USA. Canada. Mexico. Italy. Those are the four teams in the D Pool of the World Baseball Classic.
Go below the jump for the preview:
About the Venue: There are two venues in this pool: Chase Field and Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.
Chase Field, of course, is the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, first opened in 1998 as Bank One Ballpark. It holds over 38,000 spectators and has a retractable roof as well as a pool.
Salt River Fields is a complex opened in 2009 on land belonging to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and hosts the spring training of the Diamondbacks and Rockies. With a capacity of around 11,000, it will host two games (both involving Italy) early in the round.
About the Pool: This is the pool that will get the most attention in the American media, since Team USA is playing in it. Besides that, though, there are plenty of other storylines: Italy knocked out Canada in 2009, for example, and Canada no doubt wants some revenge. Mexico will be playing after the end of a dispute that put the participation of Mexican League players in doubt. It should be an interesting pool, and with three worthy teams and a potential upset candidate with Italy all vying for just two spots, it could get crazy.
United States of America:
About the Country: …Seriously? Do I have to do an “about the country” for the USA? Look at your history books or something. Okay, fine: Declaring independence from Great Britain in 1776, the United States of America has grown from a 13-state experiment in Republican Democracy to a 50-state union that is a global power (in some cases the global power) in economics, politics, science, technology, military, sports and entertainment, amongst other areas.
Baseball history: The history of American baseball is, more or less, the history of baseball. While it is no longer the most popular sport as far as TV ratings or public-opinion polls go, it’s cultural impact in American history and it’s yearly attendance (more people attend MLB games than the other three major sports leagues combined, although admittedly MLB seasons are longer) remain unchallenged.
America’s baseball league: Major League Baseball and it’s many affiliates. Perhaps you have heard of them. There are also the Independent Leagues, Collegiate Summer Leagues, College baseball…
American MLB players: The number of American players in Major League Baseball is so large I’m not even going to look it up. Team USA is the lone team in the tournament made up entirely of MLB players.
Notable names: It may not be the dream team that MLB and some commentators had hoped for, but this is still a team with some of the most notable names in baseball. Still, none are as notable as the name of their manager: Joe Torre. Another notable name is the pitching coach, Greg Maddux.
Highest achievers: Team USA features three MVPs (Joe Mauer, Ryan Braun, Jimmy Rollins), a reigning Cy Young winner (R.A. Dickey), and countless other All-Stars, most notably Giancarlo Stanton and Adam Jones.
On paper, Team USA should win this pool and this tournament. But that was true for the past two WBCs as well. America’s best strength is depth and well-roundedness: while some teams may have better starting pitching, or a better bullpen, or be faster on the basepaths or more likely to make contact at the plate, Team USA is one of the few teams that is good at all of them. However, just like in 2006 and 2009, Team USA remains vulnerable due to conditioning (especially compared to the Asian sides) and the fickle nature of tournament baseball, where running into one good pitcher or one small slump can spell doom for even the mightiest of teams.
About the Country: Gaining recognized independence in 1821 (11 years after it was declared), Mexico is built where the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs once lived. Mexico is home to a rapidly-modernizing economy, the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere (Mexico City, narrowly beating out New York), and was the first Latin American host of an Olympics (1968, in Mexico City).
Baseball history: Although it is not nearly as popular in Mexico as futbol, baseball still holds a long and storied history there, although nobody is quite sure how it was first introduced, although it is likely the Americans were involved in some way. Notable events in Mexico’s baseball history include the formation of the Mexican League in 1925, the back-to-back victories of a Monterrey team in the 1957 and 1958 Little League World Series, and Fernando Valenzuela‘s debut with the Dodgers in the early 1980s.
Mexico’s baseball league: Mexico has two top-level leagues: the Mexican League that plays in the summer (and is classified as a AAA league by affiliated baseball), and the Mexican Pacific League, which plays during the winter and contributes it’s champion to the Caribbean Series.
Mexican MLB players: 114 Mexican-born players have spent at least a little bit of time in the Majors, and there have also been some who, while born in the USA, grew up in Mexico.
Valenzuela is a pitching coach for the team, but on the field there are some names you probably will recognize as well, most notably Adrian Gonzalez of the Dodgers, the de-facto team captain of the Mexican team. Yovani Gallardo and Sergio Romo are the two most notable pitchers.
Highest achievers: Besides the MLB players listed above as well as other such as Alfredo Aceves, Marco Estrada and Luis “Cochito” Cruz, the highest achievers on this team play in either Mexico or Japan, or are free agents such as former Tampa infielder Jorge Cantu. The most notable player from the Mexican League contingent is the immortal Karim Garcia, who hit .334 with 22 HRs last season. And yes, this is the same Karim Garcia who Pedro Martinez had his great quote on.
Outlook: Good, but no promises. Mexico is a good enough team to advance out of the pool, and on a good day could beat any team in the tournament if some breaks go their way. However, they are in a pool with two giants: USA and Canada. A win against either of them would likely ensure passage… but that is no easy task.
About the Country: The world’s second-largest country in land area, it’s border with the United States is the world’s longest. Among the things Canada has given the world over the years include the modern concept of peacekeeping forces, lacrosse, ice hockey, Blackberry, and, of course, William Shatner.
Baseball history: Canada’s history with baseball is almost as old as the game itself, with some evidence that they were playing a game called baseball – but not necessarily the baseball we know – as early as 1838, one of the earliest references to the sport. Throughout baseball’s history, there have been some Canadians playing it in America, although they did not begin arriving in large numbers until the past few decades. Professional Canadian teams have played against American ones since at least the 1870s, when a London, Ontario club played in the International Association (an early minor league), and clubs from Toronto and Montreal were mainstays of the International League before they gained Major League teams.
Canada’s baseball league: Canada doesn’t have a baseball league, instead being joined at the hip to America’s baseball system (MLB, the Minors, the Indy Leagues, etc.). However, there are some high-quality amateur and semi-pro leagues, such as the Intercounty League in Ontario.
Canadian MLB players: There have been 239 Canadian-born players in MLB history, and they have increased greatly in the past few decades. The greatest Canadian baseball player, however, likely remains Hall-Of-Famer Fergie Jenkins. At the plate, it’s likely Larry Walker, who will be a coach on Team Canada once again this WBC. Of course, it’s possible that Joey Votto and/or Justin Morneau could one day unseat Larry Walker’s spot as the greatest Canadian hitter…
Notable names: A bunch! Other than the starting pitchers, Russell Martin, Jason Bay (who is a shadow of his old self and is just fighting for a job) and maybe Joey Votto (as of this writing it’s still not official if he will super-absolutely-play), the Canadian contingent includes every good MLB player who is Canadian. Justin Morneau is there, Brett Lawrie is there, John Axford is there, etc.
Highest achievers: Besides the MLB players, the most accomplished players on the roster include Scott Mathieson (who has done very well overseas in Japan), Andrew Albers (who was the COPABE player of the year in 2011) and various other prospects. Personally, I’ll be keeping my eye on Jimmy Van Ostrand, who did very well in the Qualification round.
Much like Mexico, Canada is a team that can beat any other if they have a good day or get a few breaks. But, like Mexico, they are in a bracket with two giants. If they want any hope of advancing, they must beat one of them… which is easier said than done.
About the Country: In the centuries after the Roman Empire fell, the Italian Peninsula split into various city-states, and the peninsula would remain like that until it was more-or-less reunified in the 19th century (although to this day the small city-states of Vatican City and San Marino remain). After fighting for the Axis in WWII, Italy became a founding member of NATO and the European Union, and continues to hold a important part in global politics and economics.
Italy is one of the two traditional baseball powers of Europe, and first encountered the game during one of Spalding’s world tours, but it didn’t really gain anything like a foothold- despite some pockets of interest fostered by people who had visited America (most notably a man named Max Ott)- until the United States had gained a foothold of a different sort after the Anzio landings in early 1944. Anzio was a debacle, a long slow slog that saw thousands die on both sides and the initial American commander relieved of duty. As a sad side-effect of this, the Americans established a cemetery in the coastal town of Nettuno. Both during and after the war, it was the American troops in the region that spread baseball, first during downtime between battles and then while seeing to the upkeep of the cemetery. The game stuck with the locals, including a local Prince named Steno Borghese, who allowed a stadium for the game to be built on his land. To this day, Nettuno and the Anzio region is the main hub of Italian baseball. Because of the efforts of Ott, Borghese and various other boosters both Italian and America, baseball has kept a presence on the Italian Peninsula ever since.
Italy’s baseball league: The Italian Baseball League (formerly “Serie A1″), which is one of two premier baseball leagues in Europe, consists of eight teams. Unlike the league in the Netherlands, however, there is no promotion or relegation and the teams playing in it are more or less set in stone, although this is a recent development. Technically only seven of the teams are in Italy, as one of them is in the small country of San Marino. In fact, San Marino is the defending champion.
Italian MLB players: There have been seven Italian-born players to have spent at least a game in the big leagues, but until Alex Liddi made his debut in 2011, none of them had actually been born and raised in Italy. Liddi will be on the WBC team.
Notable names: Thanks again to the lax eligibility rules of the WBC, the Italians will have some Italian-American representatives, both in the dugout (Frank Catalanotto and Mike Piazza are among the coaches) and on the field of play, most notably with Pirates reliever Jason Grilli and youthful Cubs 1B Anthony Rizzo.
Highest achievers: Besides the MLB players (which also include Chris Denorfia, Nick Punto and Drew Butera), the highest-achieving name on the team is Alex Maestri, who went 4-3 with a 2.17 ERA with Orix in Japan last season.
A possible spoiler. It’s highly unlikely that Italy can get out of the pool, but they are a good enough team to take somebody down with them- much like they did to Canada in 2009.
This pool is tough to predict. One would think that Team USA would run the table, but if they screw up, things get very dangerous, with a good possibility of having three teams going 2-1 and the dreadful round-robin tie-breakers coming into effect, in which case I’d need a calculator to figure out who advances. But, what the heck, I’ll predict that Team USA comes out on top, with Team Canada edging Team Mexico in a slight upset (this is practically a coin-flip of a showdown), and Italy taking up the rear.