VIERA, Fla. -- Cognizant that he is still competing for a spot in the Cardinals big league bullpen, Fernando Salas departed for Arizona on Sunday, overjoyed by the opportunity to represent Mexico in the World Baseball Classic.
While interest in the 16-team tournament may be underwhelming to some American-born players, it is a source of pride for many who grew up outside of this country. Salas described the Classic as Mexico's most important baseball showcase.
"It's a big deal," Salas said. "It's different here because you have the Major Leagues, which is the wish for everyone. But in Mexico, this is very important. All Mexican players want to play in the World Baseball Classic. For us, it's really exciting, because it's an opportunity for players from the Mexican League and the Major Leagues to play together."
Salas was on Mexico's Classic roster in 2009, but did not make an appearance. Four years later, he's expected to be a critical piece in a bullpen that is headlined by Giants closer Sergio Romo.
He leaves the Cardinals, however, knowing that the Classic won't be his sole competition this month.
Though they gave Salas their blessing when he asked for permission to play, the Cardinals also made it clear to Salas that he still has to earn a spot in St. Louis' bullpen this spring.
"We'll watch it as close as we can," manager Mike Matheny said. "Obviously, we'd get a better view here, but we never want to deny these guys the opportunity to do something that they'd really like to do. It's for the good of the game, too."
A year after posting a 2.28 ERA and leading the team in saves with 24, Salas endured an up-and-down 2012. He dealt with a kidney stone problem for the first two months of the season and stayed mostly in a middle-relief role when he returned.
Salas spent the offseason throwing cutters, hopeful that the new pitch will develop into one that he is comfortable enough to use during the regular season. Salas began experimenting with the pitch last summer, but only in the bullpen.
"I'm trying it in games and it's been good," Salas said. "Every player knows you, so you need to work a little more to add to your game. It's another option for me."