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.
May 22, 2015, 11:59 PM EDT
Mike Trout is pretty good at this baseball thing.
May 22, 2015, 11:40 PM EDT
Bad news for the reeling Marlins: starters Mat Latos and Henderson Alvarez both will take at least a couple of weeks off due to injuries.
May 22, 2015, 11:05 PM EDT
Ichiro Suzuki may be close to the end of a brilliant career, but he’s not done moving up baseball’s all-time leaderboards.
May 22, 2015, 10:25 PM EDT
Nelson Cruz kept pace with Bryce Harper, taking back the MLB lead in home runs shortly after losing it.
May 22, 2015, 9:35 PM EDT
Stephen Vogt has been baseball’s best-hitting catcher and GM Billy Beane plans to hold onto him.
May 22, 2015, 8:40 PM EDT
Athletes aren’t born with an ability to speak with the media. We got a look into a media coaching session between Athletics closer Sean Doolittle and girlfriend Eireann Dolan.
May 22, 2015, 7:51 PM EDT
The Dodgers added some pitching depth on Friday, acquiring pitcher Eric Surkamp from the White Sox.
May 22, 2015, 7:45 PM EDT
The White Sox are managing Carlos Rodon’s workload so they pushed the lefty’s start back from Monday.
May 22, 2015, 6:55 PM EDT
Coco Crisp will go back on the disabled list, but has chosen against having career-ending surgery.
May 22, 2015, 6:05 PM EDT
The Mets appear to be heading towards using a six-man rotation after Dillon Gee returns on Saturday.
May 22, 2015, 4:47 PM EDT
The Yankees firmly believe that the only people allowed to disparage Alex Rodriguez are the Yankees.
May 22, 2015, 3:45 PM EDT
Castillo is starting tonight in right field.
May 22, 2015, 2:50 PM EDT
Janssen was signed for $5 million to replace Tyler Clippard as the Nationals’ primary setup man.
May 22, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT
When I see you smile, Barry, I can face the world. You know I can do anything. When I see you smile, I see a ray of light.
May 22, 2015, 2:21 PM EDT
21-year-old right-hander Norge Ruiz.
May 22, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT
But Major League Baseball’s silliness about these kinds of infractions, however, will continue on unabated.
Quote of the Day: Freddie Freeman inadvertently illustrates the silliness of the foreign substance rules
May 22, 2015, 11:03 AM EDT
Paraphrased: “Smith should be way less obvious about the fact that he’s trying to keep us safe!”
May 22, 2015, 10:47 AM EDT
Travis has been a huge bright spot for Toronto this season.
May 22, 2015, 10:30 AM EDT
At least that’s what Molly Knight reports from Japan, and I’m inclined to agree.
May 22, 2015, 10:15 AM EDT
Mujica actually managed to pick up the ball and make a throw to first base for the out.
- Video: Mike Trout makes a ridiculous slide to beat the tag at third base 2
- Cuba’s best pitching prospect is on his way to America 20
- Will Smith suspended for eight games for the foreign substance on his arm 61
- Will Smith’s ejection once again shows baseball’s silly approach to foreign substance rules 48
- And That Happened: Thursday’s scores and highlights 95
- Who really owns a home run ball? 65
- The story behind the Nationals squirting chocolate syrup on each other after big wins 43
- And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights 131
- And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights (131)
- Bryce Harper on Marvin Hudson ejection: “I don’t think 40,000 people came to watch him ump” (130)
- Bryce Harper ejected for second time in a week (122)
- GM Dan Jennings to be named the Marlins new manager. And it’s a terrible idea. (111)
- And That Happened: Tuesday’s scores and highlights (101)