With Brazil in, a capsule look at the 16 countries in the WBC

The Brazilians did it. Somehow, much like they had done earlier in the tournament, they slayed Goliath, defeating Panama for the second time in front of over 10,000 screaming Panamanians, surviving one final rally by the Panamanians to win it 1-0. With that, they have not only qualified for the World Baseball Classic, they have also done what many probably thought impossible…. they brought baseball to the top of Brazil’s Twitterverse:

It is stuff like that why the World Baseball Classic is going on. One day, perhaps, it will be a big World Cup style deal… but even if it remains simply a relatively-small thing, it is doing it’s job if it is causing countries where baseball is an afterthought to pay attention to the diamond.

Anyway, Brazil’s win solidifies the field for the 2013 WBC. I will, of course, continue to do more in-depth projections, but for now, here are some short capsules previews of all 16 countries in the World Baseball Classic, by group. Note that the qualifier teams, marked with a (Q) next to them, have not officially been assigned to a group yet, so there placement is merely my prediction of what group they will be in.
Pool A (Fukuoka, Japan)

Japan: The two-time defending champions may be in a pickle, as almost all of their MLB players (most of whom are free agents or who are coming off injuries) have either said or hinted that they won’t be taking part this time around. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that Samurai Japan will be sending out an All-NPB team. They still will remain among the favorites in the tournament, but it’ll be a tougher road.

China: Having avoided qualification only because of an upset win against Taipei in 2009, China’s players are almost entirely engimas, with little to no information about them. Their star players will likely not be Chinese, but instead “passport players” of Chinese descent, most notably minor leaguer Ray Chang, who played a major role in the upset of Taipei in 2009.

Cuba: The Forbidden Isle will bring it’s stars and must, as usual, be considered a favorite in the tournament. Yulieski Gourriel, perhaps the best Cuban player who hasn’t defected, will almost certainly be returning for his third WBC, joined by other MLB-caliber players like outfielder Alfredo Despaigne and pitchers like Yadier Pedroso, who pitched for Cuba in a friendly game against Japan earlier this month.

Spain (Q): The Spaniards will be an interesting addition, thanks to the fact that many Cuban defectors take up residence there (at least on paper) after they defect, as do some Latin Americans who want to play internationally but who haven’t made their national team. One of the players on Spain in the qualifiers included former MLB cup-of-coffee player Barbaro Canizares, for example, and he is a Cuban defector. It’s highly unlikely that they will be able to advance out of this group, although they should be able to beat China.

Pool B (Taichung, Taipei)

Korea: Like Japan, Korea has the problem that some of their best players (most notably Shin-Soo Choo and newcomer Hyun-Jin Ryu) in MLB are free agents, coming off injuries, or will be with new teams, making them far less likely to take part in the WBC. However, they will still be a highly competitive team, likely led by Dae-Ho Lee, who led the league in RBIs last season in his first year in Japan.

The Netherlands: The big story of the 2009 WBC- where they upset the Dominican twice- will be more dangerous this time around, as more players of honkbal come into professional baseball, whether they be from Curacao, Aruba or Holland itself. Among the players with MLB experience who could be with the Dutch this time around include Jurickson Profar, Didi Gregorius, Roger Bernadina, Andruw Jones, Wladimir Balentien and Rick Vanden Hurk. Hardly a murderer’s row, but they have great upset potential and nobody should be surprised if they escape this first round, perhaps taking team like Korea or Taipei down.

Australia: Like the Netherlands, the Australians aren’t a team that should be taken lightly. They will have plenty of professionals and many of their players will be fresh from the Australian League. One area where the Australians will be particularly dangerous will be pitching. Although it’s unlikely that Grant Balfour will take part (he hasn’t either of the past two times), the Baseballroos (rule of thumb for naming Australian National Teams: put the name of the sport, and then “-roos”) could have a starting rotation anchored by two MLB starters: Travis Blackley and Liam Hendriks. While hardly aces, they can get the job done if they have enough run support.

Taipei (Q): With their games in front of their home fans, the Taiwanese will be putting together a far better team than the one that lost to China in 2009, although Wei-Yin Chen won’t take part because of the birth of his son. Chien-Ming Wang has said he’s interested in playing for them, and the rest of the team will be made up of a mixture of players from both the domestic CPBL and other leagues around the world, including some of the Minor Leagues in North America. They should be a favorite to advance, but it won’t be easy.

Pool C (San Juan, Puerto Rico)

Venezuela: A threat to win it all, the Venezuelans will probably have Miguel Cabrera, Felix Hernandez, Miguel Montero, Pablo Sandoval, Carlos Gonzalez and many others- it’s a team that could well be made up 100% of MLB players, or close to it.

Dominican Republic: Like Venezuela, a favorite in this tournament. Although David Ortiz has said he might not play due to his injury and Jose Reyes might skip now that he’s with a new team, they still should have most of their best players, such as Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre, Johnny Cueto and Fernando Rodney.

Puerto Rico: The home team. Puerto Rico’s baseball tradition has taken a beating over the last decade or two, but they still should be able to go out there with several MLB players, most notably Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina. They might not be the favorites to escape this pool, but they certainly are talented enough to if they catch the DR or Venezuela on an off-day.

Brazil (Q): One of these teams is not like the other. The Cinderella Brazilians may have gotten through Latin America’s three second-tier baseball countries (and perhaps lifted themselves into that tier in the process), but the challenges they face in Group C may be more than they can handle. If Barry Larkin’s squad (which only has Yan Gomes as a MLB-experienced player)  can somehow get out of this pool, it could be the most shocking event in international sports since the Miracle on Ice.

Pool D (Arizona):

The USA: As I have mentioned before, the United States will probably be hit by the most drop-outs in the WBC, but the depth of American baseball will be able to take the hit. The first string would definitely be the outright favorite to win the Classic, the second string would also probably be a favorite to win, and the third, fourth and fifth strings would all be extremely competitive. And, despite the dire predictions amongst some in the media, it’s highly unlikely that a “third-tier” Team USA will end up participating. Sure, Derek Jeter will be hurt and Chris Sale has said he’s leaning against taking part, but those are but two of many possible members of Team USA.

Mexico: A dangerous team that could easily upset Team USA and perhaps even win the whole thing if they were to catch a few breaks, although their pitching is a bit suspect. Adrian Gonzalez will likely be the biggest name for Mexico.

Italy: Italy shocked the Canadians in 2009, and are a constant power in Europe thanks to a professional league and the use of Italian-Americans as “Passport Players”. For the first time ever, they will have a Italian born-and-raised player with MLB experience: Alex Liddi, who has spent some time with the Mariners. Although they should go 0-3, they could probably pull an upset on a good day, much like they did in 2009.

Canada (Q): Of the four teams that come in through qualifiers, Canada is the best. The Canadians will include established MLB players (Votto, Morneau and John Axford are the most notable), young guns, prospects, and international veterans. They upset Team USA in 2006, and a repeat of that is a distinct possibility. Even if they don’t, they likely have an edge over Mexico as far as getting out of the pool.

 

Tomorrow: A belated Off-Topic Tuesday… on a Wednesday.

The Hidden Beauty of the World Baseball Classic

One of the complaints about the World Baseball Classic- alongside ones such as worries about injuries and the fact that it takes place during a time of year that already has an A-level sporting event (March Madness)- is that it’s nothing that couldn’t already be seen. After all, all of the world’s greatest baseball players (save for a few in Japan and Cuba) are already playing in Major League Baseball, or so the argument goes, so the novelty of seeing a top Mexican pitcher going against a top American hitter isn’t that amazing.

And that, perhaps, may be true. But it forgets the fact that not everyone is a superstar. To to say that the WBC is a tournament between stars is like saying that March Madness is simply the Final Four. And to do that would be to sell it short.
Take the day game between Brazil and Colombia. Brazil, as I noted earlier, is a country that only recently has begun to develop a baseball tradition, and most of it’s players are either of Japanese or Cuban descent. Only one of them, Yan Gomes, has played in the Major Leagues, and he didn’t have a permanent spot this year, shuttling between AAA and the big club. Some of them have had action in Japan’s top leagues, and there are even a few guys who might one day join Gomes in the majors, but they are, overall, a band of underdogs, bound together only by their country and their love of the game. And yet, they had already defeated the far more talented-on-paper Panama team, and were now a win away from going to the qualifying round’s finals.

By contrast, Colombia had numerous either current or former Major Leaguers, including Edgar Renteria. They’d already demolished Nicaragua’s team, one that also had more professionals with better pedigrees than the Brazilians.

And yet, a funny thing happened: Brazil won. And they did it in the most amazing of ways, showing timely hitting, good defense, and a pitching staff that houdini’d it’s way out of numerous jams. If one were to just look at the characters involved in this drama, you would think it would end a different way.

Take Gabriel Asakura, for example. Japanese-Brazilian who plays collegiate baseball at Cal State Los Angeles. He came in in the top of the sixth with Brazil holding a perilous 2-1 lead… and he got a 1-2-3 inning against ballplayers who are getting game-checks during the season. Then he comes back out in the seventh, and he strikes out former Red Sox farmhand Reynaldo Rodriguez and then does the same (looking) to Edgar Renteria. The same Edgar Renteria who was an All-Star five times. After two men reached (due to a single and then a HBP), Asakura finished the inning by striking out Luis Martinez, who had gotten some time with the Rangers this season.

And this kid was a Collegiate. And not even a Division I collegiate, he pitches in Division II of the NCAA.

And yet, he wasn’t the most improbable pitcher who went against the professionals. No, that title goes to Daniel Missaki, a 16-year-old from Brazil’s amateur leagues. And it wasn’t like he came in for garbage time. He came in to get the final two outs of the game, with the bases loaded, and former big-leaguer Jolbert Cabrera and the aforementioned Luis Martinez due up.

And, would you believe it? He got them both.

So, sure, you can see the best-of-the-best go against each other every day of the MLB season… but to see young Davids face professional Goliaths? That type of stuff you can only see in the World Baseball Classic.