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Arm Guards

Protecting pitchers is the first order of business in planning next spring's World Baseball Classic

With less than four months until the inaugural World Baseball Classic, an event commissioner Bud Selig expects will "change the sport" internationally, major league general managers are holding their breath that their pitchers make it through the competition in good health. The G.M.'s are instituting safeguards to limit the greatest risk in what the sport otherwise considers a necessary partnership between owners and players to increase the popularity of baseball around the world.

As part of their annual meetings last week in Indian Wells, Calif., G.M.'s discussed maximum pitch counts in the WBC games, which begin on March 3 and culminate with the championship game on March 20 at Petco Park in San Diego. Though no firm decision was reached (a special steering committee will make the final ruling), the G.M.'s discussed limits that begin as low as 45 pitches for first-round games and escalate to 90 pitches for the title game. "It's one of those things where the tournament is a great idea," says one American League G.M., "until somebody gets hurt."

G.M.'s are concerned that pitchers may overexert themselves in the heat of international competition at a time of year when they would otherwise just be working their arms into shape during lazy spring training games. In addition to the pitch limits, which are intended to mirror those in a pitcher's ordinary spring schedule, Major League Baseball is planning other protective measures. Teams will field 30-man rosters (rather than the usual 25) with a minimum of 13 pitchers. In addition, major league training camps will open earlier than usual to allow pitchers to build arm strength. Also, in the week before their first-round games, the WBC's 16 teams will conduct their own mini training camps, during which they are expected to play exhibition games against major league clubs. (Cuba has been invited to the tournament but has not yet confirmed its participation.)

WBC teams must supply MLB with provisional 60-man rosters by Jan. 17, after which those players will be subject to stricter Olympic-style drug testing through the end of the competition. Sixty percent of the players who compete are expected to be major leaguers, though there is a limit of nine players per big league club in order to minimize disruption of major league camps.

Olympic rules will be in effect in the WBC, which means there will be a DH. First-round games will be held in Tokyo (for the four Asian teams--China, Japan, Korea and Chinese Taipei); Phoenix; Kissimmee, Fla.; and San Juan. Second-round venues will be San Juan and Anaheim. The semifinals will be held on March 18 in San Diego. Teams that reach the final will have played eight games.

The tournament is designed to promote global interest in the sport, particularly in nations such as China, where a market of 1.3 billion people greatly interests Major League Baseball. "You can't understand how big the World Classic is going to be and what it will do for the sport internationally," Selig said last week.

Players do not receive guaranteed payments but will share prize money. Forty-seven percent of the tournament's proceeds will go into a pool to pay the winners. The other 53% will be shared among the various international baseball federations.

MLB has not announced which players will attend, but with the players' association urging its members to take part, MLB expects an A-list of stars. Those who have indicated interest include Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds (U.S.), Albert Pujols and Pedro Martinez (Dominican Republic), Andruw Jones (Netherlands, because his native Curaçao is part of that nation's kingdom), Johan Santana (Venezuela), Ivan Rodriguez (Puerto Rico) and Mike Piazza (Italy, under loose eligibility rules). The event will be held again in 2009, then every four years subsequently, in the hope that it will become a World Cup-- style mainstay.

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Tom Verducci ranks the title contenders in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, based on expected rosters.

1. UNITED STATES A well-balanced team with John Smoltz, Roger Clemens, Dontrelle Willis and Billy Wagner on the mound. The lineup will be formidable if Barry Bonds (above) is healthy enough to join Alex Rodriguez (who could play for the Dominican Republic), Todd Helton, Jim Edmonds, Lance Berkman and maybe even old friend Jeff Kent.

2. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC It needs pitchers Bartolo Colon and Pedro Martinez to be healthy, but the lineup, featuring Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Tejada and Aramis Ramirez, is ferocious.

3. VENEZUELA Less power than the Dominicans, even with Miguel Cabrera, Bobby Abreu and Magglio Ordoñez, but deeper pitching (Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano, Freddy Garcia and Frankie Rodriguez).

4. PUERTO RICO Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran provide thunder, and there is a glut of catchers (Ivan Rodriguez, Javy Lopez, Jorge Posada, Bengie Molina), but Javier Vazquez is the best of the pitchers.

5. JAPAN The biggest threat on the U.S. side of the draw, though Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui have not yet confirmed their participation.



FRAGILE Martinez, 34, had to be shut down last September, but he wants to pitch for the Dominicans.