World Baseball Classic Qualifier Preview: Brooklyn (Brazil, Israel, Great Britain, Pakistan)

The final spot in next year’s main WBC tournament is up for grabs this week in Brooklyn, in an eclectic pool of four countries that lack major baseball facilities and thus sort of have been thrown into Brooklyn in hopes that New York’s diverse population will come out to see the games. While Brazil and the American-heavy Israeli team should be considered the favorites, GB shouldn’t be totally counted out. The biggest mystery (and likely last-place finisher) is Pakistan, a newcomer to the WBC that has rarely participated outside of the regional level. You can see the rosters (which have since changed slightly due to call-ups and injuries) here.

About the Venue: Located in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, MCU Park is normally home of the New York-Penn League’s Brooklyn Cyclones (Mets affiliate). Officially seating about 7,000 (but also allowing for standing-room), the park is meant to evoke an amusement park feel. It was formerly known as Keyspan Park.

About the Pool: This is, as I said, a potpourri pool, really only connected because all four are from countries that do not have baseball facilities large enough and/or good enough to host a WBC qualifier. Only Brazil has made the main WBC tournament, although Israel had been a win away from it before losing to Spain in the 2012/13 cycle.

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. Fun fact- The flag of Brazil has 27 stars for the 26 states of Brazil as well as it’s federal district (capital).

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 was a shock qualifier in 2013 after pulling off upsets in a pool with Panama, Colombia and Nicaragua, but failed to win a game in the main tournament.

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

Brazilian MLB players: Due to the timing of the qualifier, no active MLB players will be with Brazil this time. However, Andre Rienzo– who has had MLB experience with the White Sox- will likely be the team’s top pitcher.

Notable names: The coaching staff- heavily imported- features Barry Larkin, LaTroy Hawkins and Steve Finley.

Highest achievers: Many players have played high into the minors or in good leagues overseas. Pitcher Rafael Fernandes, for example, had two brief stints in the NPB with the Yakult Swallows at the turn of the decade. Ernesto Noris, a Cuban immigrant to Brazil, once pitched in the Cuban National Series. Murilo Gouvea got as high as AAA in the Astros organization. Thyago Vieira had a 2.84 ERA in relief in high-A ball this season with the Mariners organization, while fellow Mariners farmhand Luiz Gohara had a sub-2 ERA in 13 starts between two levels of play. Hugo Kanabushi, like fellow pitcher Fernandes, has had two cups of coffee in NPB. Tim and Christian Lopes are Californians of Brazilian descent who have made it to AA. IF Leonardo Reginatto has reached AAA with both the Rays and Twins. Juan Carlos Muniz is a Cuban immigrant to Brazil who has played in the Cuban National Series, the minors, and a brief time in NPB.

Outlook: Fairly good. Only Israel and it’s many Jewish-Americans equal the Brazilians when it comes to depth and experience, but unlike the rather temporary nature of the Israeli team many of the Brazilians have played together for years, perhaps giving them an intangible edge. It will almost certainly come down to Brazil and Israel in the final game, and who knows what could happen then.

Israel:

About the country: Sitting ever perilously at the center of both international politics and the world’s three largest monotheistic religions, the current state of Israel came into existence in 1947.

Baseball history: Although some may joke that Israeli baseball began “in the Big Inning” that can be found when the beginning of the Book of Genesis is read allowed (it’s a lame pun, think about it for a second), Israeli baseball didn’t really begin until some Americans who had moved to Israel played it a bit. However, that was about it until, in 2007, a small professional league was created in Israel by American businessmen. While it folded after one season, it’s level of play was apparently pretty good, although only a small handful of the players in the league were actually Israeli. Israel lost to Spain for a spot in the 2013 WBC. Dean Kremer, a pitcher born to two Israeli parents and who has lived in Israel at times during summers where he hasn’t been pitching, became the first Israeli citizen drafted by MLB in 2015 and the first Israeli citizen to sign (with the Dodgers) in 2016.

Israel’s Baseball League: There is none now, after folding of the IBL after it’s inaugural season. However, there still remain some amateur clubs and competitions.

Israeli MLB Players: None, although it should be noted- and this is basically the only thing that will keep Israel competitive in the WBC- that everyone with at least one Jewish grandparent and/or parent is able to apply for Israeli citizenship. Due to the WBC’s lenient eligibility rules, this means that basically every Jewish ballplayer is eligible for Team Israel. Thankfully for the other three teams in the pool (with the possible exception of Brazil), this game is taking place in September, when all of them are busy. However, there are several former MLB players on the Israeli roster: Craig Breslow, Jason Marquis, Ike Davis, Cody Decker, Ryan Lavarnaway, Josh Satin and Nate Freiman are among them.

Notable Names: Among the notable prospects on the team are OFs Zack Borenstein (Arizona organization) and Rhett Wiseman (Nationals organization). Although not an affiliated player, pitcher Shlomo Lipetz is notable for being the only player on the team actually born in Israel to play in the 2012/13 qualifiers.

Highest Achievers: Although not big prospects anymore, Brad Goldberg and Tyler Herron have made it as high as AAA in the affiliated minors.

Outlook: Pretty good. Probably around that of Brazil, maybe slightly above. They definitely have more overall talent and “names”, and their depth is pretty good as well, but their former big leaguers are mostly former big leaguers for a reason and they haven’t been playing together as long as the Brazilians have, so I’m thinking it’s a bit of a push between the two that will come down to the randomness of a one-game final.

Great Britain:

About the country: Once the owners of the world’s largest empire, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland no longer rules the waves, but remains one of the world’s most powerful and influential cultural, economical and political powers. Technically the United Kingdom is actually a country made up of the countries of England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland as well as other territories such as the islands in the English Channel, each of which have varying degrees of independence in domestic affairs. However, that’s a lesson for another day and probably another blog.

Baseball history: Baseball, as I noted in family-tree form back during my look at the game’s child sports, is in many ways descended from various games back in the mother country, some of which even were called “baseball” or “base ball”. In fact, Jane Austen even mentioned “base ball” in her 18th century novel, Northanger Abbey. Many of baseball’s founding fathers, most notably Henry Chadwick, came from there. The United States and United Kingdom are forever linked by history, blood and language. To this day, many sports similar to baseball, such as rounders and cricket, are played in the British Isles. All of these facts, however, have proven to be both a gift and curse to baseball’s place in Britain, where, despite a long history and a few spurts of popularity, it remains a curiosity sport at best and a weird American obsession at best. Baseball as we know it was introduced to the Brits in the late 19th century after tours my MLB teams led by Albert Spalding. It had two brief spurts in popularity, at least relative to the rest of baseball’s history over there. The first came in the 1890s after it initially arrived, and a second increase occurred in the years just before WWII, where some teams were getting enough fans where they were playing in soccer stadiums and a semi-pro team actually beat a team of Americans in what is now considered the first Baseball World Cup. Since then, however, baseball has been an afterthought at best in the UK.

Great Britain’s Baseball League: Baseball in Britain is strictly amateur, made up of a few tiers of leagues that are all under the British Baseball Federation Umbrella.

British MLB Players: About 43 players in MLB history have been born in the UK, although basically all of the more recent ones had left that country during childhood. One of them, Chris Reed (London-born but California raised), pitched in two games for the Marlins in 2015. Other MLB-experienced players (who aren’t from the UK but who are eligible for their team) include Barry Enright, Jake Esch, Michael Roth and Antoan Richardson.

Notable Names: The most notable name is on the coaching staff: Trevor Hoffman is there as a bullpen coach.

Highest Achievers: Among the ballplayers who Baseball America note as having once been legit prospects (other than those I already mentioned) are Champ Stuart, Jasrado Chisholm, and Todd Isaacs.

Outlook: Much like in the 2012/13 qualifying cycle, if this were a 162 game schedule, the British would almost certainly end up in third place. They shouldn’t be able to beat Brazil or Israel, even with their passport players added. However, they are good enough that, maybe, if everything broke right, they could conceivably pull it off in the little-margin-of-error WBC qualifier. But I doubt it.

 

Pakistan:

About the country: One part of the Indian Subcontinent, Pakistan gained independence in 1947 alongside it’s neighbor and rival, India. The sixth-largest country in population, Pakistan at times plays a role in international politics even greater than that.

Baseball history: Baseball really started in Pakistan pretty recently, in 1992, when Syed Khawar Shah (now the team’s manager) formed it’s baseball federation in hopes of making it to the Olympics. Since then, they have done well in second-tier baseball tournaments against some of the lesser baseball powers of Asia such as Sri Lanka and Iran, but has never done well against the higher-ranked powers like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, or even China. This is Pakistan’s first WBC.

Pakistan’s Baseball League: Entirely amateur.

Pakistani MLB Players: None whatsoever.

Notable names: Not any that any people would recognize- this is probably the most anonymous of any WBC team in history.

Highest Achievers: Only one Pakistani has won an award at the Asian Baseball Championships- Jawad Ali, who was named the 2015 tournament’s top defensive player. The infielder is on this year’s WBC team.

Outlook: Not good. Pakistan is almost certainly out of it’s league here, and may well end up getting mercy-ruled in both games. Still, it should be neat look at one of the lesser-seen developing baseball programs, and since the Pakistanis have nothing to lose, it could be said that they have everything to gain.

 

Projection:

  1. Brazil
  2. Israel
  3. Great Britain
  4. Pakistan

Although, really, it’ll all come down to that final game between Brazil and Israel.

 

 

 

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