The World Cup of soccer has this great concept that you may or may not be familiar with. It’s called the Group of Death and it’s usually the most interesting group in the entire tournament in part because it has the strongest collection of teams. The Group of Death also derives its name in part from the fact that one or two of the strongest teams in the tournament will be eliminated after just 3 games. Well, Pool C features Venezuela, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and (hilariously) Spain. Let’s just be honest right now: Spain’s not winning a game in this group. They will be lucky to avoid getting 10-runned three straight times. As for the other three teams, they each have a hefty amount of Major League talent on their respective rosters, and all three expect not only to advance, but to win the group as well. Let’s take a look at which team stands the best chance:
The Dominican roster is as star-ladden as any in the entire tournament, boasting perennial All-Stars like Robinson Cano, Carlos Santana, and Hanley Ramirez. They aren’t as strong as the could be though. Albert Pujols won’t play unless they advance to the 2nd round and Jonny Cueto was blocked from playing by the Reds because of his back spasms in last year’s playoffs. Instead Edwin Encarnacion will take 1st and the rotation will be fronted by the likes of Wandy Rodriguez and Edison Volquez.
That starting staff is where the letdown may occur, because the rest of the roster looks strong. The offense should be able to put up enough runs to win plenty of games. It will hit Hanley Ramirez, Cano, Carlos Santana and Nelson Cruz in the middle of the order, and with Jose Reyes around to lead off, the potential for a runs bonanza is there. The bullpen is also fortified with plenty of battle-tested arms. Fernando Rodney will close games out, and all he’s done recently is allow 5 total earned runs in his last 70+ innings pitched. No big deal. Pedro Strop, Octavio Doctel, Alfredo Simon, and a plethora of hard-throwing young arms will work the middle innings, giving the Dominican plenty of mix-and-match options, provided they can get a good start from their razor-thin rotation.
This team really had the potential to be so much more. Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre, David Ortiz, and Jose Bautista all had to withdraw their names from the tournament for one reason or another. This roster is still strong but they don’t appear to have the horses that the United States, Cuba, or Venezuela do, and that will probably limit their potential in this year’s WBC.
The Puerto Ricans have assembled one of the most intriguing rosters in this year’s Classic that samples the finest collection of talent the small island has to offer. Nearly every important player from the tiny commonwealth decided to participate giving Puerto Rico 21 total Major League players on the roster.
The lineup will be led by a pair of Cardinals, Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran. Molina is coming off a career-best season that saw him post his best offensive season alongside another banner defensive year. Beltran also had something of a career-year in 2012, smacking 32 homers while playing in 150+ games for the first time since 2008. Angel Pagan will hit lead-off ahead of those two and Alex Rios will bat somewhere in the heart of the lineup. The rest of the infield is a collection of minor league lifers and Major League bench-warmers including Irving Falu of the Royals and Mike Aviles of the Indians.
Much like the infield, the Puerto Rican pitching staff doesn’t have much high-quality big league talent either. Giancarlo Alvarado will get a start at some point in the first round. He plays for the Yokohama Bay Stars in Japan and was hit fairly hard in a tune-up game against the light-hitting Twins lineup a couple of days ago. Brewers prospect Hiram Burgos is also a good bet to get a start. He has a 3.61 ERA in 4 minor league seasons and the Brewers think Burgos has the potential to contribute at the big league level in some capacity this season. Nelson Figueroa, who’s making a comeback with the Diamondbacks after last pitching in 2011 with the Astros, is probably the final starter, which tells you all you need to know about the quality of this staff.
If the offense can carry the day for the Puerto Ricans and the pitching staff can put together a performance similar to what the Dutch did in the first round, they will advance. I still don’t trust a staff with so much inexperience, but they do have the benefit of having the best catcher in baseball behind the dish, which should take some of the pressure off.
Oh poor, poor Spain. If this new participant in the Classic manages to avoid getting 10-runned in this tournament it will be considered an accomplishment in this group. Rhiner Cruz and Barbaro Canizares are the only players on the roster with any Major League experience, and none of it is good. Cruz was on the Disastros last year and was predictably pummeled to the tune of a 6.05 ERA in 55 innings. He walks about 5 batters per 9 and when he is getting the ball over the plate it doesn’t usually end well. Canizares received 21 at bats with the Braves 5 years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. Unless the Spanish start adopting the tactics their forefathers used to take over the Caribbean (lies, smallpox blankets, the like) this team is nothing more than an easy meal for the rest of the sharks in Pool B.
One of the 2 or 3 favorites to win the entire 2013 World Baseball Classic is Venezuela, who comes in holding a roster that oozes talent. Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera will man 1st base, bringing his all-world hitting to the middle of the Venezuelan lineup. Surrounding Cabrera on the star-studded infield are World Series heroes Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval, Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Salvador Perez. That kind of quality depth is what makes Venezuela a safe bet to advance.
Venezuela also continues Pool C’s running theme however, thanks to their mediocre pitching staff. With King Felix pulling out, that leaves Anibal Sanchez and Carlos Zambrano at the top of the rotation, which isn’t exactly optimal because those guys are #3 starters (at best in Zambrano’s case) in the Majors. The bullpen is also among the weakest for any of the elite teams in this tournament. The best relievers are probably Ronald Belisario, Alex Torres, and Cesar Jimenez. That’s 3 players who spent part or most of 2012 in the minors. That’s not good and that could come back to haunt the Venezuelans if they find themselves involved in a high-stakes, 1-run game.
Game to Watch: Venezuela at Dominican Republic, March 7th 6:30 Eastern time
The first game of Pool C should be one of it’s best. Venezuela and the Dominican are the two most talented teams in this group and they should keep the scorekeepers busy. I expect nothing less than a highly entertaining slug fest, so make sure you tune in.
I expect to see the Venezuelan team and the Dominican club slug their way through what should be a highly entertaining set of baseball games. Spain won’t win a game and I expect Venezuela to win all three, which means 2nd place could be on the line when Puerto Rico and the Dominican meet in the pool’s finale. If that’s the final outcome, everybody should be happy that we get some early March do-or-die baseball.