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Twins set for strong presence in World Baseball Classic

Minnesota Twins relief pitcher Jose Berrios delivers a pitch to the Baltimore Orioles in the third inning in a Spring Training game at Hammond Field in Fort Myers, Florida on Saturday, March 5, 2016. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Jose Berrios' disappointing rookie season didn't harm his standing with his home territory for the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

"He's going to be starting," said Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez, who also managed Berrios in the 2013 WBC. "Which game he's going to be pitching, that all depends."

Rodriguez, the former Miami Marlins manager who led the Cleveland Indians' New York-Penn League entry last season, said the preliminary roster he and Puerto Rico general manager Alex Cora submitted to Major League Baseball included at least 10-12 starting pitchers.

In addition to Berrios, who had yet to firm up his winter-ball plans, Rodriguez is counting on Twins left-hander Hector Santiago.

"He's been calling me," Rodriguez said with a smile.

Last time around, Santiago received clearance from the Chicago White Sox but opted to remain at spring training in order to compete for a rotation spot.

"He was trying to make that team with the fifth spot in the rotation," Rodriguez said. "At first he said yes. Then he said, 'Let me think about it.' I was the one that said, 'Listen, man, you're trying to make a club there. Thank you, but you have to stay there.'"

Santiago, who had four big-league starts at the time, went on to make 23 starts for the White Sox that season. Traded twice since, including Aug. 1 to the Twins, Santiago turns 29 on Dec. 16 and is coming off a 13-win season in which he worked a career-high 182 innings.

"He's a veteran guy," Rodriguez said. "He wants to do it. He's a guy that can do anything for us, but definitely we want him to start."

The Twins recently tendered a contract to Santiago, who is projected to earn $8.2 million next season through arbitration.

Berrios was 18 and just nine months out of high school the last time he pitched in the WBC. Eddie Rosario, slated to play again for Team Puerto Rico along with Twins teammate Kennys Vargas, was a 21-year-old reserve outfielder at the 2013 WBC.

"They were young," said Rodriguez, who spent eight years as a Twins amateur scout under Terry Ryan. "Berrios, he was a baby. Eddie Rosario, I think he was in A-ball back then. The whole point of it was to get them more experience and get them committed with the team. This year, they're going to be some of the leaders of the team."

Berrios pitched just twice, posting an 18.00 earned-run average while allowing four runs on five hits and a walk in just two innings. The highlight was a bases-loaded strikeout of Dominican star Robinson Cano.

"There were 25,000 people in Puerto Rico, and he struck out Cano," Rodriguez said. "I remember it was a 3-2 count. Everybody was excited. The whole field was excited, all the fans. When (Berrios) came into the dugout, we said, 'Congratulations, man, you struck out Cano.' He said, 'What's his name again?' He didn't even know who he was pitching to."

It's still possible the Twins will dissuade Berrios or others from pitching in the WBC due to the "intense environment" it creates, as chief baseball officer Derek Falvey termed it. As an organization, however, the Twins are not only supportive of the WBC but proud to have so many of their players under consideration for the quadrennial event.

"I think it's a reflection of what we did in the draft in Puerto Rico and what our international scouts have accomplished," said Twins GM Thad Levine. "They've done a tremendous job to put us in position to have that many in consideration."

Twins utility man Eduardo Escobar, meanwhile, remains in Team Venezuela's plans for next spring's World Baseball Classic, but he will have to show he is healthy after an injury-marred season.

"We've got him on the (preliminary) list," said former big-league shortstop Carlos Guillen, general manager of the Venezuelan WBC team. "Let's see how he's doing. He's got an injury. I don't know. We've got to make sure he's healthy."

Escobar, who recently avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $2.6 million salary for next season, spent time on the disabled list with groin and hamstring injuries last season. His numbers plummeted as a result.

Escobar, who is slated to back up Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar on the Venezuelan team, is back home and considering another stint with the Aragua Tigers of the Venezuelan Winter League. But first his body must cooperate.

"He's got a pretty good shot (at the WBC) because he can play different positions and he can play a little in the outfield," said Guillen, Aragua's team president. "He's a switch-hitter, and he can hit. He's a good player."

And the famed clubhouse energy Escobar provides?

"Oh, yeah, that's why we love him," Guillen said with a laugh. "He's a very good guy inside the clubhouse — and out on the field, too."

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