With Spring Training in full swing and Opening Day fast approaching, it’s time to look to the future. To be specific, the future of the World Baseball Classic. The new collective bargaining agreement included some stuff about the WBC, and while some of it has been revealed, other parts are left to speculation.
Here, I do a bit of both after the jump.
Back in the before-times, we were just days from the start of WBC qualifying for the 2021 installment. There were to be two qualifying pools of six, with the top two from each advancing. The first qualifier pool had South Africa, France, Germany, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Pakistan. The second qualifier pool had Great Britain, New Zealand, the Philippines, the Czech Republic, Panama, and Spain. Both qualifiers would have taken place in Arizona, no doubt as a way to avoid having players leave spring training to go halfway around the world.
Of course, COVID then happened, and both the qualifiers and the 2021 WBC were axed. So, how could qualifying for the 2023 World Baseball Classic look?
Well, it’s likely that the teams will be the same. Some argument could be made that countries like Belgium (who outrank Brazil, South Africa, Pakistan, the Philippines, and New Zealand in the WBSC world rankings at this time) could be added, but it is likely that MLB wants to include as many different regions as possible. Another argument could be made that a team like Guam (38 in the most recent WBSC rankings) would be the more deserving Oceania representative than New Zealand (46 in the most recent rankings), but that doesn’t take into account the fact that New Zealand hasn’t really been able to play the past two years due to COVID precautions. The ultimate reason why I don’t see the teams in the qualifiers changing, though, is that it’d be a dick move to promise countries a chance to qualify for the WBC only to change your mind after the previous qualifiers were canceled just days before they took place.
What is more unclear is when and where the qualifiers will take place. The qualifiers for the 2021 World Baseball Classic were both happening in March of 2020 in Arizona. That made sense because, again, it would have allowed affiliated players to take part without having to travel around the world. With a 2023 WBC, though, there will be no time for spring training qualifiers. So it’s likely that the qualifiers would be in September or November, like how qualifiers were for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. In fact, what we’ve heard thus far suggests it will take place in September. The question then becomes one of location. There are two options:
- MLB and the other organizers could stay the course and hold them in a neutral American location again, likely Arizona or Florida. This would have some advantages. For one, it’d allow any players who train or live in America (including players who are American but qualify for an international team due to the infamously-lack eligiblity rules) to more easily take part. For another, MLB would have fewer things to worry about when it comes to facility standards, accomodations, broadcast considerations, etc. Plus, this was the plan back in March of 2020 so why not stick with it?
- The fun option: have the games in foreign locales. Assuming the pools stay the same, qualifier 1 could be held in Dennis Martinez Stadium in Nicaragua or in Armin-Wolf-Arena in Germany (which hosted a qualifying round for the 2013 WBC). The other qualifying pool could take place at Rod Carew Stadium in Panama (which has hosted previous qualifiers), at the Viladecans stadium in Barcelona that was used for the 1992 Olympics, or Auckland’s North Harbour Stadium, which hosts the Auckland Tuatara of the Australian Baseball League.
Of those two options, I think the first one (holding it in the USA) is the more likely given that that was the original plan (in addition, CBS Sports says as much in their article about Mike Piazza signing up to manage Italy), but on the other hand one report about Eric Sogard gaining Czech citizenship says that Germany will host a qualifier in September, which would suggest not only that option two will happen but also that the qualifying pool compositions may be different. So who knows?
There is, of course, one other possibility: no qualifiers at all. MLB and the other organizations behind the WBC may decide that due to the extraordinary circumstances brought about by the compressed timeframe that they’ll just have to skip qualifiers this time around. There may also be concerns about the uncertainty of any new COVID variants, or the geopolitical situation. If that happens, it is likely they’d just advance the four highest-ranking teams. Those teams, going by WBSC world rankings right now (which could change), would be Panama, the Czech Republic, Nicaragua, and Germany. Given what we’ve heard thus far, though, there will be qualifiers held barring some unforeseen circumstances.
The main World Baseball Classic tournament
The 2021 World Baseball Classic that never was was going to be the largest yet, with 20 teams instead of the usual 16. There would be four pools of five teams holding a round-robin, with the top two from each pool advancing to the next round and then the top two teams from each quarterfinal pool heading to the semis. At the time, MLB had announced the following venues:
- Pool A would be held in Taiwan (oh, excuse me, “Chinese Taipei”) at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium and Taoyuan International Baseball Stadium.
- Pool B would be held at the Tokyo Dome.
- Pool C would happen at Chase Field.
- Pool D would take place at what is now called LoanDepot Park in Miami.
The second-round pools would have taken place in Tokyo and Miami, and the semis and finals would have also taken place in Miami.
So the question becomes: do they change it? I doubt it, even though this is probably the most boring set of venues for a WBC thus far (seriously, Miami for all three rounds?). Much like how it’d be a dick move to change the teams involved in the qualifiers, it’d also be a dick move to all of a sudden tell Taiwan that their round was going to be South Korea, or that Pool C would be in San Diego instead of Phoenix. That said, I could see some changes where the stadiums are different but the host city/country is the same. The covered Taipei Dome is expected to be finished by the end of 2022, for example, so you could possibly see that replace one of the previously announced Taiwanese venues. With more teams involved and thus more games overall, you also can’t rule out the possibility that one or two in each pool might take place at a secondary stadium depending on the schedule that MLB draws up. For example, they might hold a game between two lesser-considered teams at spring training sites in Arizona or Florida.
So then the question becomes: what teams are in what pools? Much of that depends on who advances from qualifiers. For simplicity, I’ll go with my gut predictions and say (assuming that the qualifying pools remain the same) that Nicaragua and Brazil come out of the first qualifier while Panama and Spain come out of the other. Those aren’t necessarily the highest-ranked teams, but rather who I think would come out of the bracket based on past results as well as who they’d likely bring to qualifiers.
So let’s speculate as to who’d be in each pool. A * indicates they’d have to make it in through the qualifier.
POOL A (Taiwan):
Taiwan/Chinese Taipei: Host team. Duh.
Netherlands: Always a threat thanks to Curacaoians and Arubans.
Cuba: MLB has in past WBCs generally put Cuba on the Asian side of the bracket, likely to minimize the number of games in the USA for fear of any political headaches. It seems likely that will continue in 2023.
Australia: They have generally been placed in Asian brackets in the past in competitions like this.
Spain*: Spain actually doesn’t use that many Spanish players, primarily relying on Cubans or other nationalities who claim allegiance due to ancestry or defection.
POOL B (Tokyo):
Japan: Host team. Duh.
Korea: Japan-Korea is likely the most-heated rivalry in international baseball.
Italy: Mike Piazza has already been announced as their manager.
China: It would likely be too likely of a political headache for MLB to have China play games in Taiwan, so they’d likely be put in the other Asian pool.
Brazil*: Brazil has a large Japanese expatriate community and many Team Brazil players in previous tournaments were based in Japan or had Japanese ancestry, so logistically it’d be a good idea to have them in Tokyo.
POOL C (Arizona):
United States of America: Without any venues in Puerto Rico or Mexico, it seems likely that MLB will use Miami as a “Caribbean” pool, so it then stands to reason that USA will be in the other America-based pool.
Mexico: The proximity to the border makes Arizona an ideal location for Mexico to play in this pool.
Canada: Canada is likely the best baseball country to never advance past the first round of a WBC. It doesn’t help that they always end up in a pool with the USA, but they also have had a history of getting upset by teams like Italy and Colombia.
Israel: It’s likely that the team will be pretty similar to that which played in the Olympics last year, albeit with perhaps a few more Jewish major leaguers.
Nicaragua*: Nicaragua is probably the best baseball country to never make it to the WBC proper- they came one win away from qualifying in 2017 but were thoroughly demolished by Mexico.
POOL D (Miami):
Puerto Rico: They were the runner-up in the 2017 WBC.
Dominican Republic: The atmosphere for DR games in Miami in the last WBC was a major highlight.
Venezuela: That at least one of Puerto Rico, Dominican, and Venezuela will miss the second round is likely proof that this is the toughest pool in the first round.
Colombia: Colombia made its WBC debut in 2017.
Panama*: This will be Panama’s first WBC appearance since 2009- they lost in qualifying in 2013 and 2017.
So, how close will these predictions be? Well, only time will tell. Hopefully we’ll learn more as the qualifiers near later this year.