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WORLD BASEBALL CLASSIC

They make pitch and get attention

Tournament serves as a showcase for pitchers who draw interest of scouts from major league teams.

March 25, 2009|Kevin Baxter

Free-agent pitchers Freddy Garcia and Pedro Martinez spent most of last summer on the disabled list. Yet, in some circles, they're the solution to the New York Mets' rotation woes.

The Cleveland Indians are counting on Carl Pavano, who has pitched 45 2/3 innings the last two seasons, for the middle of their rotation. And the Dodgers are so desperate for help they've auditioned more candidates than "American Idol" this spring.

Which brings us in a roundabout way to the World Baseball Classic, the 16-nation tournament that concluded its second run Monday with Japan beating South Korea, 5-3, in an entertaining 10-inning nail-biter at Dodger Stadium.

The 19-day, seven-city event drew more than 801,000 spectators -- and at times it seemed as if most of them were scouts looking for pitchers. If not, they should have been.

The final game featured at least four pitchers who could help big league teams this season, a representative from one National League team said.

At the top of that list is South Korea's Jungkeun Bong, 28, a former big league reliever with Atlanta and Cincinnati who beat Japan twice and gave up one earned run in 17 2/3 innings.

"If you're open-minded enough to give him another chance, he could work his way back to the big leagues. I've seen a lot worse in spring training," said the scout, whose team forbids him from publicly speaking about players.

On the Japanese team, the cupboard was even deeper. Hard-throwing Yu Darvish, the 22-year-old who earned the win in the title game, is coveted by nearly every major league team. Also impressive during the tournament was Hisashi Iwakuma, a 27-year-old sinkerball pitcher who rebounded from arm problems to win 21 games and Japan's version of the Cy Young Award last season, and 28-year-old left-hander Toshiya Sugiuchi, who pitched 6 1/3 innings of hitless relief in the tournament.

Of the baby-faced Iwakuma, the scout said, "He could pitch [in the majors] right now," comparing him to the Milwaukee Brewers' probable opening-day starter. "Could he be Jeff Suppan? Why not?"

That Japanese pitchers are good enough to compete in the big leagues is hardly a news flash, though, since 10 of them -- including Daisuke Matsuzaka, the tournament's most valuable player -- did just that last season. What is surprising to some is that there aren't more.

"There are probably a lot more pitchers that could come over and have success," said U.S. Manager Davey Johnson, whose team lost to Japan in a semifinal. "There are a lot of pitchers throwing in the 90s [with] great command of their split finger and their breaking ball.

"It's easier because those pitches work no matter where [you are]. Guys who throw around 90 and have great off-speed pitches, they're going to succeed."

But the WBC also gave pitchers not well known to big league teams a chance to show their stuff. Rob Cordemans of the Netherlands, hardly a prospect at age 34, opened some eyes with 6 2/3 innings of shutout relief against major players from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

And lanky left-hander Aroldis Chapman, a 21-year-old from Cuba, displayed a live arm -- he hit 100 mph on the radar gun in a second-round loss to Japan -- and a devastating pick-off move during 6 1/3 WBC innings in which he struck out eight.

"We're trying to build something here," Paul Archey, Major League Baseball's vice president for international relations, said before Monday's final. "This has given baseball a tremendous platform to grow the game globally."

Which is why the tournament is likely to grow as well. Archey said there are plans to expand the field from 16 to 24 teams when it returns in 2013, with the additions probably to include Colombia, Nicaragua, Germany and the Czech Republic. Organizers will also look at reducing the length of the tournament while playing more games outside North America.

What's not likely to change, though, is the timing of the tournament, which will continue to coincide with spring training.

"This is the best time," he said. "It is not a perfect time."

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Staff writer Bill Shaikin contributed to this story.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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