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Captain America? Alex Bregman, 22, represents Team USA’s future at World Baseball Classic

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SAN DIEGO -Alex Bregman, by all rights, should be in West Palm Beach, Fla., these days, trying to establish himself as a big-leaguer with the Houston Astros.

He has been in the major leagues for only 70 days, playing 50 games after making his debut with the Astros last summer.

No starting job has been promised to him. In fact, all of the players competing for his job are in the Astros’ camp, showing up every morning by 8, playing in the Astros’ exhibition games, and trying to impress management.

Yet, 2,595 miles away, you will find Bregman, 22, wearing the uniform of Team USA across his chest at the World Baseball Classic.

He has an impressive amateur resume, but the guys he stays with are perennial All-Stars and MVPs. His postseason experience consists of three games with the Class A Lancaster JetHawks, while the guy who starts at shortstop ahead of him has three World Series rings.

 

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Still, despite risking his starting job, and missing out on valuable experience and exposure playing every day in spring training, Bregman is right where he wants to be.

He’s representing his country, and for the fifth time in his young life, playing for USA in an international tournament.

Knock the WBC all you want, ignore it if you must, but if you dare criticize it, you’re going to have to go through Bregman, who represents the event’s glorious future. He’s the All-American kid who grew up in Albuquerque, N.M, attended LSU, was drafted with the second pick in the country, and now is a key ingredient to the Astros’ World Series aspirations.

He may be the youngest guy on Team USA, but he still has an old-school soul, ridiculing Venezuela second baseman Rougned Odor on Twitter for his bat flip and celebrating what he thought was a home run, only for it to bounce off the fence, leaving him with only a long single.

“This (look) at me stuff is brutal,’’ Bregman tweeted. “Act like you’ve done it before. #SMH.’’

Bregman, knowing that Odor is a rival on the Texas Rangers, but who also happens to be teammates with Astros second baseman Jose Altuve on Venezuela, quickly deleted it.

He plans to stick to talking about his own team the rest of the tournament, although he’d love to have bragging rights in the Astros clubhouse with his teammates playing for Venezuela and Puerto Rico in this pool.

“This is something I dreamed about as a young kid, watching the Olympics, always wanting to play for the United States of America,’’ Bregman tells USA TODAY Sports. “This is a complete honor. It’s one of the best achievements I’ve had in my life, and hopefully, I can continue that in the future.

“It’s tough not playing much, but being surrounded by so many great big leaguers, picking everyone’s brain and trying to soak it in, I’m right where I want to be.’’

Bregman, USA TODAY Sports’ minor-league player of the year in 2016, is the guy who wants to be here, volunteering to Major League Baseball officials before they called him. He had just one plate appearance in the tournament before his scheduled start Wednesday night against Venezuela. Players have snubbed the invitation, and others have dropped out, but as long as they want him, Bregman plans to be here.

“It’s great for Major League Baseball,’’ said Joe Torre, MLB chief baseball officer, “because he’s going to go back to his team and say what a real positive experience it was. I think going forward, it bodes well for the tournament, because word of mouth is the best thing.

“Let’s admit it, young guys don’t believe old guys when they tell them. But you trust your peers because they’re looking at it through the same eyes.

“And he’s having a blast.’’

The only glitch in Bregman’s WBC excursion, of course, is playing time. He sits and watches Brandon Crawford of the San Francisco Giants at shortstop. Nolan Arenado, one of the greatest players in the game, is the third baseman. All-Star Ian Kinsler is at second base. And first base is jammed with Paul Goldschmidt and Eric Hosmer splitting duties.

It has left Bregman with only one at-bat, and a half inning in the field entering Wednesday night, which has left the Astros concerned.

“The downside of being on a star-studded team is very minimal playing time,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch told reporters at their spring-training camp. “There’s not much he can do about it. Going five or six days with one at-bat is a tough part about being on that team as a reserve.

“Obviously, it’s a fun experience to be around all of those guys, but he’s anxious to get a few more at-bats and a few more innings of playing time. He’s still really young and never been through a full spring training. He’s doing fine mentally. It’s been a fun, yet long couple of days for him.’’

Certainly, USA manager Jim Leyland understands the frustration, and decided Tuesday to do something about it. He told Bregman that he would start Wednesday night at shortstop against Venezuela, even if it meant benching his hottest hitter, with Crawford batting .455 with a .500 on-base percentage.

“You’ve got to do what’s right,’’ Leyland told USA TODAY Sports. “He deserves this. You hate to sit Crawford, but (Bregman) wants to be here. He needs to get ready for the season. He deserves to play.’’

If it were simply about playing time in the WBC, Bregman would have played for Team Israel. They called him first, badly wanting him as their lone Major League player on a 40-man roster. Bregman certainly was appreciative of the offer, but despite it being a case of playing every day or sitting, he couldn’t turn his back on Team USA.

“I feel like I represented the United States in the past,’’ Bregman says, “and this is where I was born. I’m proud to be an American. I’m proud to be from this great country. If I got the opportunity to play for this team, I wouldn’t turn it down.’’

Even if Team USA had not called him, Bregman said, he would have gone to the Astros’ spring-training camp and not with Team Israel, which was eliminated Wednesday by Japan. Nothing personal, he said, but simply Asia was too far to travel to play for Israel and still be ready for the Astros’ season.

“I think it’s great that he’s here,’’ Astros DH Carlos Beltran says. “He called me in the off-season about my experience in the World Baseball Classic, and what are some of the things he could gain by that experience.

“I said, “You know what, man, to have the opportunity to play on a team with All-Stars is an unbelievable privilege. When you’re around these guys, ask questions. Get the most out of it, and try to gain something to add to your game.’’

Bregman took the advice to heart.

“What an awesome learning experience,’’ Bregman says. “I’m surrounded by so many great big leaguers. I get to pick the brains of guys like Crawford and Arenado, and what helps them defensively in the infield, and trying to apply some of that to my game and see if I can take my defense to the next level.

“I’m soaking it all in, and I know it will only help me once our season starts.’’

Oh, and if Bregman is worried about his starting job, concerned that his lack of playing time will be detrimental to even making the opening-day roster, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow wants to relay a message.

“It’s tough because you want to make sure the player is getting the proper preparation for the season,’’ Luhnow said. “This is his first opportunity to make the opening-day roster, so it’s important he gets ready.

“But I’ll tell you what, I went to the (USA-Dominican Republic)game, and that was as intense an atmosphere I’ve ever seen. That was a great experience for him. When he gets back from the WBC, he’ll make up for it.

“When opening day comes, yes, he’s going to be on our team. Come on, he’s just too good.’’

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