As we sit on the precipice of the beginning of the World Baseball Classic it’s time to take a look at the teams in Pool B. Out of all 4 groups in pool play, Pool B is probably the most balanced, featuring 4 teams with a legitimate shot at advancing to the 2nd round. The Netherlands and Australia have quite a few more Major League players than their counterparts, Chinese Taipei and Korea, but that doesn’t make those countries the favorites. Instead Korea, featuring a team entirely composed of Korean League and Nippon League players, enters as the Pool favorite after advancing all the way to the finals, where they lost to Japan, 4 years ago. And since all of Pool B’s games will take place in Taiwan, you can’t count out the Chinese Taipei team either. Let’s break down this group, one team at a time:
Australia has a smattering of MLB talent on their roster although most of it is of the minor league variety, which makes them the underdogs of the group. The country has struggled in previous World Baseball Classics, notching just one win, a 17-7 pounding of Mexico in 2009, but they hope to add a couple more victories this year.
The Aussies most famous, and probably best, player is Ryan Rowland-Smith. Most MLB fans will remember Rowland-Smith from his days in Seattle, which ended poorly as the right-hander was last seen posting a 1-10 record with an ERA over 6 in 2010. Smith has bounced around the upper levels of the minors since then and he’s now trying to work his way back to the bigs with the Boston Red Sox. He primarily sticks to his two-seam fastball and he’s most successful when he’s generating a lot of ground ball outs, which could work to his advantage in a group without a lot of power threats.
As for the rest of the roster, Chris Oxspring will be the #2 starter. He currently throws for the Sydney Blue Sox but he’s spend some time in the Majors and Minors, last playing for the Toledo Mud Hens in 2011. Luke Hughes and Chris Snelling are the most recognizable names on the offensive side of the ball. Snelling, a once highly touted prospect in the Mariners system a decade ago, popped 7 total homers in his big league career will anchor the Aussie offense.
Quite honestly, this roster is probably too populated with career minor leaguers and Aussie League players to ever really do any damage in the WBC. In a WBC tune-up game against Japan four days ago, the Aussies were lit up behind Rowland-Smith to the tune of a 10-3 defeat. It will be an honest surprise if Australia advances out of this group.
The hosts of Pool B have sky-high expectations this tournament as they expect to advance to the 2nd round for the first time ever. They were easily the worst team in the tournament four years ago, losing both games they played in by a combined 13-1 score. The team has been on a bit of a hot streak since then however, easily qualifying for the WBC thanks to a series of blowouts, culminating in a 9-0 win over New Zealand to lock up a spot in the tournament. They also placed 2nd in this year’s Asian Baseball Championship, so they should have a good amount of momentum entering this year’s classic.
They also have the most popular player in the country’s history, Chien-Ming Wang, toeing the rubber in the opening game. Wang achieved most of his Major League success with the New York Yankees, even winning 38 games over the 2006-2007 seasons. A devastating knee injury in 2008 has derailed his career and Wang has spent the past couple of seasons trying to regain his past success with the Washington Nationals.
Within this tournament, Wang probably stands as the player with the most to gain by playing well. If he can lead Chinese Taipei to the next level a big league job could be waiting. If he struggles with his sinker and leaves the ball up in the zone, Major League teams may feel they’ve seen enough of Taiwan’s favorite son.
On the other side of the ball Cheng-Ming Peng is the leader and one of the best hitters in his country’s history. Peng has won the Taiwanese batting title a record 5 times. Joining him in the lineup is reigning league Taiwanese League MVP Szu-Chi Chou and Che-Hsuan Lin, an Astros prospect who has a total of 12 minor league at-bats to his name.
It’s 2nd round or bust for the Chinese Taipei team this year and anything less just won’t cut it. The country has tried to assemble the best roster possible and the country has already sold out all of the host’s games in hopes that they see a winner. Getting off to a hot start against the Aussies and Dutch is crucial for Chinese Taipei because it ensures advancement before they face their toughest foe, the Koreans.
Korea comes in with a roster uniquely all its own, and that could have it’s advantages just like it did in 2009 when a roster of unknown players steamrolled the competition before falling to Japan in the title game. 27 of the 28 players on the roster currently play in the Korean Professional League, with the one straggler, Daeho Lee, playing in Japan. For American fans that means this is the first chance to set eyes on a very talented group of players, one that’s favored to advance to the 2nd round.
The Koreans have assembled a star-studded infield featuring Dae-Ho Lee of Japan’s Orix Buffaloes and first baseman Seung-Yuop Lee, the single season home run king in Korea. Lee is known as the Lion King to his legion of adoring fans and he hit .307 with 85 RBI in helping his Samsung Lions to the championship in 2012. He’s an imposing threat with the bat and even though he’s a good bet to strikeout, pitchers should still be wary of catching too much of the plate with a strike. If that’s the case, Lee may just blast away. The lineup also includes a whole host of Korean League All-Stars, including Tae-Kyun Kim, Jung-Ho Kang and Hyun-Soo Kim. This is a roster that’s built to score runs, and it’s difficult to see a pitching staff in this group that’s strong enough to slow them down.
Their pitching staff isn’t as strong, but with former big leaguer Jae-Weong Seo and some Korean League studs on site they should be fine. Seo played for the Rays, Dodgers, and Mets during his time in America, compiling a 28-40 record and a 4.60 ERA. He will be joined on the staff by Yoon Suk-Min and Won-Sam Jang. Suk-Min was named the Korean Professional League MVP in 2011 for his 17 victories and 2.45 ERA and his delivery more than anything should throw unfamiliar hitters off. Suk-Min throws from a three-quarters delivery and has a bit of a hitch in his wind-up which should work to his advantage in such a short tournament.
The Netherlands are going to once again have one of the most intriguing rosters in the tournament, one that features rising star Andrelton Simmons at shortstop and Red Sox uber-prospect Xander Boegarts at 2nd. As fun as that double play combo sounds, it’s actually a step down from the potential Simmons-Jurickson Profar combo that was announced a month ago. Profar decided to head to Rangers camp rather than play for the Dutch, so we’ll have to settle for Boegarts instead.
Boegarts has been a .296 hitter with excellent power for a middle infielder throughout each of his minor league stops and just weeks ago he was named the #8 prospect in baseball by Baseball America. Simmons made a splash in his debut with the Braves a year ago, flashing a brilliant glove with plus range. They should make sweet music together as a double play combo, especially since Boegarts is normally a shortstop. MLB veterans Andruw Jones, who was last seen swinging at everything in sight for the Yankees, and Roger Bernadina of the Nationals will patrol the outfield.
The rotation is where it all starts to fall apart for the Dutch. The most prominent Dutch pitchers, Jair Jurrjens, Kenley Jensen, and Rick van den Hurk, have all declined to play in the WBC, which means other, less-experienced players will have to step up. Shairon Martis of Minnesota Twins organization is probably the top arm on the staff with right-hander Robbie Cordemans, the all-time wins leader in the Dutch league, known as the Hoofdklasse.
This is a roster with plenty of unknowns and if the Dutch plan on pulling another 2009, when they defeated the Dominicans and advanced to the 2nd round, they will need some of those unknowns to step up, particularly on the mound. This team has the potential to put up some runs, whether they can keep the other team of the board will be the big question.
Game to Watch: Chinese Taipei at Korea, March 5th
A couple of days ago I would have probably put a game involving the Dutch somewhere on the list. But that all changed when the Chinese Taipei squad was caught spying on the Koreans while they practiced. The spies were undercover, dressed as umpires, and they were timing the deliveries of the Korean pitchers in an effort to get an edge. It just adds a little more fuel to the fire between these two international rivals.
This is by far the trickiest group to predict because there really isn’t a true powerhouse team among the lot. Korea looks to have the strongest and most balanced roster, so I believe they will get through to the 2nd round. As for the 2nd team to advance from Pool B? I’m going to go with my gut and say that this is the year Chinese Taipei finally get the job done, thanks to home-field advantage, but that’s only if they can beat their biggest threat, the Netherlands, in Game 2.