Yesterday the initial rosters for the World Baseball Classic were announced for each of the participating countries and I came away most impressed by the makeup of the American team. The USA coaching staff did their homework and put together a loaded roster with an emphasis on versatility, power, and defense. Joe Torre and company have put together the strongest roster in this entire tournament, of that I’m certain. But who’s going to be Team USA’s biggest challenger? Puerto Rico looks pretty strong, boasting a pair of St. Louis Cardinals’ All-Stars in Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran. The Dominican infield is a who’s who of future Hall of Famers and even the Dutch team, a wild card in 2009’s tournament, looks intriguing thanks to the presence of Jurickson Profar and Andrelton Simmons. Let’s take an early straw poll of the 16 contenders’ rosters to see how the World Baseball Classic is shaping up.
The Stars and Stripes lineup reads like that of a championship winning fantasy roster. The outfield resembles Hollywood Boulevard it’s so full of stars and it should produce plenty of fireworks this March. The American’s also have a deep and versatile bullpen that should be quite effective against opposing hitters. This is the deepest roster in the tournament and that makes the United States the favorite.
There’s really only one lineup (on paper at least) that can give the United States a run for its money and it belongs to Team Venezuela. Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera anchors what should be a potent attack that also includes Pablo Sandoval, Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Salvador Perez. This team should be very strong on defense up the middle thanks to Cabrera, Andrus, and Scutaro manning the middle infield with Perez at catcher and Gerrardo Parra’s range in center. Venezuela also has the starting pitching chops to win big as well. Felix Hernandez ranks among the 3-5 best pitchers in the world and he’s backed by Anibal Sanchez and Carlos Zambrano, who both have strikeout ability as well. Venezuela could be America’s biggest threat for baseball supremacy.
The 2-time defending champions probably the most difficult team to rate in the entire tournament. They have plenty of Major League star power in the outfield (Norichika Aoki and Ichiro) and on the mound (Yu Darvish and Hiroki Kuroda) but none of those players are going to take part, which could torpedo Japan’s chances. It’s foolish to count this team out however because you know they are going to pitch well, play excellent defense, and they will always take the extra base if given the opportunity. The Japanese starting staff will be led by Tadashi Settsu, the reigning Sawamura Award (Nippon’s Cy Young award) winner, and the NPB’s reigning MVP Shinnosuke Abe will be behind the dish. Abe was basically the Japanese equivalent to Buster Posey a year ago and he’s one of many talented players on a dangerous team.
4. Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic’s infield is as star-studded as any in the tournament thanks to Robinson Cano, Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, and Edwin Encarnacion. Those four, alongside Melky Cabrera and Nelson Cruz, should provide plenty of run support. The pitching is a little light as the only starters as of today are Edison Volquez, Wandy Rodriguez, and Alexi Ogando. The back-end of the bullpen also looks to be strong with Pedro Strop, Octavio Dotel, and Fernando Rodney closing. The Dominicans only announced 23 players total, with 11 of those being pitchers so there is still plenty of room for additions as well.
5. Puerto Rico
The Puerto Rican team has the offensive makings of a solid contender, but they’re pitching staff as it stands today looks to be a bit ghastly. Javier Vazquez is that staff’s ace right now and he last pitched in the big leagues back in 2011 for the then Florida Marlins. The pitching staff should be helped out quite a bit by the man behind the plate, Yadier Molina. The Cardinals regular catcher has been the best defensive backstop in baseball for the better part of the last decade and his offense is now to the point that he’s become something along the lines of a force. He’ll have teammate Carlos Beltran’s support in propping up this attack, which will need to do quite a bit of scoring to win. With Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela all in Pool C, it’s going to be tough sledding. Puerto Rico may struggle to advance out of such a tough group.
The Cuban team is among the most difficult to judge in the world, thanks to the fact that nobody knows much about any of their players. I mean, take a look at the roster they submitted for the tournament. It doesn’t even include birth dates or heights and weights on most of the players. I’m not comfortable ranking such an unknown any higher, but I think they will have a good showing after disappointing in 2009. Advancement out of Pool A is close to a sure thing.
This is probably the last team with an even semi-legitimate shot at winning the World Baseball classic (no offense, South Korea). Yovi Gallardo and Miguel Gonzalez front a surprisingly deep and talented pitching staff while Adrian Gonzalez is the centerpiece of the lineup. If he can hit a little more like the 2009-2011 edition, Mexico could be dangerous. If Gonzalez struggles and resembles his 2012 self a little more, that’s bad news for Mexicans and Dodgers fans alike. Mexico still needs to fill out most of their outfield, and they would do well to lean toward the defensive side of things. Mexico’s best shot may be to hand the game over to a deep bullpen featuring Sergio Romo, Luis Mendoza, David Hernandez, and Alfredo Aceves.
I took an in-depth look at our neighbors to the north earlier this week and the same points still hold true. Their stregnths come in the forms of corner infielders and bullpen arms while they are suffering for a true middle infielder and a front line starter. If no other starting pitchers are added Canada will go into this tournament featuring a trio of minor league pitchers at the top of their rotation. That’s a recipe for a short stay at the WBC.
9. South Korea
Team Korea was the surprise of the 2009 tournament, shocking the world all the way to a Finals loss against Japan. They were the highest scoring team in the tournament, driving the ball all over the ballpark, despite a lineup that suggested they might struggle to score against big league pitching. None of the country’s best Major League players are taking part in the World Baseball Classic, which makes a repeat of 2009 seem unlikely, but advancement out of Pool B, the weakest group in the tournament, seems like a safe bet.
This team doesn’t stand a chance to advance much past Round 2, but boy should they be fun to watch. Andrelton Simmons and Jurickson Profar will be manning the middle infield for the Dutch team. Both players briefly debuted during the 2012 regular season and both electrified when they were on the field. Simmons appears to be a wizard with the glove while Profar has the do-it-all type game that makes scouts drool. Jair Jurrjens leads an unassuming pitching staff and Andruw Jones and Roger Bernadina will patrol the outfield.
It goes to show just how far behind Europe is in baseball when the back-to-back European champions can place no better than 11th. This roster has some exciting young Major League talent and they could find a way to steal a few games to sneak into the 2nd round. Alex Liddi and Anthony Rizzo are the core of the batting order with bench players Nick Punto and Drew Butera filling out the rest of the infield. The rotation largely consists of unknowns, but that could be an advantage in a short tournament where anything can happen.
12. Chinese Taipei
Chinese Taipei has produced a few notable Major Leaguers, guys like Chen Ming-Wang, but for the most part many of their best players fizzle out in the minors. Chinese Taipei will be in a dog fight with the Netherlands and the Aussies for 2nd place in Pool B.
Australia has yet to have a real breakthrough on the international baseball circuit. The country has produced its share of big league talent but they haven’t fared well in the WBC. This could be the year they finally break through.
Led by Barry Larkin, the Brazilians surprised everybody to win a birth into the World Baseball Classic. The nation probably won’t be going to far however, because both Japan and Cuba look to be much, much better in Pool A.
Bruce Chen is the only notable Major Leaguer on the roster, which says something about the quality of the roster. Sorry China, you’re not going anywhere.
The only surprise about the Spanish team this tournament will be if they avoid submitting to the 10-run rule in any of their pool play games. They won’t win a game from the DR, Venezuela, or Puerto Rico.