Like the Mexicali pool, this is a pool that will pit Latin America and Europe. However, in some ways the only European team will be France, as Spain weighs heavily on imported talent. This should be the most competitive WBC qualifier bracket so far, with only France being a team that I can say has no chance.
Go below the jump for more:
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 went through a renovation a few years ago and holds about 27,000 fans. It hosted the 2011 IBAF World Cup and has symmetrical dimensions.
About the Pool: This will be one of the hardest ones to predict. Panama, Colombia and Spain all will be bringing plenty of players who are or once were in the affiliated minors. Only France can be considered a weak spot. So, this should prove to be an interesting pool.
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, but at present they do have a league: the Panamanian Professional Baseball League, or Probeis. They play during the winter.
Panamanian MLB players: 55 players in MLB history were born in Panama or the Panama Canal Zone. One of them, Carlos Lee, will be managing them this tournament. Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz is the only player on the Panamanian roster who is currently on a big league roster, but Manny Corpas also played parts of seven seasons in the bigs.
Notable names: Javier Guerra is a top prospect for the Padres, a shortstop acquired in the Craig Kimbrel deal. Ariel Jurado and Edmundo Sosa are also some of the better prospects in the lower minor leagues.
Highest achievers: Paolo Espino is a righthanded pitcher who has made it as high as AAA with Washington.
Outlook: Good but not great. Colombia is definitely their biggest threat, and in some ways you can argue that the Panamanians may actually be underdogs to them. Spain could also threaten them thanks to all of their “passport” players. Thankfully for Panama, they do hopefully have their home crowd behind them… although that didn’t help them in 2012.
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 at times been caught in an economic crisis in recent years.
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 Iberia, 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 noted soccer club 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: Four players in history from Spain have played in MLB, but none of them were homegrown talent. However, there are players who have qualified to play for Spain who do have MLB experience. Two in fact: The first is Rhiner Cruz, a Dominican by birth who pitched in 52 MLB games and now plays in Japan. The second is Dominican outfielder Engel Beltre, once a fairly well-regarded prospect who had 42 plate appearances for the Rangers in the 2013 season, but who now seems to be out of Affiliated Baseball.
Notable Names: Current excessive Minor League aficionados will recognize Rogelio Armenteros, Luis Guillorme, Lazaro Leyva, and Carlos Sierra. Those are the only four currently in affiliated North American baseball.
Highest Achievers: Several players had once been members of the famed Cuban National Team, it’s Junior Team, or the Serie Nacional, including the aforementioned Armenteros and also Yunesky Sanchez, who had the game-winning hit that got Spain into the main WBC team in 2012/13.
Outlook: Okay, but doubtful. They are definitely the third most talented team there, but they have the players to pull an upset or two if things break right.
About the country: One of the world’s most influential economical, military and cultural powers, France is a country that probably doesn’t need any introduction. Although France has, in one form or another, existed since the 3rd century, it’s republican system of government has existed (with brief interruptions) since 1792. The capital is Paris, and the official language is, obviously, French.
Baseball history: France and baseball aren’t exactly mentioned together much, but French baseball actually has a surprisingly long history. The IBAF’s overview on France’s national baseball federation notes that Albert Spalding and his group of world-touring professional baseball players played in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, and helped form an early French baseball organization. He even apparently had grand plans to make France the “next baseball country”. Those plans were thwarted by WWI and his death, although given Spalding’s love of making grandiose statements, who know what might have happened (or not)? Although baseball has had brief spikes in interest after the World Wars due to the presence of American troops, it remains a niche and primarily amateur sport in France, where soccer, basketball and cycling reign supreme.
France’s Baseball League: France has a semi-professional league called the Division Élite, which was written about in the New York Times. The teams are entirely amateur with the exception of some American imports who receive an apartment and some spending money. They play 28 games, primarily in weekend doubleheaders, and the level of play is below that of D1 colleges, primarily due to a lack of depth.
French MLB players: Eight MLB players in history have been born in France, but like with many European countries they either were born to American military or moved to the USA at a young age. However, managing the team will be Eric Gagne, perhaps the greatest Francophone pitcher in history.
Notable names: The French are perhaps the most anonymous of the teams. However, both Rene Leveret and Dan Camou played for France in 2012 and have played professionally in the USA.
Highest Achievers: The lone player in affiliated ball right now is a catcher named Andy Paz, who is in the A’s organization.
Outlook: Bad. While France should be commended for having their team be made primarily of actual Frenchmen and not simply affiliated ringers, they are going to suffer for it, and will probably be the weakest team in the pool. They will win, at most, one game, but more than likely they will lose their first two games and be swiftly eliminated.
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: 17 MLB players in history have come from Colombia, and two of them (Infielder Dilson Herrera of the Mets and Outfielder Harold Ramirez of the Pirates) are on both the national team and a MLB roster this spring.
Notable names: Nabil Crismatt (Mets) and Jhonathan Escudero (Cardinals) are both fairly well-regarded pitching prospects in the lower minors.
Highest achievers: Crismatt, Twins farmhand Reynaldo Rodriguez, Marlin organization left-handed pitcher Gregory Nappo and Boston’s RHP William Cuevas have all reached or are expected to open the season in AAA, providing plenty of near-Major League level players.
Outlook: Very good. I think Colombia is the favorite in this pool, and they certainly are the biggest threat to the home-team Panamanians. My gut tells me Colombia has the upper-hand due to somewhat better depth and more overall talent, however.