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Classic creating a diluted spring

Jorge Cantu figures the odd feeling in his stomach will last only as long as this morning's plane flight from Tampa to Tucson, Ariz.

Rather than join his Devil Rays teammates for their first spring exhibition game today in Dunedin, Cantu is jetting off - with enormous pride and only slight concern - to join the Mexican team as it prepares to play next week in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

"I feel weird because I have this thing in the back of my mind that I'm leaving my team behind," Cantu said. "But I don't want to be thinking that way. I'm just going to play a little bit for my country, and hopefully everyone understands that."

Understanding, though, may be relative.

Though it remains to be seen what the effects of the Classic - a 16-nation tournament designed to feature the game's brightest stars - will be on the major-league season, there is no question it will have a significant impact on spring training.

By going to the Classic, players are going to be away from their teams for one to three weeks at a time they normally are preparing for the season. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Bernie Williams and newcomer Johnny Damon, for example, might not return to the Yankees' Tampa camp until March 22.

For teams, it could mean not making the typical spring evaluations of their players, or being able to monitor their health and/or skills, or having the normal time to integrate new acquisitions into their lineups and clubhouses.

For players, it could mean hurting their chances to win jobs by leaving camp, or just getting hurt. Plus they're dealing with the hassles of travel and the pressures of competitive play much earlier on the baseball calendar than ever before.

But for fans, especially those who have limited opportunities to attend spring games, it could be a major loss because they won't have the usual chance to see some of the biggest stars during the most accessible time of the season.

"I can't worry about it because I have no control over it," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "The players that are going to be away, they know what they need to do, so that part doesn't concern me. I think by the time it's all over with, there's 10 days left (in spring training) and that's enough to get things going in the right direction.

"But the fans, we sell out every game here, and they're not going to see four important people."

For teams with veteran players in established lineups, a few-week absence may not be a big deal. Torre would like Damon to have more time to get comfortable, but otherwise it's just a matter of hoping the other stars come back healthy.

But teams with younger players or evolving rosters have more issues.

The Blue Jays will be without three front-line outfielders (Frank Catalanotto, Alex Rios and Vernon Wells) and have concerns about whether starter Gustavo Chacin will get enough work as part of the pitching-rich Venezuelan squad to be fully prepared for the regular season.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said he had similar concerns. "I worry about my pitching, and I'm sure other guys worry," he said.

The Rays are losing only two major-league players: Cantu, whose Mexican team should advance to at least the second round; and veteran reliever Dan Miceli, whose Italian team is unlikely to play past the first week because it is grouped with the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. (Minor-league catcher Chairon Isenia is playing for the Netherlands team.)

New Rays manager Joe Maddon, who has been showing his support for the Classic by wearing jerseys and caps from his participating players' countries, said he has no concerns about the two missing time.

"I'm just not worried about it," he said.

Cantu's starting spot at second base is secure, though his place in the batting order - likely third or fifth - has yet to be determined. Miceli is competing for the vacant closer's job but is likely to be back before any decisions are made.

The impact on the Rays could have been more severe, but Carl Crawford asked off the U.S. team to tend to his bruised left wrist and shortstop Julio Lugo didn't make the final Dominican roster.

But with a new front office, a new manager and a mostly new coaching staff, every day of the spring is an important one.

"In an ideal world, we'd have more time to get these players acclimated to the new staff," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "But we've worked overtime to get these players ready to play and comfortable with the 2006 approach."

The concerns of the teams and the complaints of the fans are legitimate. But there can be a positive impact, too.

With Cantu gone, the Rays, for example, will have more opportunity to evaluate potential backups Nick Green and Luis Rivas. The Yankees can do the same with the left side of their infield missing.

Still, everyone knows this is going to be a spring different than any before.

"Obviously it's something that's unique and difficult," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "We'll lose some guys for a period of time. Hopefully they produce at high levels for those clubs, stay healthy and get back to us whenever their WBC season is over."

Times staff writer Damian Cristodero and correspondents Randy Miller and Ed Price contributed to this report.

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