Wladimir Balentien, the affable slugging outfielder for the Netherlands and the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, said he knew the young group of players darting around the infield for the Dutch during the World Baseball Classic four years ago were going to be special.
Balentien saw the talent even then, the same talent MLB evaluators had seen, and surmised the public at large simply hadn’t at the time. Which is why those players’ performances might have come as a surprise to some.
The cat is out of the bag now.
The Netherlands is back in the second round of the World Baseball Classic, driven in part by a glittering, star-laden crop of young MLB infielders in Xander Bogaerts (Boston Red Sox), Jurickson Profar (Texas Rangers), Andrelton Simmons (Los Angeles Angels) and Jonathan Schoop (Baltimore Orioles).
Those players have all established themselves as major leaguers in the years since the 2013 Classic, and return with more experience and another burgeoning young star, Didi Gregorious (New York Yankees), in tow.
“I think we’ve grown a lot,” Bogaerts said. “I remember we were so young (in 2013). Jonathan played really well in that tournament, especially when we came to Japan. Hopefully he can do that again. We grew a lot. That helped us.
“It’s unbelievable to think we made it to the big leagues that same year, and here we are now again, four years later, trying to do it again in the second round against Japan.”
Three of the five came to Japan with the Netherlands for the second round of the 2013 WBC (Profar joined for the final round and Gregorious wasn’t on the roster), but they’re not necessarily the same players they were then. All five have grown in the interim, experiencing a number of things — Bogaerts has played in and won a World Series — and becoming better players.
“I’ve matured a lot in the game for the past couple of years,” said Gregorious. “I’ve learned a lot about myself. I think that’s what everyone wants to do, you gotta learn what you’re capable of when you go out there and play the game.
“Everyone has to make improvements, make adjustments, if you want to stay successful in the game. You’ve gotta keep going forward with that. You’ve got to keep maturing and keep doing things the right way, on the field and off the field.”
The five Dutch stars broke into the majors around the same time. Simmons, Profar and Gergorious debuted in 2012, and Bogaerts and Schoop the next season. They give the Netherlands some of the most MLB (25-man roster) firepower in this second-round bracket and played major roles in getting the Dutch to this point.
“In 2013, most of the major league players, they weren’t in the major leagues yet,” said Netherlands infielder Yurendell de Caster. “They got four years in the major leagues. I think they’re more relaxed now, and they know what to do.”
During the first round in Seoul, Profar led the way with six hits, including a home run, two doubles and three RBIs. All together the five stars combined for 18 hits in addition to the defensive exploits that have caught everyone’s attention over the years.
“If you watch our practices they’re always on the field taking ground balls,” Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens said. “It’s not like other major league players, who get off the field to go inside, these guys stay on the field and they love taking ground balls, that’s why they’re so good.”
Profar is actually playing in the outfield during the WBC, and Gregorious had a turn as designated hitter, since there are only so many spots to go around. But finding room for the talent the Netherlands has been gifted with is a burden Meulens is happy to bear.
“I think the guy you see the most relaxed out there is Xander Bogarts,” Meulens said. “He played third base for the first time in his life in the Classic in 2013. He ended up playing third base in the World Series that year. That experience here, he talks about it all the time, helped him become a World Series champ in the same year. Now he has four years in the big leagues, he’s won the last two Silver Sluggers at shortstop in the American League. He’s a confident guy.
“Move over to Simmons. I don’t know if there’s a better shortstop in the world than this guy. This guy is unbelievable. He makes every play. He plays like a little kid out there.”
The manager also lauded the versatility shown by Gregarious and Profar, as well as Schoop’s footwork and the quickness with which he can turn a double play. Schoop has also added another element to his game, having hit 25 homers for the Orioles last season.
The Netherlands reached the final round of the WBC in 2013 in San Francisco, losing to the eventual champion Dominican Republic in the semifinals. They had to go through the second round in Japan to reach that point. Now, four years older and wiser, they’re back to try and do it again.
“The experience is better, and the maturity is better too,” Schoop said. “I know I’m better than I was in 2013, and this guy (Bogarts) is way better too, and Didi too, we’re all better. We want to do better in 2018 too, that’s the goal.”