25 Players to Watch at the World Baseball Classic

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25 Players to Watch at the World Baseball Classic

25 Players to Watch at the World Baseball Classic
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With spring training games starting up this weekend, baseball is officially back! Fortunately for baseball fans across the globe, this is also a year in which the World Baseball Classic will occur. Teams from all across the globe will compete for worldwide supremacy in a game we all love. The WBC is such a great event for the game of baseball as you get to be exposed to some of the world’s greatest ball players who you otherwise may have not been able to see, unless they came to the majors. What also makes this event special is the fans that flock to the games to support their country’s team and cheer them on to victory. The atmosphere at those games is unique and possesses a special type of feeling and pride for the players and teams that are being represented on the field and in the stands. Most of all, the WBC produces great baseball with the best players in the world demonstrating their talents with the hopes of bringing home the championship trophy for their country and fans. The WBC has been a coming out party—of sorts—for players to make an impression on Major League Baseball executives in the hopes of signing a lucrative contract to come play in the United States. Past players who have shone during the WBC and have ended up coming over to the United States to play baseball are Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish. Each year, players have the ability to represent their home countries while also demonstrating their talents to executives all over the world and each year, different storylines emerge; this year’s WBC is no different. Will Japan secure their third straight WBC championship or will some other team take over the throne and become the first champion—outside of Japan—to win the WBC? Who will be this year’s Darvish or Matsuzaka? These headlines—among others—are sure to bring great attention and viewership to this spectacular event; but just like any other athletic event, the games are mostly decided by the players and it is these players that we will now turn our attention to. Which players are poised for a breakout WBC? Which players need the WBC to secure a regular season roster spot? Finally, who is going to come out of nowhere and become a household name by the end of the WBC? Before the WBC begins, let’s take a look at 25 players you should watch and look out for at the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

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25. Andre Rienzo

Andre Rienzo
Jerome Miron- USA TODAY Sports

Andre Rienzo is one of the more talented pitchers in the Chicago White Sox farm system and is looking for a breakout performance for Team Brazil at the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Rienzo went 7-3 with a 2.53 ERA in 18 games last season in the White Sox minor league system. Rienzo enters spring training this year competing for a roster spot with the White Sox; but with a talented and deep rotation in front of him, it will be difficult for Rienzo to earn a roster spot this season at the age of 24. That is why it is so important for Rienzo to pitch well and have the opportunity to pitch against big league caliber hitters during the WBC. If Rienzo can demonstrate enough skill and toughness during the WBC, it may force manager Robin Ventura to have a difficult decision in sending Rienzo back to the minors for the start of the 2013 season.

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24. Carlos Zambrano

Carlos Zambrano
Steve Mitchell- USA TODAY Sports

Once a top of the rotation starter, “Big Z” Carlos Zambrano has started to see his skills deteriorate as age and ability are beginning to catch up to him. Zambrano was known for his pitching dominance as much as his larger than life ego and attitude which may have rubbed some organizations the wrong way. Last season as part of the Miami Marlins, Zambrano went 7-10 with a 4.49 ERA in 35 games over 132 innings. Zambrano became a free agent after the season and is currently looking for an opportunity—possibly in Japan—to pitch at a professional league. Luckily for Zambrano, the World Baseball Classic will give him a shot to display his skills once more as he pitches for Venezuela. His role on the team has yet to be determined, but this is definitely a big tournament for the big right-hander. His role, attitude and performance may be something worth paying attention to during the WBC.

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23. Ray Chang

Ray Chang
Andrew Weber- USA TODAY Sports

Ray Chang makes this list simply because he is the only recognizable name—at least to some Minnesota Twins’ fans—and only player that is currently anywhere close to playing in the majors on Team China for the World Baseball Classic in 2013. Chang is an infielder who hit 0 HR and 17 RBI over 89 games for Triple-A Rochester in the Twins minor league organization last season. While those numbers may not—and should not—jump out at you, Chang provides solid defense and leadership to a team that will struggle to compete in the WBC. China may be lagging behind other teams in this tournament; but for Twins’ fans, Chang may be the only reason worth watching any team playing China this WBC.

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22. Sergio Romo

Sergio Romo
Kyle Terada- USA TODAY Sports

After becoming the San Francisco Giants closer following the injury to Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo capped off a successful 2012 with the Giants by closing their way to a World Series championship. Romo will try to build off this momentum by helping Team Mexico compete at the World Baseball Classic. Romo posted a 4-2 record with a 1.79 ERA and 14 saves in 69 games in 2012; but entering this season, Romo has not been declared the opening day closer as of yet. This is why the WBC is such an important opportunity for Romo to display that he indeed has the type of dominant closer potential that will help the Giants remain competitive deep into the playoffs. Romo possesses electric stuff and by facing some of the world’s best hitters, Romo will be able to display his moxie and skills for all the world—especially the Giants—to see.

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21. Jose "J.O" Berrios

JO Berrios
Scott Rovak- USA TODAY Sports

Jose “J.O.” Berrios is a highly regarded prospect in the Minnesota Twins’ minor league system who will be pitching and representing Puerto Rico in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Drafted in the first round of the Major League Baseball amateur draft in 2013, Berrios is already drawing attention to himself as one of the Twins’ brightest and most talented pitching prospects. In 11 games last season for the Twins Rookie League affiliates, Berrios was 3-0 with a 1.17 ERA with 47 strikeouts over 30.2 innings of work. Berrios may not be counted on heavily by the Puerto Rico team, but the fact that youngster was named to the team is a very promising sign for Twins’ fans. It will be interesting to see how Berrios stacks up against some of the best hitters in the world if he gets an opportunity to pitch in the WBC.

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20. John Axford

John Axford
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The “Ax Man” John Axford is a closer for the Milwaukee Brewers, looking to regain his form of 2011 when he saved 46 ballgames. Last season, Axford went 5-8 with a 4.67 ERA in 75 appearances for the Brewers, struggling down the stretch and losing the form that once garnered him Cy Young votes in 2011 when he was one of the most dominant closers in all of baseball. Axford will be taking the mound for Team Canada this World Baseball Classic and the team will be looking for him to shut down opposing teams in the late innings of ball games. With Francisco Rodriguez gone in free agency, the Brewers are leaning heavily on Axford this season with the hopes that he can stabilize their rotation and win them close games. If the Brewers are to contend this season, Axford will be a big reason why they do. Was last season a trend or a mirage for Axford? Time will tell, but the best way for Brewers’ fans to forget about last season and have confidence in Axford once again would be for him to dominate at the WBC. Axford’s performance and role on Team Canada will be interesting to watch as the games begin for the WBC.

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19. Kazuo Matsui

Kazuo Matsui
Brett Davis- USA TODAY Sports

It seems like forever, but Kazuo Matsui is only two years removed from last playing in the majors as part of the Houston Astros. In his final season, Matsui hit 0 HR and 1 RBI over 27 games which led to his dismissal following the season. Matsui—at age 37—is now entering the 2013 World Baseball Classic as—quite possibly—his final appearance on a worldwide stage. Matsui will not be counted on to produce heavily in the Japanese lineup, but he will be counted on to provide veteran leadership and defense for a team looking to three-peat in 2013. Matsui may also be looking for one last shot at convincing a big league team he can still be a serviceable bench player on some roster; but at this point, that seems like a pipe dream. Nevertheless, seeing Matsui for what may be the last time will be an interesting storyline as we enter the WBC.

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18. Chien Ming Wang

Chien Ming Wang
Brad Mills- USA TODAY Sports

Chien Ming Wang enters the World Baseball Classic looking for another opportunity to demonstrate that he has overcome the injuries that have cost him a shot at a Major League rotation in 2013. Wang was last on the Washington Nationals in 2012 where he went 2-3 with a 6.68 ERA in 10 games pitched over 32 innings. Wang is hopeful of joining a big league team by the end of spring training and has garnered interest from a number of teams heading into spring teams. Wang will be counted on to lead the Chinese Taipei pitching staff into the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Whether or not Wang has regained his form—that made him a sought after pitcher when he was part of the New York Yankees—has yet to be determined. Wang at age 32 doesn’t have much time left in his career and this tournament will be a pivotal opportunity for Wang to get an opportunity to pitch at the big league level or be forced to look elsewhere—likely Japan or Korea—to finish up his career.

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17. Anthony Rizzo

Anthony Rizzo
David Banks- USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Rizzo is one of the most promising prospects to come to the Chicago Cubs in a long time and it is for this reason that Cubs’ fans are excited what the future may hold for the young first basemen. Rizzo will be performing for Team Italy this World Baseball Classic as he looks to establish himself as one of the best young first basemen in all of baseball moving forward. Rizzo hit .285 with 15 HR and 48 RBI over 87 games last season for the Cubs and figures to hit in the top or middle of the lineup for the Italian squad. While the Italians aren’t favored to make much noise in the WBC, Rizzo’s production and emergence in the lineup could provide a sense of optimism and intrigue as the tournament progresses. Keep an eye on Rizzo as the Italians battle their way through pool play—and possibly beyond—during the 2013 WBC.

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16. Ryan Braun

Ryan Braun
Jake Roth- USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Braun has had one of the most tumultuous off-seasons by a star that I have seen in a long time. Long seen as the face of the Milwaukee Brewers’ franchise, Braun has been a steady run producer and defensive outfielder on his way to winning National League Rookie of the Year in 2007 and National League Most Valuable Player in 2011. The production on the field was not what has made this off-season stressful for Braun, it is the consistent connection to performance enhancing drugs that keeps his name on the list of players to question in all of baseball. Braun was suspended for 50 games for elevated levels of testosterone back in the 2012, but won an appeal to have the suspension lifted in part because of a breakdown in protocol with the evidence. Braun still went on to hit 41 HR and 112 RBI in 154 games last season, but rumors surfaced in connection with a Miami area based PED supplier this off-season that had Braun’s name linked to usage. Whatever the result of this will be, one thing for certain is that the United States and Brewers are counting heavy on the production of Braun this season and tournament. How he delivers and performs will go a long way in determining the success of each team this year.

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15. Masahiro Tanaka

Masahiro Tanaka
Mark J. Rebilas- USA TODAY Sports

Now considered the best pitcher in Japan, Masahiro Tanaka is ready to lead Team Japan to their third straight World Baseball Classic championship. With the departure—and absence in the WBC—of Yu Darvish, Tanaka has taken over as the unofficial ace on the Japanese roster. Last season, Tanaka was 10-4 with a 1.87 ERA and 169 strikeouts over 173 innings in 22 games for the Rakuten team in Japan’s professional league. Tanaka’s leadership at age 24 for the Japanese will be key if they are to return home as the winners of the 2013 WBC. It also may be interesting for fans to tune in to watch Tanaka pitch and wonder if he will follow in the footsteps of Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka who used the WBC as an opportunity to showcase their skills at the worldwide level. Tanaka’s name will surely come up over the next few seasons as a possibility to come to the majors; but until then, keep an eye on this talented pitcher from Japan.

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14. Jameson Taillon

Jameson Taillon
Denny Medley- USA TODAY Sports

Rated as the number 15 prospect in all of baseball by heading into 2013, Jameson Taillon looks to have a breakout tournament for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic. Taillon is one of the talented young prospects in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization that is competing for a big league roster spot to open up 2013; but until that decision is made, Taillon will take his talents to the team north of the border and try to help the Canadians compete in the WBC. Taillon had a solid year last season posting a 9-8 record with a 3.55 ERA in 26 games split between high-A and Double-A minor league ball. Taillon may not be counted on to lead the Canadian pitching staff this tournament; but if he can put up solid performances early on for the Canadians and if he performs well in big spots for them, Taillon could boost his chances for winning a spot in the Pirates starting rotation at the beginning of this season.

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13. Frederich Cepeda

Frederich Cepeda
Christopher Hanewinckel- USA TODAY Sports

As one of the most tenured and veteran players on the Team Cuba roster heading into the World Baseball Classic in 2013, Frederich Cepeda will be looked upon to have a big tournament if the Cubans are to finally dethrone the Japanese and win the title. Cepeda has played well on the WBC stage with a .385 batting average and two HRs and eight RBI in 2006 and a .500 batting average with three HRs and 10 RBI over six games in 2009. Along with Jose Dariel Abreu, Cepeda will be counted on to pick up the slack and run production left by Yoenis Cespedes. If Cepeda can have a great tournament and solidify the middle of the Cuban order, look for the Cubans to take home the 2013 WBC title.

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12. Nelson Cruz

Nelson Cruz
Mark J. Rebilas- USA TODAY Sports

Nelson Cruz—like Ryan Braun—has had an off-season clouded with uncertainty over the alleged usage of performance enhancing drugs. When on the field—however—Cruz has been counted on as a consistent power hitter in the middle of the Texas Rangers’ lineup over the past few seasons. Last season, Cruz hit 24 HR and 90 RBI over 159 games for the Rangers and provided solid defense and a tremendous arm in the outfield. Cruz will be part of a start studded Dominican Republic team during the World Baseball Classic and fans—along with baseball executives—will be watching the situation with Cruz unfold very closely to see if any suspension or discipline will be handed down. Until then, Cruz figures to be a very integral part of the Dominican offense for this tournament and could be an important reason they compete for a championship in 2013.

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11. Justin Morneau

Justin Morneau
Tom Szczerbowski- USA TODAY Sports

Justin Morneau enters the 2013 World Baseball Classic fully healthy and ready to contribute to his native land of Canada. Morneau is entering the season—however—clouded with uncertainty surrounding his status with the Minnesota Twins beyond this season. With Morneau beginning the final year of his contract that is slated to pay him 14 million dollars, it is essential that Morneau performs well this season if he is to earn a big paycheck or be traded to a contender during and following this season. Morneau had a solid bounce-back season last year for the Twins hitting 19 HR and 77 RBI over 134 games. There have been rumors linking Morneau to having interest in playing for him home country Toronto Blue Jays after this season, but Morneau has gone on record as saying not to read too much into those rumors. Regardless, Morneau will have an opportunity to play for his native country during the WBC and if all goes well and he puts up solid numbers, he may get the attention of the Blue Jays and intrigue them even more into acquiring the first basemen during or after the season. For now, Twins’ fans must watch and hope that Morneau wants to return to the team beyond the 2013 season.

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10. Dae Ho Lee

Ho Lee
Gary A. Vasquez- USA TODAY Sports

Dae-ho Lee is one of the more decorated players over his career on the Korean roster entering the World Baseball Classic in 2013. Lee played in Japan in 2012, hitting 24 HR and 91 RBI. The infielder is one of many veterans playing on the Korean team in 2013. The Koreans bring back 11 players who performed on the second place finishing team in 2009. This familiarity could help the Koreans in their pursuit for a first place finish in 2013. Lee will provide solid defense and hitting wherever the Koreans choose to play the 30 year old infielder. Known for his power, Lee will be looked to for production of Korea wants to do well at the WBC.

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9. Francisco Rodriguez

Denny Medley- USA Today Sports

K-Rod” is still a free agent and is still looking for work entering the 2013 Major League season. It is for this reason that Francisco Rodriguez will need to perform well for his native Venezuela in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Last season, Rodriguez went 2-7 with a 4.38 ERA over 78 games which was way below his 2.70 career ERA. Following the down year, Rodriguez was not resigned by the Milwaukee Brewers and will be looking to reestablish himself among baseball’s elite when it comes to relief pitching in 2013. Rodriguez’s only opportunity may come during the WBC so it is crucial that he performs well in as many opportunities as he is given. His performance will likely be monitored closely by Major League executives in need of relief pitching this season. If “K-Rod” performs well, look for him to sign with a team shortly after the WBC and also look for the Venezuelan team to do well throughout the tournament.

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8. Jose Reyes

Jose Reyes
Steve Mitchell- USA TODAY Sports

Jose Reyes may be one of the most electrifying players—even at age 29—in the World Baseball Classic on any team. Reyes was part of the blockbuster deal that sent Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and others to the Toronto Blue Jays this off-season and Blue Jays’ fans will be paying close attention to how their prized shortstop will perform in the WBC. This will be the Blue Jays’ fans first chance to see Reyes perform as an official member of the organization against the best players in the world and—as always—injury concerns are constantly on the minds of the fans and organization that Reyes belongs to. Reyes had a solid season last year hitting .287 with 11 HR and 57 RBI with 40 steals in an incredibly durable 160 games. Reyes’ health—among other things—will be a constant question the Blue Jays will have to answer; but for now, Reyes remains as one of the most talented players in the WBC tournament and will be an integral part of their success—along with the Blue Jays’ success as well—during the 2013 campaign.

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7. Salvador Perez

Salvador Perez
Peter Aiken- USA TODAY Sports

Seen as one of the best young catchers in all of baseball, Salvador Perez is looking to have a big season in 2013 as part of the Kansas City Royals. Perez was selected as a catcher for Team Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic and the team is counting on him to produce and handle a pitching staff poised to compete and go deep in the tournament. Last season, Perez hit .301 with 11 HR and 39 RBI over 76 games for the Royals. This year he will be counted on to produce even more on a team ready to compete for a division championship and bring themselves out of the cellar and into contention for a playoff spot. The WBC will be Perez’s first chance to demonstrate his immense talent on a worldwide stage and it will also give the Royals an indication of what they can expect from their youngster in 2013.

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6. Xander Bogaerts

Xander Bogaerts
Scott Rovak- USA TODAY Sports

Rated as the number eight prospect in all of baseball—heading into the 2013 season by Baseball America—Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts seems to have a bright future ahead of him. Bogaerts will suit up for Team Netherlands this World Baseball Classic and is looked to as being one of the main contributors and attention drawers on a team not filled with a lot of big names. The young shortstop hit .307 with 20 HR and 81 RBI last season, which was split between high A and Double A minor league teams in the Red Sox organization. There is little doubt that Red Sox fans—among others—will be watching the maturation and on-field production of Bogaerts as he performs for Team Netherlands this WBC. If Bogaerts has a strong showing during the tournament, he may be in line for a sooner than thought of call-up to the big leagues. Stay tuned to this talented shortstop.

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5. R.A. Dickey

RA Dickey
Kim Klement- USA TODAY Sports

R.A. Dickey has made headlines for various reasons in 2012, including being named the National League Cy Young award winner as part of the New York Mets. Dickey went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA in 34 games last season for the Mets. Following the season, Dickey was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays where he is expected to contribute to a deep and talented Blue Jays roster poised to compete for a World Series championship. Until then, Dickey will be counted on to anchor a United States pitching staff that is anxious to show they belong among the world’s elite at the World Baseball Classic. The effectiveness or ineffectiveness of Dickey’s knuckleball will be a storyline to watch as well as seeing how well Dickey can match up against some of the world’s best hitters. How Dickey performs in the tournament could be a great indication of how his first season in Toronto may play out.

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4. Seung Yeop Lee

Yeop Lee
Gary A. Vasquez- USA TODAY Sports

Known as "The Lion King" in Korea, Seung Yeop Lee is regarded as one of —if not the— greatest hitters in Korean baseball. After spending eight seasons playing in Japan, Lee returned to Korea for the 2012 season. Lee’s a five-time MVP who hit 300 home runs quicker than even Alex Rodriguez, with his highest totals coming in 2003 when he hit 56 HR. Lee has been rumored as a possible player who is interested in coming to the United States; however at age 36, this move seems unlikely. Last season Lee hit .307 with 21 HR and 85 RBI for Samsung in the Korean league. Lee’s presence in the middle of the Team Korea lineup provides the team with a great chance at contending for the 2013 World Baseball Classic championship after a second place finish in 2009 to Japan.

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3. Jen Ho Tseng

Ho Tseng
Kirby Lee- USA TODAY Sports

Jen-Ho Tseng—at age 19—may be the most talented player on the Chinese Taipei roster for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Tseng began playing with the national team when he was still in high school and has grown into one of the most dominate pitchers in the country. Tseng’s hallmark is his 95 mph fastball which he hopes will one day get him a Major League contract in the United States. Tseng’s role—at his current age—has yet to be determined but if Tseng is to make it to the United States and receive a massive contract, he will need to get plenty of opportunities to display his skills to executives at the tournament. At this time with Chinese Taipei likely not able to contend for a WBC title, Tseng’s chances may be limited. Tseng also throws a slider, sinker, changeup and knuckle-curve and recently pitched Taiwan to the 2012 Asian Championship, going 1-0 and tossing six shutout innings. The possibility of seeing Tseng pitching—at the age of 19 with all of his talents—is one of the few story lines surrounding Chinese Taipei in the 2013 WBC.

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2. Shinnosuke Abe

Shinnosuke Abe
Kirby Lee- USA TODAY Sports

Shinnosuke Abe may be the biggest name on this year’s Team Japan roster for the World Baseball Classic. Abe—at 33 years old—is a veteran on this year’s team and is their most recognizable player and star from his catcher’s position. Abe hit .340 with 27 HR and 104 RBI—while winning the Most Valuable Player Award in the Japan Championship Series and leading his team to the title—for the Yomiuri Giants last season. Abe will be counted on to lead and stabilize a pitching staff that will be without stars Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Hiroki Kuroda among others. The presence of Abe in the middle of the Japanese lineup will be crucial for the team’s offensive success and it will be interesting to see how well the other members of the team can step up in the absence of veterans such as Ichiro Suzuki.

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1. Jose Dariel Abreu

Jose Dariel Abreu
Christopher Hanewinckel- USA TODAY Sports

Known as the “Cuban Barry Bonds”, Jose Dariel Abreu leads the Team Cuba offense as the team looks to win its first World Baseball Classic Championship in 2013. Abreu has put up absurd numbers during his time in Cuba and last season hit 33 HR and 93 RBI—in only 67 games—last season. Perceived by many as the best hitter in the world, Abreu heads into the 2013 WBC as the biggest star on the Cuban roster. Without Yoenis Cespedes, Cuba will be counting on Abreu heavily to anchor their lineup and be a force that will lead them to a championship in 2013. It is quite possible that many teams will be following the progress of Abreu closely as he is facing some of the best pitchers in the world. If Abreu continues to perform well against these opponents, it may not be out of the realm of possibilities that you see Abreu defect to the United States and join a big league team by the end of this season or beginning of next season. If he should choose to come to the majors, there will be teams lining up to get a chance to sign this elite power hitter. For now we must wait and see; but if he puts up big numbers, let the bidding war begin!