Pool C is sure to be an interesting pool, with three big baseball countries that have plenty of history against each other as well as a Spanish team that will be able to call on some ringers that could make things interesting.
Go below the jump for the whole preview.
About the Venue: Named for the first Puerto Rican to play in the big leagues, Hiram Bithorn Stadium holds about 18,000 fans and was built in 1962. It has hosted Major League Baseball games- most notably when the Montreal Expos played some of their “home” games there- and is one of only two stadiums (the other being the Tokyo Dome) to have been slated to host games in the first three WBCs.
About the Pool: If there is such thing as a “Pool of Death” in the WBC, it is this one. Puerto Rico, the Dominican and Venezuela are three of the largest baseball countries there are, and Spain, although likely to go 0-3, will still have plenty of ringers of Spanish descent that could provide them a chance to keep games competitive. There will be very little margin of error for any team.
About the Country: An unincorporated territory or “Commonwealth” of the United States (which gained the island after the Spanish-American War), Puerto Rico’s residents are US Citizens but do not have voting representatives in Congress and are also unable to vote in presidential elections (although they are able to vote in party primaries). The status of Puerto Rico is something of a question mark, with some Puerto Ricans wanting to become the 51st state, others wanting full independence, and others wanting to maintain something like the status quo. Fun fact- In English, Puerto Rico’s name is “Rich Port”.
Baseball was introduced to the Puerto Ricans by Cubans before the Spanish-American War, and it was nurtured as the United States took over the Island after the war, receiving more attention as traveling teams from the Majors, Negro Leagues and Cuban Leagues came there. First a semi-pro and then a professional league was formed, and Puerto Rico became a baseball hotbed producing some of the baseball’s earliest Latino stars, chief among them Roberto Clemente, who remains a hero and icon to the people of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico’s baseball league: Puerto Rico’s top baseball league is the Liga de Beisbol Professional Roberto Clemente. Yeah, they love Roberto Clemente so much they (re)named the league after him. Sadly, this winter league has had trouble since Puerto Rican players joined the MLB draft pool, and at one point was even suspended for a season due to poor attendance and profits. It seems to be in okay shape now, as the champions of the Puerto Rican league have once again been playing in the Caribbean Series for the last several years.
Puerto Rican MLB players: There have been 234 Puerto-Rican born MLB players in history, with three of them in the Hall of Fame: Roberto Alomar, Orlando Cepeda, and, of course, the great Clemente. It wouldn’t be surprising if Ivan Rodriguez one day joins them. Amongst active players, the names that stand out are Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina, both of whom are on the roster.
Highest achievers: The highest achievers are also the most notable names… which could mean trouble for the pitching staff, which lost it’s top pitcher Javier Vazquez (who was trying to do a comeback) to injury. The other major league pitchers on the roster are all relievers, such as Xavier Cedeno. The top pitchers are thus Orlando Roman and Carlos Alvarado, both of whom pitch in Japan, and Hiram Burgos, a prospect for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Could be worse, but could be better. On paper, the Puerto Ricans are likely third in this pool, but it’s close- they can beat any team here on a good day. Whether they will advance will depend on whether those good days come against Venezuela and/or the Dominican.
About the Country: Venezuela was one of the first South American countries to become independent from Spain, the fact that Simón Bolívar- the founding father of South American Independence- came from Caracas remains a matter of great pride to Venezuelans. Venezuela is currently under the leadership of flamboyant leftist president Hugo Chavez (at least, when he is not in the hospital as he fights disease). Fun fact- Venezuela has some of the largest oil reserves in the world.
Baseball history: Baseball came to Venezuela in the late 19th century, introduced by Venezuelan students who had been studying abroad as well as workers from America and Caribbean nations where the game was already popular. It’s popularity has been growing ever since, and is now a staple of the country’s culture and a source of great national pride.
Venezuela’s baseball league: Although there is a summer league primarily for MLB prospects, in general the big league for Venezuela is the winter Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, which is part of the Caribbean Series alliance.
Venezuelan MLB players: 286 Venezuela-born players have spent at least one game in the big leagues (and one, Luis Aparicio, is a Hall-of-Famer), and a lot of their current stars are on the WBC team. In fact, off the top of my head it might be easier to list the top Venezuelan players who aren’t going to be at the WBC: Felix Hernandez (who dropped out during his contract negotiations with the Mariners), Johan Santana (who the Mets kept out), Jose Altuve (with Marco Scutaro and Omar Infante in he was the odd man out) and Victor Martinez (missed all of last season).
Notable names: Outside of Team USA and perhaps the Dominican Republic (and given the absences the Dominican has, I’m not so sure), this probably is the most recognizable team to western eyes. Miguel Cabrera? Check. Pablo Sandoval? Yes. Carlos Gonzalez? Yep. Asdrubal Cabrera? Correct. Marco Scutaro? Yeah, he’s there too. And those are just the top five that jump out to me.
Highest achievers: Miguel Cabrera is perhaps the highest of achievers in this tournament. On the mound, it’s less impressive, but Anibal Sanchez still has a no-hitter and nearly 50 MLB wins to his names, and Carlos Zambrano still can do well on his good days. Francisco Rodriguez had a rough 2012, but if he becomes the K-Rod of old then Venezuela will have one of the best relievers in the tournament. But that is a very big if.
If there’s is anything close to a “favorite” in this crazy pool, it’s Venezuela. In fact, Venezuela should probably be considered one of the favorites in the tournament. But there are two possible pitfalls that could trip up the Venezuelans. The first is pitching: without King Felix or Johan Santana, their rotation is hardly elite (although the same could be said for the other rotations in the pool). The second is that it’s baseball, and they are in a pool that is going to be very unforgiving- only Spain is close to being a guaranteed win in this pool.
About the Country: Taking up the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola (the rest of the island is Haiti), the Dominican Republic was visited by Christopher Columbus during his 1492 voyages, and it’s capitol of Santo Domingo is the oldest permanent western settlement in the Americas. Having gained independence in the 19th century and moved towards democracy during the 20th, it beame fully democratic during the second half of the century, although problems with corruption and poverty continue to plague the nation. Fun fact- Pico Duarte, the Caribbean’s tallest mountain, is located in the Dominican Republic.
Baseball history: The Dominican Republic’s great passion was introduced to it by Cubans in the 1890s fleeing the civil war there. The rest is history, as the Dominican slowly but surely grew into the hotbed it is today. Baseball may be a pastime elsewhere, but in areas of the Dominican it is a way of life, with entire towns staking their futures on their top players.
Dominican Republic’s baseball league: Like Venezuela, there is a summer league for MLB prospects, but the big show is the winter league, the Dominican Professional Baseball League.
Dominican MLB players: 563 MLB players have been born in the Dominican Republic, producing one Hall of Famer so far- Juan Marichal. He is not going to be the last one.
Notable names: Albert Pujols isn’t there, Adrian Beltre won’t show up until the second round, and David Ortiz, Johnny Cueto and Jose Bautista are also missing. But, much like the United States, the depth of Dominican baseball means they still have plenty of notable names: Robinson Cano, for example, or Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Santana…
Highest achievers: The bullpen is a real strength for the Dominican. Fernando Rodney, for example, only had a 0.60 ERA last season! The road to Rodney (the Roadney?) is also excellent, with Ocatavio Dotel, Santiago Casilla, Jose Veras, Jose Valverde and Pedro Strop all in the pen as well.
Had the Dominicans not been hit by so many injuries and pull-outs, they would be second only to the United States as the WBC’s champion on paper. But you go to the World Baseball Classic with the team you have, not the team you want. So, the Dominican is going into this with a second-tier outfield (Nelson Cruz aside) and a starting rotation without an ace. Still… they are a good team, second in this pool to only the Venezuelans, and one of the favorites to win the whole thing. But, again, in this pool, there are no guarantees.
About the Country: Spain isn’t exactly a country that needs any introduction. The largest nation on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain once was a global empire, spreading it’s influence throughout the world, but especially in the Caribbean. Although it lost what little was left of it’s imperial might after losing the Spanish-American War, to this day Spain remains one of the world’s largest economies, although it, like other areas of Europe, has been caught in an economic crisis in recent years. Fun fact- Spain is the world’s largest producer of olives!
Baseball history: Spain’s original interactions with baseball were less than positive. After all, the Cubans who were trying to win independence from the Spanish were becoming increasingly enamored with the game, instead of such traditional Spanish sports such as bull-fighting. In fact, they even tried to ban the game, which of course only made the Cubans want to play it even more, simply to stick it to their Spanish overlords. Ironically, it would be the Cubans who would bring baseball back to the Iberian Peninsula, as immigrants from Cuba brought the sport back to the mother country. The country’s many soccer clubs took notice and began to field baseball teams. The article on Spanish baseball over at Mop-Up Duty even has a picture of a uniform used by a baseball team run by Real Madrid. However, by the 1970s the wide availability of soccer on TV doomed baseball to obscurity in Spain, with the exception of certain areas such as the Barcelona suburb of Viladecans, which hosted some of the baseball tournament at the 1992 Olympics. Although Spain is usually competitive in Europe’s baseball competition, this is mainly due to the use of immigrants from Caribbean countries- there aren’t many Spanish-born baseball players of note.
Spain’s baseball league: Spain’s top baseball competition is the Division De Honor, which Callum Hughson over at Mop-Up Duty estimates that the league is about the level of good DII NCAA teams, mainly because the pitching is lacking.
Spanish MLB players: There have been four MLB players born in Spain, although all of them moved away from the country at a young age.
Notable names: Thanks to the lenient eligibility rules, as well as the fact that Spain is home to many immigrants from baseball-playing countries, the Spanish roster is almost entirely foreign-born (there is only one Spain-born player- Indy Leaguer Eric Gonzalez). Major Leaguers (or players with MLB experience) who will represent Spain in the WBC are Rhiner Cruz and Barbaro Canizares,
Highest achievers: There are also some prospects who will be playing for Spain, most notably Engel Beltre of the Rangers organization, who has made it as high as AA.
Outlook: Not good. Even with all of their passport players, it’s unlikely they will win a game, although they should do well enough not to be blown out in every game and should be able to keep it close if things go right for them.
There are three good teams in this pool, and it is very hard to predict which of those three will be left out. That said, I predict that Venezuela and the Dominican Republic will advance… but I wouldn’t be shocked if Puerto Rico got in. Really, the only certainty- barring a huge upset- is that Spain will go 0-3.
2. Dominican Republic
3. Puerto Rico
Tomorrow: Pool D