World Baseball Classic Qualifier Preview: Panama City (Panama, Brazil, Nicaragua, Colombia)

It’s time for more qualifiers for the World Baseball Classic, as pools in Taipei and Panama are about to get started on November 15 (although, technically, the first game of the Taipei bracket will be on November 14 on the East Coast of the USA, thanks to time differences). These pools will be different from the two earlier brackets in Florida and Germany for a major reason: there will be MLB players in these qualifiers. They won’t be a majority of them (after all, there is a reason why these teams have to qualify to begin with), but there will be some, particularly at the plate (some pitchers won’t be available because, well, their arms hurt after a season of throwing).

The more interesting of the two, and the most interesting of the four qualifiers period, will be the one in Panama City. Go below the jump for my preview of that one:

About the Venue: Rod Carew Stadium, not surprisingly, is named for Rod Carew, the greatest ballplayer ever born in Panama (apologies to Mariano Rivera). It has recently gone through a renovation and holds about 27,000 fans. It hosted the 2011 IBAF World Cup and has symmetrical dimensions.

About the Pool: It is said that the hardest pool in a tournament is a “group of death”, where there is no margin of error and even a strong competitor will end up being eliminated. The Panama City pool is the WBC Qualifier’s group of death. All four of the teams that will be playing had at least one player in the majors this past season, and three of them had multiple players in the bigs. Panama, Colombia and Nicaragua all have very good chances to advance, and Brazil, while unlikely to win a game, is probably the best “worst” team in the WBC qualifiers.

Panama:

About the country: Perhaps no other country is more defined in the world’s mind by a work of engineering as Panama is: the Panama Canal is the first thing a person thinks of when one thinks of the country, the southernmost in Central America. This is with good reason, as the Canal was in some ways the reason Panama exists as an independent nation: the United States aided the country’s secession from Colombia in the early 1900s in exchange for the right to build and then control the Canal (the Canal has been back under Panamanian control since the turn of the 21st century). The capitol of Panama is… Panama City.

Baseball history: Baseball came to Panama during the construction of the canal, and it has been a staple of Panamanian culture since. Some of the first Central/South American stars in MLB history, such as Omar Moreno, Manny Sanguillen and, above all, Rod Carew, were born in Panama. While Panama’s baseball establishment had it’s problems since the 1970s, it still has produced a certain right-handed reliever named Mariano Rivera.

Panama’s baseball league: Panama’s baseball establishment has had periods of mismanagement, poor infrastructure, and money problems, and at present there is no formal professional league, although there have been some in the past.

Panamanian MLB players: There were eight players in MLB this season who came from Panama, and around 50 in history have been in born in either Panama or the Canal Zone.

Notable names: The Major Leaguers taking part for Team Panama at the tournament include Carlos Lee, Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz, the Mets’ Ruben Tejada, Manny Corpas, Manny Acosta, as well as former big-leaguer Ruben Rivera.

Highest achievers: Besides the aforementioned MLBers, Paolo Espino of the Indians organization is somebody to watch. He did well in the minors this season, going 7-4 between AA and AAA with a 3.29 ERA.

Outlook: Bright. While in this pool there is no real favorite, Panama is likely the closest thing that it has to one, thanks to home field advantage and the fact they have almost all of their MLB players with them- only Mariano Rivera and the starting pitchers (Bruce Chen and Randall Delgado) are missing.

Brazil:

About the country: The largest economy of South America and the host of the 2016 Olympics, Brazil is also notable for being the only country in the hemisphere that speaks Portuguese, as well as it’s great soccer tradition.

Baseball history: Brazil’s baseball heritage is, unique amongst the Western Hemisphere, because of Japan, not America. Brazil has a long history of Japanese immigrants, and they brought their love of baseball with them. In addition, Cuban coaches often hold clinics and provide aid to Brazil- Yan Gomes, the first Brazilian MLB player, got into the game because his father was a friend with a Cuban baseball coach.

Brazil’s baseball league: No professional league, instead Brazil’s baseball competitions are run by amateur organizations and academies.

Brazilian MLB players:Gomes, formerly of the Blue Jays and now a member of the Indians, and Brazil’s first and only MLB ballplayer, is on the team.

Notable names: Managing the Brazilians is HOFer Barry Larkin, a frequent ambassador for the game who has been brought in to skipper Brazil in the WBC.

Highest achievers: Besides Gomes, there are several players with experience in the minors or in Japan. Andrew Rienzo is in the high-minors for the White Sox, and was pitching in the Arizona Fall League before he left to join the national team. Daniel Yuichi Matsumoto has been a platoon first-basemen with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of the NPB for awhile, and is the most notable of the many Japanese-Brazilians on the team.

Outlook: Not so good. While Brazil is by far the best of the “worst” teams in the WBC qualifiers, they are in a bad division as far as advancing, facing far more advanced baseball powers who will have far more experienced players. However, this is baseball, and Brazil is good enough where, if everything were to go right, they could beat any team in this pool.

Nicaragua:

About the country: Nicaragua has had a volatile, complicated and often violent history, so it’s often forgotten that it once was the first choice for the canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The plan was abandoned for the Panama option -and I’m not making this up- because the American politicians who were planning the canal saw postage stamps from Nicaragua that featured a volcano erupting. Nicaragua today is a leftist-leaning presidential republic based out of the capital city of Managua.

Baseball history:
It’s complicated, so I’ll quote Callum Hughson on this:

Baseball was introduced to Nicaraguans in a bit of a roundabout way.  An American businessman named Albert Addlesberg convinced two cricket teams made up of ex-pat British players to switch to the game of baseball.  He imported all of the needed equipment from his home in New Orleans.  As the popularity of the sport began to grow, new teams began to form and those new teams required new players.  As a result, the native Nicaraguans were invited to join and try their hand at baseball.  At that moment, the flame of Nicaragua’s national passion was ignited.

Nicaragua’s baseball league: Nicaragua has a small professional league, but baseball is primarily an amateur sport there.

Nicaraguan MLB players:
12 MLB players have been born in Nicaragua, most notably El Presidente himself, Dennis Martinez…

Notable names:
… who will be managing the Nicaraguan team at the WBC! In addition, MLB players Everth Cabrera and Erasmo Ramirez are on the team.

Highest achievers:
The rest of the roster is filled with minor leaguers and players from Nicaragua’s domestic league. The most notable among them, according to Baseball America, are Cheslor Cuthbert of the Royals organization and Juan C. Ramirez from the Phillies organization.

Outlook:
Okay. They lack the depth and MLB experience that Panama and Colombia have, but it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if they were to make it out of the pool.

Colombia

About the country: Named after Christopher Columbus, Colombia has had to and continues to deal with drug lords, insurgent guerillas and general crime over the years. Thankfully, however, violence has been decreasing since 2002, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Baseball history: Although soccer is the more popular sport there, baseball is quite popular in the northern areas of the country, which borders the Caribbean.

Colombia’s baseball league: Colombia has a professional league in the winter- rain permitting- that is primarily funded by Colombians who are or were in the Majors. Edgar Renteria, for example, is a major champion for Colombian baseball.

Colombian MLB players: 13 MLB players in history were born in Colombia.

Notable names:  Edgar Renteria, the now-retired shortstop and one of the great October heroes of recent memory, is coming out of retirement for the WBC. Joining him are other players with MLB experience, including the Solano brothers (Donovan is a infielder with the Miami Marlins, Jhonathan is a catcher who had a cup of coffee with the Nationals this season), Colombian-American Luis Martinez (a catcher who spent some time with the Rangers in 2012) and Jolbert Cabrera, a super-utility who played parts of 8 years in the big leagues.

Highest achievers: Besides the MLB players, some names of note include “Sugar” Ray Marimon- who is the lone pitcher on the team who has gotten above A-Ball- and Luis Sierra, a long-time utility farmhand in the White Sox organization.

Outlook:
Pretty good. Of the teams involved, Colombia is second only to Panama in the amount of MLB experience they are bringing. However, pitching is a concern, and the fact that players like Vicente Padilla, Ernesto Frieri and Jose Quintana couldn’t take part could hurt them.

Pool outlook:
This is the hardest pool to predict. All four teams could, on a good day, beat any of the other three teams. Yes, even Brazil could do some damage on a good day. However, I feel Panama has to have the edge here, with Colombia being their greatest threat and with Nicaragua and then Brazil taking up the rear.

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