We begin our 2023 World Baseball Classic Pool Previews with Pool A: Taichung.
About the Venue: Situated in the island’s second-largest municipality, Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium is no stranger to hosting big baseball events. This will be the second time that it has hosted the WBC (having also held a round in 2013), and it has also hosted rounds of the Premier12 tournament and Asian Championships. It’s currently home to the CTBC Brothers club (also called Brothers or Brothers Elephants) of the CPBL. The stadium holds 20,000 fans and has symmetrical dimensions of 325 feet down the lines, 379 to left and right-center, and 400 to dead center.
About The Pool: This is a bit of a hodge-podge pool, made up essentially of teams that were odd-man-out of the more geographically based pools that are elsewhere. It also is one of the tougher ones to predict, with no true favorite and reasons to be optimistic about all five teams. The fight for the two top spots in the pool and a trip to the quarterfinals will be fierce.
Go below the jump for the full preview.
About The Country: In the late 1940s, after decades of Civil War (interrupted only for WWII), the Communists drove the Republic of China off the mainland, forcing them to flee to the island of Taiwan. Since then, the two Chinas have nervously eyed each other across the Strait of Taiwan, a dangerous flashpoint left over from the Cold War that has grown ever more intense in recent years as Chinese President Xi Jinping has pursued increasingly aggressive policies. Despite this, the two are incredibly reliant on each other, particularly in high-tech industries such as semiconductor manufacturing. The unique political situation that exists means Taiwan is usually represented internationally under the name “Chinese Taipei”, including in sports competitions.
Baseball History: Baseball first came to Taiwan through the the Japanese, who occupied the island until the end of WWII. Its popularity came because it provided the island’s natives one of the few ways of beating their colonial occupiers. It also provided a rare ability to play alongside them as well- a team made up of Chinese, Japanese, and members of the island’s aboriginal communities once worked together and qualified for Japan’s famed Koshien tournament for high school teams, finishing second.
Baseball has remained a vital part of Taiwan’s heritage since the end of Japanese occupation and the exile of the Republic of China to the island, and the success of their Little League World Series teams are so respected that they have at times been depicted on their money. However, baseball has also been the subject of several horrible cheating or match-throwing scandals, which have at times threatened the sport’s place there.
International Baseball History: When it comes to international competition, the most famous teams from Taiwan are undoubtedly the teams that have represented the island in the Little League World series, where they have won 17 times- the most of anyone besides the USA and the most of anyone PERIOD if you divide the USA teams into states. However, some of those victories infamously were not entirely on the up-and-up, as many of the teams sent were not representatives of any individual Little League, but rather the entire island! Perhaps not surprisingly, the Taiwanese have had less success since the rules started being better enforced, and they haven’t won a title since 1996.
As far as the actual national team, Taiwan has long been in third place in adult competition among Asian countries, often struggling to defeat Japan and Korea. However, they are not without success: they have won five Asian championships, an Asian Games gold, as well as silvers in the 1992 Olympics and 1984 World Cup. In the WBC, their best finish has been eighth, in 2013. They are currently second in the WBSC world rankings, but that is largely the result of some recent good performance in youth competitions.
Road to the WBC: Chinese Taipei automatically qualified for this WBC despite losing three games in the 2017 WBC due to the enlargement of the main tournament.
Taiwan’s Baseball League: The Chinese Professional Baseball League, or CPBL, was formed in 1990. At its height, it had seven teams, but a decline in popularity after gambling and cheating scandals decreased the league to just four. The CPBL has recovered somewhat, however, and now consists of six teams.
The level play for the CPBL is generally regarded as below that of Japan’s NPB and Korea’s KBO, probably somewhere in the A-Ball levels if we used a North American minor league hierarchy as comparison.
Taiwanese MLB Players: A total of 16 Taiwanese-born players have played in Major League Baseball. The most famous is Chien-Ming Wang, who went 68-34 with a 4.36 ERA in 174 career MLB games, most notably with the Yankees. This year’s WBC team has several players with MLB experience, although only one (Yu Chang) saw MLB action in 2022.
Notable names: The other players with MLB experience include righty reliever C.C. Lee (who played parts of three seasons with Cleveland in the middle of last decade), righty start Chih-Wei Hu (who had two cups of coffee with Tampa), righty starter Jen-Ho Tseng (who played three games with the Cubs), lefty Wei-Chung Wang (who played 47 games across parts of three MLB seasons), and infielder Tzu-Wei Lin (best known for his stints with the Red Sox).
Highest Achievers: The cream of the CPBL crop is here, including right-handed utilityman Li Lin, who was CPBL MVP last year after slashing .335/.391/.517. Lin tied for the CPBL lead in home runs with catcher Kungkuan Giljegiljaw, who is also on the squad. CPBL pitchers on team including reigning Rookie of the Year Kuan Wei Cheng and ERA champ Tzu Peng Huang. In addition to CPBL players, the team has the services of three players under contract in NPB: pitcher Chia-Hao Sung, infielder Nien Ting Wu, and outfielder Po Jung Wang.
Ones to Watch: Two players are minor leaguers who may one day appear in MLB uniforms: right-handed starter Kai-Wei Teng has reached AA with the Giants, while left-handed infielder Tsung-Che Cheng has gotten to A-Ball in Pittsburgh system.
Manager/Coaching Staff: Managing the team is Yueh Ping Lin, a longtime relief pitcher who has been the manager of the Uni-President Lions since 2020, when they won the Taiwan Series. Chien-Ming Wang will be a bullpen coach for the team.
Outlook: This is one of the better Taiwanese teams they’ve put together, and the offense especially looks impressive. With the help of a friendly crowd, they likely should be considered favorites to get out of the first round… but they are in a tough group, so nothing is guaranteed.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands
About The Country: The Kingdom of the Netherlands is a union of several constituent countries that are all technically one sovereign state. Those countries are the Netherlands (AKA “Holland”) and the Caribbean islands of Sint Maarten, Aruba and Curacao.
While “The Netherlands” is usually used to stand simply for the European country and each country has different laws and traditions, the Caribbean countries are also technically part of the Netherlands, and it is not uncommon for Curacaoans, Arubans and St. Maarteners to represent the Netherlands in international sporting events, especially baseball.
Fun fact: The Netherlands was the first foreign nation to give a salute to an American warship.
Baseball History: It’s hard to really say when baseball came to the Netherlands… mainly because, as mentioned above, “The Netherlands” is a very broad term.
First, let’s talk about the Netherlands itself. The Dutch were first introduced to baseball, at least seriously, by a Dutchman named J.C.G. Grasé, who had fallen in love with the game during a trip to America. It provided the Dutch a sport to play during the summer, when the soccer teams were off. In fact, for many decades the big Dutch soccer clubs also ran baseball teams, with some of their players being on both teams. According to Josh Chetwynd’s Baseball in Europe: A Country by Country History, some of Holland’s greatest footballers played baseball at least recreationally, including Johan Cruyff, who was in 1999 named Europe’s great soccer player of the 20th century. While the soccer clubs of Holland no longer sponsor baseball teams, the Hoodklasse of Dutch baseball remains in operation and the Dutch National team is one of the strongest in Europe.
The popularity of baseball in the Caribbean areas of the Netherlands is a bit harder to find information on, but likely has to do with their proximity to Venezuela and the United States, as well as some crossover with Dutch baseball. In the past few decades, the Antilles, especially Curacao, have become hotbeds of baseball activity, with Curacaoian Little League teams becoming a frequent sight in Williamsport.
International Baseball History: The Dutch are a mainstay of international competition, winning 24 of the 36 European Championships, making four Olympics, finishing fourth twice at the WBC, and winning the 2011 World Cup. Like most Dutch national teams, they wear orange for the Netherlands’ royal House of Orange. They currently have a WBSC ranking of seven.
Road to the WBC: Automatically qualified due to their performance in the 2017 WBC.
The Netherlands’ Baseball League: The Honkbal Hoofdklasse, a nine-team league playing a 42-game schedule, is the main league in Holland. Games are generally played on weekends and until recently the league had a promotion-and-relegation style similar to European soccer.
The Caribbean nations also have leagues, most notably Curacao, which had a team enter the Caribbean Series for the first time this season.
Dutch MLB Players: There have been 11 players from Holland to play in MLB, most notably the Dutch-born Bert Blyleven. Curacao has contributed 16 players (most famously Andruw Jones), while Aruba has produced six (the most notable being Xander Bogaerts). Many of the best current players from the Dutch nations will be on team.
Notable names: And who are those players? Xander Bogaerts, of course, is the biggest name, but he’s joined by Andrelton Simmons, Jonathan Schoop, Didi Gregorius, and potentially Kenley Jansen (he is on a list of pitchers who can join in later rounds). Other players who saw MLB action last season are also on the team, such as catcher Chadwick Tromp and the Palacios brothers.
Highest Achievers: Other familiar names on the Dutch squad include 2011 All-Star Jair Jurrjens (who most recently has seen action in Mexico and Venezuela), Shairon Martis (who has long since left North America for the Hoofdklasse but will always have the honor of having thrown a mercy rule-shortened no-hitter in the 2006 WBC) and Roger Bernadina (who now plays in the Hoofdklasse and the Nicaraguan league). Then there is Wladimir Balentien, who returned to North America last season by signing in the Mexican League after 10 glorious years in Japan, including a historic 60-home run season in 2013.
Ones to Watch: RHP Jayden Estanista is a top-30 prospect for the Phillies, while young (19) Antwone Kelly did well on the mound in the complex league last year for the Pirates.
Manager/Coaching Staff: Hensley Meulens, AKA “Sir Bam-Bam”, is the Dutch manager. Bert Blyleven again will be pitching coach, while Andruw Jones will be a bench coach.
Outlook: My personal pick for the team that will top the pool (edging out Taiwan), the Dutch have some definite weaknesses, but need to be considered a possible dark horse to win the whole tournament.
About The Country: The island that is now Cuba was claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus, and it remained Spain’s until 1898, when the United States aided Cuban rebels in overthrowing the Spanish hold on the island during the Spanish-American War. For the next half-century or so, Cuba went through a series of governments but remained friendly to the United States, until dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by communist rebels led by Fidel Castro in the late 1950s. Since then, the history of Cuba has been filled with incidents that anyone who paid any attention in history class would recognize, the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis chief among them. There remains an embargo by the United States upon the country, and although there have been some slight easing on its restrictions in Washington and some reforms in Havana, it is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon unless something drastically changes. The current president of Cuba is Miguel Diaz-Canel, the first leader since the Revolution who isn’t a Castro. Fun fact: Due to the embargo, many cars from the 1950s remain in service.
Baseball History: Baseball first became popular in Cuba as a form of revolution against their colonial Spanish overlords. By playing baseball, and not soccer or bullfighting, the Cubans were building a new culture, separate from the old culture. And when they became free from the Spanish after Spanish-American War, they continued to play it. Cuba was a hotbed of baseball, producing some of the best players in the world- although the tragedy of segregation kept many of their finest players from ever playing in Major League Baseball. Such was the popularity of baseball that from 1954 to 1960 Havana even had it’s own team in the International League, the Havana Sugar Kings. The rise of Fidel Castro and the Communist Party’s nationalization of Cuba’s baseball structure, as well as the US boycott on the island nation, changed everything in the 1960s. Since then, Cuba has been the forbidden isle of baseball, with it’s technically-amateur national team dominating international competition until professionals began to arrive in the 2000s.
As an aside, the tale that Fidel Castro was offered a contract by a Major League organization when he was young is almost certainly false. Castro was by some accounts a pretty good amateur pitcher with an okay curveball, but not a top prospect by any means.
International Baseball History: For decades, the Cuban National Team was the one by which all teams had to measure themselves. It wasn’t a surprise, though: they, alone among countries, could use players from their top leagues in the all-Amateur competitions that existed before the 1990s. Even once professionals began, the Cubans remained top competitors. In history, they’ve won three Olympics, 25 World Cups, and 12 Pan Am Games, as well as a second-place finish in the inaugural WBC in 2006. Recent years have seen them fall off a bit, though, failing to qualify for the 2020 Olympics and failing to get past the second round of any of the last three WBCs. They are currently eighth in the WBSC ratings.
Road to the WBC: Automatically qualified.
Cuba’s Baseball League: Cuba’s main baseball league, the National Series, is a strictly amateur affair in line with the country’s Communist system. While players may be given jobs, meal money, and other privileges, there are no salaries. The CNS has 16 teams and plays during the winter.
Summer leagues have also taken place at times, but those are usually more meant as a way to keep the national team players sharp.
Cuban MLB Players: There have been 383 players to play in Major Leagues (including the Negro Leagues), including four Hall of Famers. And now, for the first time, active Major League players will be allowed to play for Team Cuba in the WBC, a reversal from previous policy towards defectors. The two active MLBers on this year’s Cuban team are a pair of White Sox: Luis Robert and Yoan Moncada.
Notable names: The two White Sox are the only two current MLB players on the Cuban roster, but they aren’t the only ones with MLB experience. Most notably, Yoenis Cespedes will be on the Cuban national team for the first time since his defection. Other players with MLB experience expected to play include Ronald Bolanos, Roenis Elias and Andy Ibanez.
Highest Achievers: Alfredo Despaigne is probably active Cuban with the greatest career to never play in MLB, The 36-year-old holds the all-time WBC record in HRs, with 7. He’s one of several Cubans playing in NPB right now (Japan doesn’t have an embargo and thus is able to come to agreements directly with the Cuban baseball organization), including two-time NPB all-star 3B Yurisbel Gracial, catcher Ariel Martinez, and a trio of relief pitchers at the top NPB level: Raidel Martinez, Yariel Rodriguez, and Livan Moinelo. Lefty pitcher Yoanni Yera, meanwhile, threw a no-hitter in the Mexican League last year.
Ones to Watch: The team is not without players who are primarily from the Cuban National Series. 2B/3B Dayan Garcia, for example, has hit .321 in an 11-year career in Cuba, while shortstop Luis Mateo is 27 and a mainstay of the CNS team in Cienfuegos.
Manager/Coaching Staff: Armando Johnson, a manager for Juventud in the CNS, will skipper the Cubans this year.
Outlook: Cuba will likely be fighting with Taipei to escape the pool and could well threaten the Dutch for the top spot. They are greatly helped by the fact they are now welcoming defectors, but the brutal truth is that in some ways they have to: the Cubans haven’t been doing as well as they once were.
About The Country: In the centuries after the Roman Empire fell, the Italian Peninsula split into various city-states, and the peninsula would remain like that until it was more-or-less reunified in the 19th century (although to this day the small city-states of Vatican City and San Marino remain). After fighting for the Axis in WWII, Italy became a founding member of NATO and the European Union. It continues to hold a important part in global politics, culture, and economics.
Baseball History: Italy is one of the two traditional baseball powers of Europe (along with the Netherlands), and first encountered the game during one of Al Spalding’s world tours, but it didn’t really gain anything like a foothold- despite some pockets of interest fostered by people who had visited America (most notably a man named Max Ott)- until the United States had gained a foothold of a different sort after the Anzio landings in early 1944.
Anzio was a debacle, a long slow slog that saw thousands die on both sides and the initial American commander relieved of duty. As a sad side-effect of this, the Americans established a cemetery in the coastal town of Nettuno. Both during and after the war, it was the American troops in the region that spread baseball, first during downtime between battles and then while seeing to the upkeep of the cemetery. The game stuck with the locals, including a local Prince named Steno Borghese, who allowed a stadium for the game to be built on his land.
Thanks to the efforts of Ott, Borghese, and various other boosters, baseball has kept a presence on the Italian Peninsula ever since.
International Baseball History: Italy, alongside the Dutch, dominate most of European competition, winning 10 European Championships and making four appearances in the Olympics. Italy is often bolstered by Americans and Canadians of Italian descent due to international baseball’s lax eligibility rules, although they often also feature real honest-to-goodness Italians as well. They are currently ranked 16th in the WBSC ratings.
Road to the WBC: Automatically qualified.
Italy’s Baseball League: The Italian Baseball League, sometimes called Series A1, is (alongside the Hoofdklasse of the Netherlands) generally regarded as one of the top two leagues in Europe. Made up of six teams (one of them in independent San Marino), they play about 42 games, primarily on weekends. Like the Dutch, they used to have a soccer-style promotion/relegation system, but don’t anymore.
Italian MLB Players: Seven Major League-level players in history have come from Italy, the most recent being Alex Liddi, who played a bit for the Mariners early last decade. This year’s Italy squad does have some MLB players of Italian descent, though, including Royals 1B Vinnie Pasquantino, his teammate shortstop Nicky Lopez, Angels utilityman David Fletcher, and Cardinals pitcher Andre Pallante.
Notable names: Remember Matt Harvey? He was in the minors all of last year, but he’s back now representing his maternal ancestry with Italy!
Highest Achievers: The highest achievers for Team Italy are actually coaching, so more on them later. That said, kudos to Alex Bassani, Alberto Mineo, and Matteo Bocchi, who are players in Italy.
Ones to Watch: One of the biggest prospects in the WBC this year is Sal Frelick, who is a Brewers farmhand. The outfielder is rated as the second-best prospect in the Milwaukee system and the 30th best overall. Ben Deluzio, another outfielder, made his debut for the Cardinals last season and has now signed with the Cubs. The former third-round pick has slashed .290/.361/.412 in 462 MiLB games. Diamondbacks farmhand Dominic Fletcher completes the outfield trio- he’s reached as high as AAA.
Manager/Coaching Staff: This is where you’ll recognize some names, most notably that of the manager: Mike Piazza. Yes, the Hall of Fame catcher and proud Italian-American is skippering Team Italy. He previously played for them in 2006 and was their hitting coach as well, and would have managed them in the 2020 European Championship before COVID came around. Chris Denorfia, who played parts of 10 years in the big leagues, is third-base and hitting coach.
Outlook: Italy is always sneaky-dangerous due to their Italian-American contingent, but I feel like this year’s group is a bit below the usual, so I don’t think they’ll make it out of round one. They still could definitely put a scare into teams, though.
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. Omar Moreno, Manny Sanguillen, and Hall of Famer Rod Carew were born in Panama. While Panama’s baseball establishment has had its problems since the 1970s, it still produced a certain right-handed reliever named Mariano Rivera.
International Baseball History: Panama has often been an also-ran compared to the other Latin baseball powers, although they still gained three medals in the old IBAF World Cup. The WBC team infamously fell flat in both of its previous appearances (2006 and 2009), at one point even getting mercy-rule no-hit by the Netherlands in 2006. They then failed to qualify for the 2013 or 2017 tournaments despite hosting the pools. Still, they are now ranked 12th in the world by the WBSC, one of the highest rankings they’ve had since the WBSC created world rankings in the early 2010s.
Road to the WBC: They finally got through qualifying by winning their qualification pool last year, defeating Argentina and Brazil in the double-elimination tourney.
Panama’s Baseball League: The Panamanian Pro Baseball League, or Probeis, has been running off-and-on in various forms (at times taking quite long hiatuses) since the 1940s. They’ve taken part in the Caribbean Series since 2019.
Panamanian MLB Players: Panama has produced 78 players at the major league level. Some of those players currently under MLB contract who will be on the team this year: Christian Bethancourt, Jaime Barria, Paolo Espino, Javy Guerra, and Justin Lawrence (who was born in the Panama Canal Zone and moved to the USA when he was two).
Notable names: The 33-year-old righty Randall Delgado has played parts of eight seasons in the bigs and most recently has been playing Indy and Winter ball. Infielder Ruben Tejada, who you may remember from his stints with teams like the Mets, is also on the roster.
Highest Achievers: Allen Cordoba, who had a brief stint with the Padres in 2017, found himself out of affiliated ball last season and so signed up late in the Mexican League, where he proceeded to rake to a tune of .431/.478/.647 in 30 games! While he cooled off during winter play, I have to imagine that if he hits anything like that during the WBC he’ll be back in affiliated ball quickly.
Ones to Watch: Cardinals farmhand Ivan Herrera made his first MLB appearance last year and could be up more permanently in the future. Jose Ramos, an outfielder in the Dodgers organization, slashed .275/.326/.463 in the Arizona Fall League in 2022.
Manager/Coaching Staff: The Panamanians are managed by Luis Ortiz, a former scout for Atlanta who has coached in the past for the Panamanians, including in the qualifying round last year.
Outlook: Panama has had a rough time in past WBCs with better top players than it does now, but this isn’t a bad team. That said, I don’t see them advancing. Hopefully they can make some noise, though.
Pool Outlook: This is a tough pool to predict. There are no truly bad teams here, and outside of perhaps the Netherlands there are no real tournament favorites either. That said, I believe that in the end, you’ll see the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei get out of the pool. It wouldn’t surprise me at all, however, to see Cuba or even Italy also grab one of the two advancing spots.
Here’s my prediction on order:
- Chinese Taipei
Up next: Pool B.
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