World Baseball Classic Qualifier Preview: New Taipei City (Taipei, Phillippines, Thailand, New Zealand)

The “Asian pool” of the World Baseball Classic qualifier takes place in Taipei, and the home team should be able to easily win it, and surely that is what the tournament’s organizers expect, since it has already been announced as a host for the WBC in the round of 16. The other three countries playing, while interesting, have nowhere near the pedigree that the Taiwanese have, nor- with the exception of the individual player here and there- the talent. In fact, the only reason the other three countries will have any chance whatsoever likely will be because of the so-called “passport players” that the lenient WBC eligibility rules will allow them to bolster their rosters with.
Head below the jump for a pool preview:

About the Venue: Xinzhuang Stadium was built in 1997 and has hosted some IBAF events in the past, as well as some CPBL teams.

About the pool: This pool is the Asian pool of the qualifiers, and it should be one that the host will win easily. Of these four teams, only Taipei has had a long history of international success and a professional league. If any team other than Taipei wins this, it will be a huge shock and a black mark upon the island’s baseball establishment, which has been having problems for years due to in-fighting and gambling scandals. That said, the other three teams due provide some things to watch: Thailand will have the half-Thai (on his mother’s side) Johnny Damon perhaps playing his final games of competitive ball, the Philippines will have some minor leaguers and collegiates on their team and New Zealand- where baseball is the fastest-growing sport- will be making it’s big debut. However, they will all likely be cannon fodder to the host country.

Chinese Taipei

About the country: In the late 1940s, after decades of Civil War (interrupted only for WWII), the Communists drove the Republic of China off the mainland, forcing them to flee to the island of Taiwan. Since then, the two Chinas have nervously eyed each other across the Strait of Taiwan, one of the few flashpoints left from the Cold War. Although the two have become increasingly linked economically, the unique political situation that exists means Taiwan is usually represented internationally under the name “Chinese Taipei”, including in sports competitions.

Baseball history: Baseball first came to Taiwan because of the Japanese occupied the island until the end of WWII, and it’s popularity came because it provided the island’s natives one of the few ways of beating their colonial occupiers. It has remained a vital part of Taiwan’s heritage since then, and the success of their Little League World Series teams are so respected that they have at times been depicted on their money. However, baseball has been under siege in recent decades due to gambling scandals and bad management by the sport’s leaders. While it remains by far the most popular sport in Taipei, it’s future, at least financially, is increasingly on unstable ground.

Taipei’s Baseball League: The Chinese Professional Baseball League, or CPBL. It is made up of four teams but has at times had more. The most recent champion is the Lamigo Monkeys.

Taiwanese MLB Players: While Taiwan has contributed several MLB players over the years- most notably Chien-Ming Wang and Wei-Yin Chen- none of them will be playing for the team this year. Wang has said he would be interested in pitching for them if they qualify, while Chen is taking time to spend with his family (his wife recently gave birth).

Notable Names: That said, however, there are some names that people in North America might recognize. Right-hander Hung-Wen Chen played in the Cubs organization until 2011, and Wang Yao-Lin, another RHP, was pitching for Peoria in the Cubs organization this season.

Highest Achievers: There are four players who are active in NPB- RHP Kai-Wen Cheng has had several short spells with Hanshin, infielder Bin-Yen Lee had a cup of coffee in Fukuoka this past season, Yi-Hao Lin had played for Yomiuri briefly in 2010 and might still be in their system, and Yao-Hsun Ling, a LHP, played nine games and started seven for Fukuoka this season. SS Lin Chih-Seng led the CPBL in home runs this season.

Outlook:
Excellent. Again, the organizers have scheduled a round one group of the WBC to be in Taipei next year, and it isn’t a dangerous assumption. Team Chinese Taipei should very easily win this group, and anything less could be a calamity for the CPBL and the rest of Taiwan’s baseball establishment.

The Philippines

About the country: The 12th most populous country in the world, the Philippines became completely independent in 1946, having been ruled to various degrees by (in order) the Spanish, the USA, Japan and then (briefly) the USA again.

Baseball history: Not surprisingly, the Filipinos were first exposed to baseball because of America, which gained control of the archipelago after the Spanish-American War. The Rizal Memorial Baseball Stadium, built in 1934, is one of the oldest baseball stadiums in the world that is still standing, and was visited by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in December of that year. The Philippines has seemingly always been on the radar of baseball, but has never really been a “baseball country”.

The Philippines’ Baseball League:
Baseball Philippines, formed in 2007, is the top organized circuit of Filipino Baseball. Almost games are played in the aforementioned Rizal Stadium.

Filipino MLB Players: Players like Tim Lincecum and Clay Rapada are of Filipino descent, but the only MLB player who was actually born in the Philippines is Bobby Chouinard, who played from 1996 to 2001. None of them will be playing for the Filipino team.

Notable Names: However, the Philippines will have at least one MLB player of Filipino descent playing for them: Geno Espineli had a cup of coffee with the Giants in 2008.

Highest Achievers: In addition to Espineli, there are three other Filipino-Americans who are in affiliated baseball, although none of them are above A-ball: Leighton Pangilinan, Ryan Pineda, and Chad Nacapoy.

Outlook:
Not good. The crop of passport players is nothing to write home about, and the players from the domestic league are total unknowns, and I have to say that I they probably will be out of their element, at least against the Taiwanese.

New Zealand

About the country: Just east of Australia, New Zealand is perhaps now best known to Americans for being the filming location of the Lord of the Rings movies. However, this overshadows more notable achievements, such as the fact that it was the first nation to give the right to vote to women, as well as the bravery exhibited by New Zealander troops in the World Wars, often fighting alongside their Australian neighbors. The capital of New Zealand is Wellington.

Baseball history: Introduced to baseball by Albert Spalding, the Kiwis have only played it “sporadically” since then, although softball has been rather popular.  However, since 2010 the number of people playing baseball in New Zealand has gone from 900 to 6000, making it the fastest growing sport in that country. And it’s even touched the highest level of Kiwi political power, as earlier this year, the Prime Minister of New Zealand visited the USA to watch his son play in the Senior League World Series.

New Zealand’s Baseball League: No professional league- although there is some talk that they may one day have a team in Australia’s league. Instead, there are smaller amateur club teams dotting the landscape.

New Zealander MLB Players: There have been no New Zealand-born players to make it to the majors.

Notable Names:
Andy Skeels, the first New Zealand-born player to ever play in professional baseball (although he grew up in America), will be the teams manager. He normally manages the A-Ball San Jose Giants. Former MLB players like Jay Bell, Steve Kline, Chris Woodward and Darrell Evans will be coaches, although they aren’t actually from New Zealand.

Highest Achievers:
The highest a NZ-born player has ever made it was AAA. That player was infielder Scott Campbell, who made it there with the Toronto organization in 2009 before injuries ended his ability to play baseball on a everyday basis. However, Campbell will be able to play for Team NZ (aka “The Diamondblacks”- a reference to the “All Blacks”, the name for the country’s elite rugby national team). There are three players who were active in affiliated ball this past season, as well as a handful of players- some of them “passport players”- from the Australian baseball system.

Outlook: Okay. New Zealand is a nice mix of minor leaguers and passport players, but they are just too inexperienced to go toe-to-toe with the Taiwanese and may have trouble against the Filipinos. But this is baseball, so you never know.

Thailand:

About the country: A constitutional monarchy located in Indochina, Thailand was once known as Siam until the late 1930s. The capital of Thailand is Bangkok.

Baseball history: The Thai baseball association was formed in 1992, but despite the young age of the program, they have had some success in regional competition, including a bronze-medal appearance in the 2005 Southeast Asian Games.

Thailand’s Baseball League: There is little on Thailand’s baseball structure, but from what little can be found, it seems to be a strictly amateur organization.

Thai MLB Players: Johnny Damon is half-Thai, as his mother was from there, and the 39-year-old veteran has volunteered to help the team in these qualifiers. Damon is currently a free agent, so this may well be his final hurrah.

Notable Names: The Thais are entirely obscure, save for Damon. Baseball America lists three of their players as playing in relatively competitive student baseball: Nathan Lorentz has played at a private school for American expats in Japan, and the Daru brothers of John and Joe have played in Division II and a Florida-based athletic academy, respectively.

Highest Achievers: Damon, obviously.

Outlook: Very bad. They should be commended for only having a few passport players- most notably Damon- but they probably will be cannon-fodder against the competition they will be facing in Taipei. Their only hope is that Johnny Damon can go bonkers and the pitching is able to hold whatever lead he gives them.

Pool Outlook:
Taipei should win this one in a walk, but if any team has a shot at taking them down, it’d probably be New Zealand, with the Philippines perhaps having a chance as well. Thailand will probably go two and out.

Come back tomorrow for a preview of the Panama pool!

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