TORONTO - Canada will have to wait a little longer to see if its best hitter will compete at the World Baseball Classic.
Joey Votto was included on the team’s final 28-man roster released Thursday, but he won’t make a decision to join the team until Canada’s opening game against Italy on March 8.
Canada had left a roster spot open for Votto when the provisional roster was released in January, as the Cincinnati Reds first baseman continues to recover from surgery to his left knee last season.
The Reds have shown some reluctance to allow Votto to compete, and have already decided to keep ace pitcher Johnny Cueto from joining the Dominican Republic team.
Votto missed 48 games last season, marring what was turning out to be another spectacular year for the three-time all-star. He had a .336 batting average with 14 home runs and 56 RBI in 111 games after signing a 10-year contract extension worth US$225 million. His 94 walks also led the National League.
The 29-year-old, who was named the NL MVP in 2010, is a career .316 hitter since his major-league debut in 2007. Votto was Canada’s best hitter at the WBC in 2009, with five hits in nine at-bats and one homer in two games.
Canada opens training camp March 4 in Goodyear, Ariz., before playing Milwaukee and Cincinnati in a pair of exhibition games March 5-6.
After playing Italy in Pool D, Canada moves to Chase Field in Phoenix to face Mexico on March 9 and finish the first round against the Americans on March 10.
Canada returns to the tournament with several major leaguers who competed at the last WBC. Pittsburgh catcher Russell Martin (Chelsea, Que.) — who has said he wants to try shortstop for Canada — is back, as well as Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau (New Westminster, B.C.), Chicago White Sox reliever Jesse Crain (Toronto), Philadelphia reliever Phillippe Aumont (Gatineau, Que.), Pirates reliever Chris Leroux (Mississauga, Ont.) and Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie (Langley, B.C.), who never had an at-bat in 2009.
Two major leaguers making their debut for Canada are Seattle Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders (Victoria) and Milwaukee Brewers closer John Axford (Port Dover, Ont.).
Saunders secured his spot in the Mariners’ lineup by stealing 21 bases, scoring 71 runs and hitting .247, a big improvement from hitting .149 in just 58 games during 2011.
Axford is Canada’s best new addition and gives the team a dangerous closer should they need him. Axford set the Brewers’ franchise record with an NL-leading 46 saves in 2011, but struggled through the first part of last season and briefly lost his job. Axford rebounded in September with a strong month and finished the season with 35 saves.
There are also 10 players returning from Canada’s Pan American Games team that surprised the United States 2-1 in the gold-medal final. Key among them will be Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.), who pitched in the final and will likely be one of Canada’s starters at the WBC. First baseman Jimmy Van Ostrand (Richmond, B.C.) is making his WBC debut after driving in the winning runs against the U.S in 2011.
Another notable inclusion is Jameson Taillon, a 21-year-old pitching prospect making his debut for Canada. Taillon is the highest drafted Canadian in MLB history after being chosen second overall by Pittsburgh, behind Nationals star Bryce Harper, in 2010. MLB ranks Taillon 15th among the top 100 prospects.
Scott Richmond, a former Blue Jays pitcher and national team veteran, will miss the WBC after injuring his knee during spring training with South Korea’s Lotte Giants. Also absent are Boston Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster, Colorado Rockies pitcher Jeff Francis and Seattle outfielder Jason Bay, who all declined invitations.
Canada has yet to make it out of the first round of the WBC after tournaments in 2006 and ’09. At the last tournament, Canada lost to the U.S. before being upset by Italy at Toronto’s Rogers Centre.