training at the St. Emmeram Academy in Regensburg, Kepler was afforded more exposure to the diamond than the average American teenager. From there, he played in the first division of Germany's Baseball Bundesliga, the country's highest level for the sport. It was through a junior national tournament where Kepler represented Germany that he was noticed by a scout for the Minnesota Twins, thereby beginning a foray to the majors that will soon be entering its third season.
10 Peter Moylan
While it won't go down in the annals of baseball history, the career of side-armed reliever Peter Moylan has now extended past a decade, with most of it coming as a member of the Atlanta Braves. His respectable Major League tenure (the 38-year-old is currently a free agent but hasn't filed any retirement papers yet), during which he has earned over $5 million, would probably not have been possible were it not for his Australian citizenship.
Moylan was cut from a minor league affiliate of the Minnesota Twins in 1998 and returned to his hometoen of Perth to take a job as a pharmaceutical salesman. But, with his baseball dream looking dead in the water, he was named to team Australia at the 2006 World Baseball Classic, where he impressed scouts and onlookers with a 96 mph fastball that struck out world class sluggers like Bobby Abreu and Magglio Ordonez. He was then invited to the Braves' spring training camp and the rest, as they say, is history.
9 James Paxton
You might think that a Canadian kid from British Columbia who even played minor league baseball for a team called the Blue Jays would revel in the opportunity to play in the majors for the Toronto Blue Jays, the only MLB team from his home country. In the case of left-hander James Paxton, however, you'd be mistaken. The one-time Kentucky Wildcat was taken by the Jays as a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds of the 2009 draft, but chose to return to Kentucky rather than sign a pro contract in Toronto.
Ironically, Paxton's dreams of returning to the Wildcats for his senior season were scuttled after the NCAA ruled him ineligible on account of contact he had with agent Scott Boras. So after a season of independent league ball, he was selected by the Seattle Mariners in the fourth round one year later. Although Paxton was no longer playing in his home country, he actually wound up considerably closer to his Richmond, BC hometown. To date, the 28-year-old has collected a respectable 3.43 ERA over his first 50 starts in the big leagues.
10. John Axford
Less than two years prior to his breakthrough 2010 campaign as closer for the Milwaukee Brewers, John Axford was about as far away from the big leagues as you can be. Having been cut from the farm systems of the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees, there was precious little guaranteed for a pitcher who waited through 1,258 selections before hearing his named called at the 2005 Draft.
During that low point in 2008, Axford was back living in his home province of Ontario, Canada. He had spent the winter prior to signing in Milwaukee as a cell phone salesman in Toronto and would spend the following off-season working as a bartender at an East Side Mario's in Hamilton. It was, then, a redemption story pulled from a movie script when Axford emerged as an unlikely star closer for the Brewers, breaking the franchise record for saves in a season en route to winning the Rolaids Relief Man Award. His incredible rags-to-riches story, coupled with his signature, Rollie Fingers-inspired mustache, made him a fan favorite in Milwaukee.
8 Andrelton Simmons
It was once All-Star outfielder Andruw Jones who blazed a trail that brought prominence to Dutch baseball at the Major League level. Since that time, Dutch players have still remained present in the majors, but seem to be heavily slanted towards the infield nowadays. Consider an impressive collection of young, talented infielders that include Baltimore Orioles second baseman Jonathon Schoop, Texas Rangers utility infielder Jurickson Profar and Los Angeles Angels defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons, among others that we'll get to shortly.
Among the aforementioned names, it is only Simmons that has taken home some Major League hardware. Already in his young career, the 27-year-old shortstop has collected two Gold Glove awards for his extensive range on the left side of the infield - both coming as a member of the Atlanta Braves. Despite a trade that shipped him off to Los Angeles before the 2016 season, Simmons' long-term MLB future is hardly in question. There will always be a place in the bigs for an exceptional defender with some pop in his bat, not to mention that it doesn't hurt to be in the midst of a seven-year, $58 million contract.
7 Francisco Cervelli
When it comes to the heritage of big league catcher Francisco Cervelli, you are half right in your assumptions. Yes, he has a fair share of Italian in his blood, owing to his father's side of the family (also known as the Cervelli side). It's what put him on the Italian national team ahead of the 2009 World Baseball Classic and what drives his support of Serie A soccer club Juventus. But for as easily as Cervelli's Italian heritage fits into his narrative as a scrappy catcher that played for the Yankees just like Yogi Berra, it isn't the only side of him.
In fact, Cervelli had never been to Italy as of a few years ago. He had been to Venezuela, however, which is the home of his mother and where Cervelli was born and raised. The Venezuela connection is deeply meaningful to the 30-year-old. One the eve of the aforementioned 2009 WBC, he ventured into the Venezuelan dugout and embraced some of his countrymen - all the while clad in a team Italy uniform.
6 Didi Gregorius
The Twitter name for New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius reads "Sir Didi Gregorius" - and unlike many online aliases, it actually bears some truth. As it turns out, the 26-year-old achieved royalty after being knighted in his native Curacao in 2011. His knighthood came about from being a part of the Netherlands team that won the 2011 IBAF Baseball World Cup. Instead of being given money, each member of the team were regal-ized.
"Sir Didi" certainly boasts the broad cultural savvy befitting of his royal status. He can speak four languages, having learned Dutch in grade school, English from watching TV and then picking up Spanish while mastering the local Curacaoan dialect of Papiamento. While most ballplayers spend their off-seasons at home or attempting to escape winter weather (or both), Gregorius has journeyed to different parts of the world, most recently visiting South Africa. While some may have questioned whether he was properly suited to step into the shoes of Derek Jeter, who better to take over from the Yankee legend than a real knight?
5 Kenley Jansen
Up until the 2016 season, Kenley Jansen might have reigned as the best closer you've never heard of. Despite recording 133 saves over the previous four seasons for the much-hyped Los Angeles Dodgers, Jansen always seemed to fly under the radar without drawing the attention of teammates like Yasiel Puig and Clayton Kershaw or fellow closers like Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel.
That all changed this past season. The Curacao native broke out with a career-best campaign that resulted in 47 saves, a 1.83 ERA, a remarkably low 0.670 WHIP and his first All-Star selection. The breakthrough campaign couldn't have come at a better time for the 29-year-old, coming in a contract year and netting him a fresh five-year, $80 million contract from the Dodgers. Not bad for a player who only became a relief pitcher in 2009 after having served as the starting catcher on the Netherlands team at that year's World Baseball Classic.
4 Edwin Jackson
Edwin Jackson is considered a well-traveled Major Leaguer, considering the free agent pitcher has suited up for 11 different teams over 14 seasons. But being the son of a US Army cook made the 33-year-old well-traveled in an entirely different way early in his life. Jackson was born in Germany and then returned for a second stint later in his childhood, leaving for good as he moved to Columbus, Georgia at the age of eight after spending a total of three years there.
Just don't ask Jackson to share many memories from his time there. The fire-throwing righty, best known for tossing a no-hitter as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010, left Germany behind while in the second grade, so he never learned the language or really became immersed in the culture. In fact, he remembers little from his time there beyond the rich food, the snow and the presence of a lot of old castles. It's clear that the 2009 All-Star has left his European birthplace in the past, given that he has stated on record that he has little interest in returning.
3 Joey Votto
The Toronto Blue Jays have made back-to-back trips to the ALCS on the strength of some talented sluggers and a deep cache of starting pitchers, all the while maintaining a distinctive Canadian flavor. Russell Martin is one of the faces of the franchise, Dalton Pompey has brought value as a young speedster and Michael Saunders earned an All-Star invite last season. It is no surprise, then, that they have been rumored to have kicked the tires on Cincinnati Reds' All-Star first baseman Joey Votto, perhaps the best Canadian position player of all-time.
In typically Canadian fashion, Votto has put together a considerable Hall of Fame resume in an extremely low key and understated way. He doesn't capture the headlines of, say, a Bryce Harper or a David Ortiz. Instead, he quietly goes about putting up big numbers for the only MLB team he's known, collecting four All-Star nods, an NL MVP award and a career .313 batting average. His situation as a highly paid star on a disappointing team would seem to inspire plenty of trade speculation, except for the fact that Votto, who has a no-trade clause, would never dare pay any lip service to such speculation. It just isn't him.
2 Justin Masterson
As a 6'6" heat-throwing righty, you'd better believe that Justin Masterson received his fair share of attention coming out of high school and, later, college. And it's entirely likely that many of the scouts who would show up to watch his starts for Beavercreek High School in Ohio and then for San Diego State University may never have suspected that his birth certificate didn't feature the letters 'U', 'S', and 'A' alongside one another.
It takes people by surprise to learn that Masterson, a tall, bald, white guy, was actually born in Kingston, Jamaica. Part of a devout Christian family, he was born while his father was serving as the Dean of Students at the Jamaican Theological Seminary before later moving the family to Fort Wayne, India. Masterson, who also surprises people with his world class dance moves, credits his laid back demeanor as owing at least partly to the culture of his birthplace.
2. Jonathan Schoop
Jonathan Schoop grew up as a fan of the Atlanta Braves. It stands to reason that he would follow the Braves, a club that began a string of 13 pennants in 14 seasons in 1991, the year of Schoop's birth. However, the Baltimore Orioles second baseman's admiration for Atlanta had less to do with the team's success and more to do with their star centerfielder, Andruw Jones. As a fellow native of Curacao, Jones had been something of a hero to Schoop, reaching the majors at a time when few from the tiny Dutch island made it.
Fast forward a few years and things have certainly changed. Schoop stands as just one of the many young talents to have emerged from Curacao and made it to 'the Show'. Along the way, he even got to play alongside his childhood hero on the Netherlands team that reached the semifinals of the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Now, Schoop is forging his own path in his fifth MLB season as a standout infielder in Baltimore. Although he is one of just four active Curacao-born Major Leaguers, he, like each of his countrymen, has made a significant impact since arriving on the scene.
1 Xander Bogaerts
Chicken pox and a 102-degree fever almost kept Xander Bogaerts from ever realizing his Major League dream. His illnesses in 2009 couldn't have come at a worse time, with then-Red Sox scout Mike Lord coming to San Nicolas, Aruba to scout some local talent. With Xander bed-ridden, his brother Jair impressed Lord at the tryout. Lord asked at the end of the day if there was anyone else he should see, and Xander was the immediate answer from Jair and the rest of those in attendance.
It took some serious convincing of Bogaerts' mother, but eventually he was permitted to try out, dragging himself over to the diamond before eventually wowing Lord with a remarkable display of power. Thus, then then-16-year-old was put on a fast track towards becoming just the fifth Major Leaguer from Aruba and, last season, the first to ever play in an All-Star Game. It may not be too long before the now-24-year-old shortstop reigns as the tiny island nation's first MVP.
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