WBC: Handicapping the Field

As you may be aware, I’m a tremendous shill for the World Baseball Classic. However ham-handed the execution may have been to this point, I believe it to be the best idea to emanate from Bud Selig’s Commissioner Office: not only because it allows me to watch actual baseball games a month earlier than would ordinarily be possible, but also because the need for a globalization of baseball has never been greater. With more and more countries represented within Major League Baseball, and with the sport taking root on every continent (though admittedly with varying degrees of success), it is high time for baseball to put these developing talent pools in the spotlight, in order to raise the game’s profile internationally. With that in mind, and considering the fact that the tournament will be getting underway in less than a week, I wanted to quickly run through my own predictions for this tourney.
Pool A: Japan, South Korea, China, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan)
East Asia is, outside of the Americas, the region of the world in which baseball has garnered the greatest following. There have been 32 Major League Baseball players from Japan, with at least one more set to debut in 2006 (Seattle’s Kenji Johjima). There have been an additional 12 from South Korea, and 4 from Taiwan (The Peoples’ Republic of China has yet to produce a Major League Baseball player, and has only recently begun pursuing participation in the sport on any kind of large-scale level).
Japan is clearly the cream of this particular crop. Japanese baseball has a history over a century old, and has produced stars with tremendous name recognition, from Saduhara Oh to Hideo Nomo, to Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui (Though, ironically, the South Korean national team will have more MLB players on its roster than Japan’s). Japanese baseball has evolved to the point where many believe it capable of competing with MLB in terms of talent – if not equaling it then at least locating itself between AAA and the Majors. What’s more, Japan is the only country on this list with a national league that rivals MLB in terms of national penetration and popularity.
South Korea also has a long baseball history, though somewhat less-storied than Japan’s; many South Korean players have participated in Japan’s leagues, while South Korean organized baseball is quite popular on the peninsula. South Korea has a shorter history of providing MLB players, but several have emerged in recent years with significant contributions, including pitchers Jung Bong, Sunny Kim, and Byung-Hyun Kim and 1B Hee Sop Choi.
Chinese Taipei has only begun producing MLB players quite recently; the most well known Taiwanese ballplayer is likely Chien-Mien Wang of the Yankees, who had a solid rookie campaign in 2005.
Despite the strides made by Taiwan, and the considerable resources the Chinese government has put toward organized baseball in recent years, it seems quite likely that Pool A’s two finalists will be Japan and South Korea; which emerges on top is a more interesting question, but Japan certainly has a leg up. My prediction for Pool A would be Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China.
Pool B: Canada, Mexico, South Africa, The United States
Pool B contains what will likely be the absolute worst team in the tournament: South Africa, a country which few knew even had a sizable baseball playing community until quite recently. This Pool also contains all three North American countries, including the only two that can make any kind of reasonable claim to inventing the game – Canada and the United States (and yes, before you yell, there is decent evidence that Canadian baseball played a very important role in the game’s evolution).
The United States, by virtue of popularity, population, and history, is the clear favorite in this Pool. It should emerge from the opening round-robin stage undefeated; despite the disheartening trend toward star players declining to participate, the US roster is still formidable, both in pitching and offensive prowess.
Canada and Mexico should have an entertaining bout for the #2 seed and remaining finalist spot, though I’d guess that Canada will come out on top; Canada has seen quite a baseball resurgence in recent years, primarily in pitching, producing such exciting young arms as Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis, and Rich Harden. They’ll be joined by the likes of Corey Koskie, Justin Morneau, Jason Bay (Canada’s first Rookie of the Year), Jesse Crain, and the infamous Stubby Clapp. Though Canada doesn’t have the firepower to make it far in the single-elimination portion, the current trend is upward, and they could represent a developing baseball powerhouse in the next decade.
Mexico’s club took a prominent hit when former Sox star Nomar Garciaparra, who is of Mexican descent, bowed out of the tournament due to health concerns. Mexico has several MLB players on its roster, but very few impact players; only SP’s Oliver Perez, Rodrigo Lopez, and Esteban Loaiza have met with any real MLB success, while 2B Jorge Cantu, 3B Vinny Castilla, and 1B Erubiel Durazo are the standout names among position players.
South Africa, as mentioned, has a nearly unknown squad; the most recognizable name on the roster is that of Barry Armitage, a 27 year old pitcher in the Royals organization. As the African continent’s only entry, South Africa should be an entertaining, though ultimately futile, team to follow; expect them to be decimated in the round-robin tournament, especially given that all three of their opponents will likely rank among the top half of entrants in talent, if not placement.
Predicted order of finish: United States, Canada, Mexico, South Africa.
Pool C: Cuba, Netherlands, Panama, Puerto Rico
The only predominantly Latin American Pool (the Netherlands team is composed in part of natives of Curacao and Aruba, Dutch holdings in the Carribean), Pool C may also be the worst cumulative pool in the tournament. While Puerto Rico has several MLB players of note, including Carlos Delgado, Javier Vazquez, Jose Vidro, Carlos Beltran, Bengie Molina, and Bernie Williams, the majority of the team is comprised of relative unknowns. Puerto Rico is the clear favorite because of these players, but it would stand a risk of failing to make the cut if it were in any other Pool.
Cuba likely ranks second in this grouping, but would rank a clear first were the mainland and Cuban ÈmigrÈs allowed to play together. The Cuban team as currently comprised must exist on reputation alone, but that reputation is extremely sound; I’ve personally witnessed a Cuban baseball game, in Havana, and I can attest to the fact that these guys can play (and that their fans are, frankly, fantastic). The Cubans very nearly were barred from the tournament due to petty political infighting; had they been, I might have lost interest in this tournament. Their inclusion saves massive face for baseball.
The Netherlands will field a very interesting club in March; some of the roster is comprised of players from the Carribean Islands of Curacao and Aruba, including Braves C Andruw Jones and Cardinals SP Sidney Ponson, while another portion will be filled by European Dutch. The remainder, and the most impressive portion, will be comprised of American citizens of Dutch heritage, including Danny Haren, Kirk Saarloos, Mark Mulder, and former Red Sox Shea Hillenbrand. The imbalance in the roster, between skilled MLB players and over-matched European Dutch, will likely sink this club to second place; do not discount them, though, as in this weak Pool, they could easily displace Cuba or Puerto Rico and advance to the elimination tournament.
Panama’s club took a major hit when Yankee closer Mariano Rivera, bowing to the wishes of the Overlord, declined to take part. Their roster is unimpressive, with a rotation led by Orioles SP Bruce Chen and an offense that can charitably be described as Carlos Lee and Company. Even in a weak Pool, Panama will likely finish dead last.
Prediction: Puerto Rico, Cuba, Netherlands, Panama
Pool D: Australia, Dominican Republic, Italy, Venezuela
Pool D likely has the largest talent gap between the top two and bottom two teams; the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are likely two of the top 3 teams in the tournament, and given the great flight of talent off the US roster might be 1 and 1a. Italy’s team, like that of the Netherlands, is largely composed of American citizens of Italian descent, while Australia, once an up and coming baseball country, has reversed course over the last 5 years.
Venezuela is, in my mind, the most exciting team in the tournament. Until recently, Venezuelans had not made a tremendous impact in Major League Baseball; Bobby Abreu was for years their sole star representative. Now, however, and thanks to improved Venezuelan scouting, the nation’s team can boast talent like Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Johan Santana, Freddy Garcia, Francisco Rodriguez, and Gustavo Chacin (though 19 year old Felix Hernandez, the Mariners’ star pitching prospect, will not be participating). The Venezuelans have what is clearly the best pitching staff, top to bottom, in the tournament, and their offense – while not as dangerous as that of the Dominicans or Americans, has a fair amount of pop and should be able to hold its own.
The Dominican team took a hit with the recent announcement that Manny Ramirez will not be participating, but despite that departure, opposing clubs will still have to work their way through a lineup consisting of Miguel Tejada, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, Jhonny Peralta, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, and a host of others that would be starters on virtually any other team in the tournament, but are bench players here. The weakness of the Dominican club is its pitching, and that weakness became even more glaring with the announcement that ace Pedro Martinez would not participate in the opening round-robin; the weakness of the bottom two teams means that his absence will not be missed early, but it could be crucial when the Dominicans have to face off the top clubs from other Pools. A rotation of Bartolo Colon, Odalis Perez, and Ervin Santana sounds more formidable when preceded by Pedro.
Italy’s club has a fairly large number of MLB players, due primarily to the inclusion of Italian-Americans such as Mike Piazza, Marco Scutaro, Frank Catalonotto, Frank Menechino, and Lenny DiNardo on its roster; nevertheless, these MLB’ers, with the exception of Piazza, are primarily role-players and will be unable to hold up when confronted with the Dominican and Venezuelan powerhouses. Expect them to finish the tournament at 1-2, with their sole victory coming over the Australians.
Speaking of which, Australia – the surprise silver medalist at the 2004 Olympic in baseball, were one of the great stories of international baseball in the mid-1990’s; their poster boy, Dave Nillson of the Brewers, had a few All-Star caliber years before fading off the scene quickly late in the decade. Several of the national team’s players are solid prospects for MLB clubs, including SP Travis Blackley and 1B Justin Huber; still, they will not likely be able to compete on any level with the other three teams in their Pool.
Prediction: Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Italy, Australia.
Due to tournament matchups, I’m guessing that South Korea, Canada, Cuba, and Puerto Rico are eliminated in the second round, allowing the USA, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Japan to advance to the semi-finals. From there, the US will defeat Japan, but the real battle will be between the tournament’s best pitching staff – Venezuela – and its best offense – the Dominicans. I can see this going either way, but given the Dominican’s pitching weaknesses, I have to rank the Venezuelans ahead of them. The same can be said of the final, pitting the US against Venezuela.
Therefore, my pick for tournament champion is the Venezuelan national team; this is fortunate, as they also happen to be my favorite team in the tournament (hell, I already bought their hat).
The World Baseball Classic will run from March 3rd to Mach 20th. I urge everyone to watch it. It might not be perfect, but it’ll be a hall of a lot of fun, and it’s an idea that is way past due.

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