Mar 1, 2013, 10:00 AM EDT
While we’re still a week away from any World Baseball Classic play in North America, the tournament kicks off in Japan and Taiwan on Saturday (Friday night in the U.S.), with eight teams in two pools participating in round-robin play.
Pool A (Japan, March 2-6): Brazil, China, Cuba, Japan
Pool B: (Taiwan, March 2-5): Australia, Chinese Taipei, The Netherlands, South Korea
Pool C: (Puerto Rico, March 7-10): Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Spain, Venezuela
Pool D: (U.S., March 7-10): Canada, Italy, Mexico, United States
The top two teams in each pool advance into the second round. Pool A & B winners will play in Japan (March 8-12), while Pool C & D winners will play in Miami (March 12-16). Those will be modified double-elimination tournaments. The single-elimination semifinals and finals will take place in San Francisco (March 17-19).
The two-time defending WBC champs will go it without a single MLB player this time, as talents such as Ichiro Suzuki, Yu Darvish and Hiroki Kuroda are remaining with their U.S. squads. Still, Japan does have one former major leaguer on the roster: infielder Kaz Matsui.
Strengths: A pitching staff full of guys with varied arsenals and deliveries that U.S., Cuban and Dominican hitters will be seeing for the first time. Also, Japan’s team has been training together and is closer to being regular-season ready than the teams comprised of MLB players.
Weaknesses: After two years of playing with a deadened ball in the Central and Pacific Leagues, how will Japanese players adjust to the standardized WBC baseball? Apart from catcher Shinnosuke Abe, Japan’s lineup probably won’t feature much power.
The United States didn’t even reach the finals in either of the first two WBCs. This year’s squad is lacking a lot of top talent, particularly in the rotation with only R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Vogelsong, Derek Holland and Ross Detwiler available to start.
Strengths: The lineup will be very solid from top to bottom, and with Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton and David Wright in the middle, it should particularly feast on any left-handers opposing teams dare to throw. Also, the back end of the bullpen has Chris Perez, Glen Perkins, Vinnie Pestano and likely closer Craig Kimbrel to finish off any leads.
Weaknesses: The rotation is the great unknown, particularly since there’s going to be very little feel for how each pitcher is throwing this early in the spring. It’s imperative that manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Greg Maddux identify quickly who has it and who to bury.
Like the U.S., the Dominican Republic’s best WBC finish so far is fourth. But while Team USA’s showing isn’t going to get a whole lot of attention at home, the Dominican team is under plenty of pressure to do better this time. One big problem: Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista and David Ortiz are all coming off injuries and are unavailable to manager Tony Pena.
Strengths: Even without Pujols, the D.R. still has the tourney’s best infield, with Edwin Encarnacion at first, Robinson Cano at second, Hanley Ramirez at third and Jose Reyes at shortstop. Also, the catching situation, which has tended to be a weakness in the past, has been upgraded by Carlos Santana‘s emergence.
Weaknesses: The rotation is led by Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez, with little depth beyond them. Also, Bautista is simply a huge loss for the outfield, which may start Ricardo Nanita or Moises Sierra in left alongside Alejandro De Aza in center and Nelson Cruz in right.
It’d hardly be a surprise if Venezuela ends up outlasting the U.S. and D.R. The well-balanced team has quality major leaguers filling every lineup spot and Anibal Sanchez to lead the rotation.
Weaknesses: The bullpen could largely hinge on Francisco Rodriguez closing out games, a scary proposition given the way he finished 2012. After Sanchez, there aren’t any sure things for rotation possibilities (Carlos Zambrano, Jhoulys Chacin, Henderson Alvarez).
Cuba couldn’t have been thrilled to be put in Japan’s opening pool after being eliminated by the team in the 2006 Finals and in round 2 in 2009. A win over Japan in pool play might provide a huge shot of confidence this time around.
Strengths: The lineup duo of Yulieski Gourriel and Alfredo Despaigne is about as good as any other country’s top two. That there isn’t much in the way of scouting reports or video of many of the team’s hurlers figures to serve Cuba well. And then there’s the obvious plus: Cuba’s players are in prime shape after playing all winter.
Weaknesses: A lack of depth has sometimes been Cuba’s undoing in tournaments, as the top-shelf talent tends to drop off quickly. While Ismel Jimenez and Odrisamer Despaigne are pitchers to watch, the more veteran hurlers aren’t particularly imposing.
Korea finished third in the inaugural WBC and second in 2009, winning the 2008 Olympic tournament in between. Veterans of those teams like Seung Yeop Lee and Dae Ho Lee are back for another go. In fact, it’s veterans all around: 12 players on the squad are at least 30 and the youngest player on the roster turns 25 next month.
Strengths: Korea has managed to integrate Japan’s successful small-ball approach with more pop in international play, and this year’s roster will feature a bunch of quality arms, some with unusual deliveries. The infield should be terrific thanks to both Lees, Tae-Kyun Kim and Jung-Ho Kang.
Going strictly by talent, Pools B and D will be pretty wide open for the second berths. My pick is Taiwan for second place in Pool B and Mexico for second place in Pool D.
While it’d be quite an upset if any of the six favorites failed to advance to the final eight, three-game round-robins don’t always end well for the most talented teams. It’s not at all difficult to imagine a scenario in which Team USA, Canada and Mexico all beat Italy and go 2-1 in Pool D, with a tiebreaker determining which two advance.
As for a prediction, I’m thinking the North American teams are in better shape this year that they have been in the past. The MLB talent drain has left Japan’s roster a bit light, and while I’m a big Korea booster, I suspect this isn’t as good of a roster as the team I fell for in the 2008 Olympics. Team USA has a shot, but that the players still aren’t in regular-season form is a big handicap. I’m picking Venezuela to beat Japan in the finals.
Apr 17, 2014, 2:21 AM EDT
Notes from a wild game in Chicago.
Apr 16, 2014, 11:32 PM EDT
The Diamondbacks lost another game to the Mets on Wednesday afternoon and are now 4-14 on the season with by far the worst run differential (-48) in the major leagues. But the manager and GM are not on the hot seat … yet.
Apr 16, 2014, 10:25 PM EDT
Dontrelle Willis signed a minor league contract with the Giants in January and was officially added to the roster at Triple-A Fresno on April 12. But the veteran left-hander didn’t even last a week there.
Apr 16, 2014, 9:39 PM EDT
Astros outfield prospect George Springer grounded out sharply to shortstop in his first major league at-bat on Wednesday night. In his second trip to the plate, he made it to first base …
Apr 16, 2014, 8:54 PM EDT
Josh Hamilton is likely to be sidelined through most of May with a complete tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb and now beat writer Jeff Fletcher at the Orange County Register reports that Kole Calhoun will miss the next 4-6 weeks with what Angels manager Mike Scioscia called a “bad ligament sprain” in his right ankle.
Apr 16, 2014, 8:01 PM EDT
Mariners right-hander Taijuan Walker had to be scratched from what was supposed to be his final minor league rehab start Tuesday at Triple-A Tacoma and he headed to Seattle on Wednesday for tests. The MRI results are in.
Apr 16, 2014, 7:13 PM EDT
Braves closer Craig Kimbrel was unavailable to pitch on Monday because of soreness in his right shoulder. But it’s apparently only a minor issue and he expects to be fine going forward.
Apr 16, 2014, 6:35 PM EDT
From James Wagner of the Washington Post comes word that Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper has been scratched from the club’s starting lineup on Wednesday night against the Marlins because of tightness in his left quadriceps muscle.
Apr 16, 2014, 6:11 PM EDT
Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia is back in the starting lineup for Wednesday’s game against the White Sox after getting a cortisone shot Monday for the inflammation in his left wrist.
Apr 16, 2014, 5:04 PM EDT
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Apr 16, 2014, 4:16 PM EDT
Cardinals right-hander Joe Kelly left today’s start against the Brewers after tweaking his hamstring trying to beat out an infield single in the sixth inning.
Apr 16, 2014, 3:59 PM EDT
That’s 28 strikeouts in his first three big league starts.
Apr 16, 2014, 3:34 PM EDT
Cueto set a career high for strikeouts as he tossed his third career shutout
Apr 16, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
Completion is set for February 2017
Apr 16, 2014, 2:44 PM EDT
Pirates outfielder Jose Tabata just made a great catch to rob Brayan Pena of an extra-base hit, but unfortunately he slammed into an unpadded portion of the wall in Cincinnati and had to leave the game.
Apr 16, 2014, 2:33 PM EDT
You can spend all you want on a 30 year-old free agent, but be careful how much you spend on an 16-year-old prospect.
Apr 16, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT
The two most dominant pitchers in the AL face off tonight. Given their ages, their contract status and their presence in the same division, expect this to grow into a wonderful rivalry over the coming years.
Apr 16, 2014, 1:33 PM EDT
The Dodgers have an embarrassment of outfield riches.
Apr 16, 2014, 12:38 PM EDT
I don’t know the real Brian Wilson, but even if this isn’t it, remember: we are what we pretend to be.
Apr 16, 2014, 12:16 PM EDT
Nick Franklin lost his job to Robinson Cano, but now he’s headed back to Seattle.
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