Venezuelan arms warm up for WBC

Sojo planning to use 13 to 15 pitchers in various roles

Freddy Garcia is excited to represent his country and is willing to pitch in any situation. (Jose Orozco)

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CARACAS, Venezuela -- Although it's the lineups for the World Baseball Classic that will get most of the attention, it may very well be the pitching that decides the winner of this inaugural event.

In that regard, Venezuela's only flaw, according to manager Luis Sojo, is its lack of left-handed pitchers. Yet on Saturday, Sojo stopped short of saying that the lefties at Venezuela's tryouts had even the slightest advantage.

"We'll evaluate everyone equally," said Sojo. "No one here has an advantage over anyone else. The only person with a guaranteed place on the team is the manager."

Asked the same question, pitching coach Roberto Espinosa told a different story.

"[Left-handers] definitely have an advantage," he said. "We need several lefties for various situations that may arise."

Of Venezuela's planned 13 to 15 pitchers, Espinosa would like four of them to be left-handers.

The southpaws vying to represent Venezuela include Carlos Hernandez, Reynel Pinto, Ricardo Palma and Cesar Jimenez.

"We'll choose from these guys," Espinosa said.

American League Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana enjoys the privilege of a guaranteed spot on the roster, according to Espinosa.

Because of Major League Baseball's pitch limits for starters in the first round, Espinosa echoed Sojo's statements about pairing up starting pitchers. That situation helps the chances of pitchers with experience as starters, including Carlos Silva and Victor Zambrano.

Espinosa listed four pitchers who could play the "second starter," or long reliever, role: Jeremi Gonzalez, Zambrano, Jorge Julio and Francisco Rodriguez. Besides Rodriguez, another of the privileged few with a guaranteed roster spot, the others would appear all but assured of a place on Venezuela's team.

The likely scenario involves using the starter for three innings or so, then using the second starter to get Venezuela into the late innings for their setup men. Among the setup candidates, Espinosa mentioned Julio and Gonzalez as guys who could handle the job.

Rodriguez stands as the obvious closer, though Espinosa would really like another young phenom, Felix Hernandez, to join him in that role. But that will depend on the Seattle Mariners organization, which has so far been reluctant to grant their right-hander permission to play in the tournament.

"[Seattle] told [Sojo] that they didn't want [Hernandez] pitching," said Espinosa. "But he wants to pitch."

And Venezuela wants him to pitch. Espinosa indicated that Venezuela will wait until March 2, the date it announces its official roster, before it writes off Hernandez.

Besides possibly 15 pitchers, Sojo mentioned having three catchers and 12 position players on the roster. Espinosa hopes to take 15 pitchers in order to be prepared for any game situation. That goal is made more likely by the versatility among Venezuelan stars.

Although Sojo came very close to saying he would announce the team by end of next week -- besides waiting on Hernandez -- Espinosa said that Spring Training will determine final roster decisions.

"That will give us a better idea of who will be first, second and third starter," along with choosing the bullpen, Espinosa said.

Besides the need for lefties and experience, decisions will be "based on how they're throwing," said Espinosa.

White Sox pitcher Freddy Garcia, for his part, should be happy to have Espinosa in his corner. It was Espinosa that first gave Garcia the chance to start in the Venezuelan Winter League with the Valencia Navigators. The two are close, even talking on the phone during last year's World Series.

"Espy is one of the few [coaches] that knows most of the pitchers," said Garcia.

Espinosa also worked with Santana, who came through the Valencia organization during Espinosa's term as pitching coach.

Garcia also expressed his pride at representing Venezuela and his willingness to do whatever it takes to win this tournament.

"I'm very excited to wear my country's jersey," said Garcia. "I'm a professional and I've got no problem with pitching in any situation. I'm 100 percent ready to pitch."

José Orozco is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.