World Baseball Classic: Previewing Pool A

iThe final WBC exhibitions took place today and with half of the tournament’s 16 teams set to deliver the first pitch on Tuesday now is the time to break down the pools one by one, starting with Pool A. Japan and Cuba are the heavy favorites to advance out of this group as China and Brazil are expected to offer little resistance. But as we saw in 2009, when the heavily favored Dominican Republic was eliminated by the Netherlands, anything can happen. Let’s take a look at each of the four ball clubs, who begin play Saturday.

Brazil

Brazil will be making their first ever appearance in the World Baseball Classic after edging out Panama 1-0 in a tightly contested game that probably ranks as the most important in the country’s history. The most famous member of the Brazilian is Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, who will be calling the shots from the dugout. His presence in the clubhouse and his knowledge of the game was said to be a big reason behind Brazil’s success in qualifying.

This is an extremely young roster comprised of mostly minor leaguers and out of the group, only one player, outfielder Paulo Orlando, has advanced past Single-A ball. The only Major League player in the country’s history, Yan Gomes, has decided to skip the tournament in favor of going to camp with the Cleveland Indians, which further weakens the roster. But that hasn’t dampened Larkin’s enthusiasm one bit. In an interview with MLB.com he said he like Brazil’s chances, saying

“I believe that we have an opportunity to advance. We’re playing Japan, Cuba and China. Our success is going to be predicated on doing the small things once again. Unless we get on a hot streak, we don’t have the power to maul people. Going into Panama, we talked about executing, we talked about small ball, and we were really able to do it. We played it pretty straight up. It’s going to be the same. Sometimes we get beat because the opposition is better, but at least while I’m at the helm we’ll do our best not to beat ourselves.”

I don’t feel as optimistic for the Brazilians, but this is baseball and anything is possible. They start the tournament out with their two toughest games, Japan and Cuba, before facing the Chinese in game 3. If Brazil is able to steal away one of their first two games, they stand an excellent chance of beating the Chinese and advancing.

China

When right-hander Bruce Chen announced that he had decided against playing for China in the World Baseball Classic it dropped the number of MLB players on their roster down to zero. Without Chen that leaves Ray Chang as the only Chinese player with any minor league experience. Chang, a Minnesota farm hand, hit .241 in Triple-A a season ago with no homers and just 8 doubles in 89 games. That’s all that really needs to be said about China’s chances of winning a game in this contest because outside of Spain, this is probably the weakest roster in the tournament.

Cuba

Very little is actually known about the players on Cuba’s national team, but it’s a safe bet that most of the roster would be playing in the Majors if it weren’t for the US embargo against the country. In the last couple of seasons talents like Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman (both are recent members of Team Cuba) have made their MLB debuts and have dazzled American audiences.

The 2013 edition has it’s fair share of Major League caliber talent as well. Jose Abreu is known as the Cuban Barry Bonds and after his play in Cuba’s top league a year ago, he’s definitely earned the nickname. Abreu hit .453 with 33 homers and 93 RBI in just over 200 at bats a year ago in Serie Nacional, numbers that topped even Yoenis Cespedes’ numbers in his last year in the league. Abreu along with outfield thumpers Alexei Bell and Alfredo Despaigne (3-time Cuban National Series MVP) are the centerpieces of an offense that should rank among the best in the tournament.

Cuba should have a strong pitching staff even without the presence of the fire-balling Chapman, which makes them a near guarantee to advance out of Pool A. They are also the current number 1 ranked country in the world by the International Baseball Federation, so anything less than an appearance in the semifinals would rank as a massive, massive disappointment.

Japan

The 2-time defending champions and the Pool A hosts have their sights set on nothing less than a 3rd title in 2013. But the roster looks a little different this time around as a number of veterans from 2006 and 2009 have decided to pass on the tournament. Two-time tourney MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ichiro Suzuki are all in big league camps rather than prepping to play for their home country, and that could leave Japan vulnerable.

Instead a new crop of Japanese players will be given a chance to cut their teeth at the WBC. Catcher Shinnosuke Abe is now the face of the franchise and he’s also the reigning MVP in the Nippon Pro League. Abe hit .340 with 27 homers and 104 RBI a year ago as his Yomiuri Giants won the Japan Series 4 games to 2. Also leading the offense is Kazuo Matsui, the only player on 2013’s roster with any Major League experience.

The pitching staff should be the strength of the roster and it’s led by two former Sawamura Award winners (Japan’s equivalent to the Cy Young) in Masahiro Tanaka and Kenta Maeda. Pitching and defense will have to carry the day for the Japanese in this year’s tournament, because the offense just doesn’t appear to be as strong as it’s been in years past.

Game to Watch: Cuba v. Japan March 6th 2:30 AM eastern time

This one’s going to be for all the marbles and fittingly, it’s the final game taking place in Pool A. It’s a classic match-up between a team loaded with offensive talent taking on a roster built to play the run prevention game. Japan has the home-field advantage but don’t expect Cuba to let that bother them. This should be one of the most exciting games taking place in pool play and hopefully for fans we get a couple match-ups between one of Japan’s Sawamura Award winners (Maeda or Tanaka) and the powerful Jose Abreu.

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As fun as it would be to see Brazil or China shock the world and advance, it just doesn’t appear to be a legitimate possibility. They are the two lowest rated countries in the tournament, checking in at 20th and 18th respectively, and that won’t bode well against the precision of Japan and the overwhelming power of Cuba. I think Brazil will win the head-to-head game, grabbing their first ever WBC win and 3rd place, with China bringing up the cellar. I also think that Cuba will edge out Japan, advancing both teams to the 2nd round with the Cubans on top.

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