ST. PETERSBURG -- Ben Zobrist will get a chance to realize one of his baseball dreams this spring, as the Rays super-utility man was selected to play for Team USA in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Zobrist is one of four Rays who will participate in the Classic this March. The bullpen duo of Fernando Rodney and Joel Peralta will pitch for their native Dominican Republic, and catcher Jose Molina will play for Puerto Rico.
Zobrist was already thinking Thursday about getting a chance to talk switch-hitting with Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, spend more time with Twins catcher Joe Mauer or Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins and catch up with fellow Nashville resident R.A. Dickey. But more than anything, Zobrist is looking forward to wearing his Team USA jersey and taking the field in the international tournament.
"Obviously, it's an incredible honor," Zobrist said in a conference call with reporters. "One of my career goals, one of my career dreams, was to be able to play for Team USA in the WBC, so when I heard the possibility that I could be added to the roster, I was, of course, elated. It's just such an honor to represent your country in any way, especially a country like ours, so I'm just really grateful for the opportunity."
Zobrist, who is listed as a utility man on manager Joe Torre's roster, has played every defensive position except catcher in his seven-year career, and that kind of flexibility is essential in the Classic. The U.S. team will carry 15 pitchers and 13 position players, including three catchers, making a capable swing-man and switch-hitter like Zobrist a valuable commodity in the starting lineup or off the bench.
Torre hasn't told Zobrist what role he'll serve -- the MLB Network broadcast projected him to start in right field -- so Zobrist said he will head into the spring prepared to do whatever he's asked, much as he's done with the Rays over the past few years.
"You really don't have lot of players other than a starter at each position," Torre said Wednesday in the Dominican Republic. "It's going to be a little bit of a different makeup, but it's really a good ballclub I put together based on trying to do something that works, and hopefully we have good results."
Players often worry about breaking away from their usual Spring Training routine to participate in the Classic, and Zobrist said he has already been thinking about how to get his swing in order. He's been speaking with Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton throughout the offseason, and he will soon be spending more time taking hacks off a higher-velocity pitching machine.
"I've kind of taken note of the fact that I'll need to be game-ready a lot earlier than normal," he said. "You can't really prepare for the actual at-bats, but I'm trying to ramp up the speed of my swing earlier than I normally would."
Zobrist was much less concerned, however, with how the Classic will affect his conditioning and defense.
"I usually feel like that comes to Spring Training pretty much ready to go," Zobrist said. "Basically, I hope that when we get to Spring Training and we start Spring Training games, I'll be able to play all those games up to the point where I'll have to leave so I can try to get into that game mode a little bit more."
Rodney, who put up record-breaking numbers in his first year as the Rays' closer, will pitch for the Dominican Republic alongside Peralta, Tampa Bay's reliable setup man the past two seasons. Molina, meanwhile, is slated to make his Classic debut alongside his brother, Cardinals backstop Yadier Molina, for Puerto Rico.
Leonardo Reginatto, a 22-year-old infielder, has been in the Rays' system for four years and hit .276/.329/.323 for Class A Hudson Valley last season. He will be joined on Team Brazil by Iago Januario, a 19-year-old first baseman who spent last year with the Venezuelan Summer League Rays and hit .232/.332/.470 in 52 games.
Team USA will start the Classic in Pool D, which runs from March 7-10 at Chase Field in Phoenix. The Puerto Rican and Dominican teams are in Pool C, which will take place at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, from March 7-10. Brazil is in Pool A, which will be played in the Fukuoka Dome in Japan from March 2-6.
The tournament concludes with the championship round, held this year at San Francisco's AT&T Park from March 17-19.
And how would Zobrist feel about being on the receiving end of Rodney's changeups or Peralta's splitters at some point in the Classic? Suffice it to say, that wasn't part of the Team USA dream.
"I wouldn't be looking forward to that," Zobrist said. "I'm hoping that situation doesn't necessarily have to arrive. I know how good they are."