World Baseball Classic: Previewing Pool D

wbc2-4_3_r536_c534Pool D should make for an interesting watch, as it is the home to the tournament favorite, Team USA, and three teams who hope to make some noise: Mexico, Italy, and Canada. Let’s take a look at each of the ball clubs:

Canada

The Canadian team and the WBC got a big boost last week when Joey Votto, Reds slugger and 2011 NL MVP, decided he was going to join his country’s efforts. Votto and his 60 double potential will be a nice buffer in the middle of the order between Brett Lawrie and Justin Morneau, but those three are about it on offense. Outfielder Adam Loewen has a bit of major league experience, although he hasn’t done well with it hitting just .176 in 34 at bats, but that’s about it for position players. Canada will have to hope that guys like prospect Jimmy Von Ostrand, veteran Pete Orr, and other bit players step up and contribute.

The pitching staff also has the same stars and scrubs feel to it. Canada has closer John Axford in the back of the bullpen with Japanese star Scott Mathieson, Pirates prospect Jameson Tallion, and bounce-around guy Shawn Hill in the rotation. Hill’s getting the nod in the opener and I’m guessing Tallion will go against Mexico in Game 2.

He’s the pitcher to watch for Canada because he’s the one with the highest ceiling. The Pirates love his ability to hit 98 on the radar gun and he has a 2nd plus pitch in his arsenal with his curveball. He’s ranked as the 19th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America and if he has an impressive showing in the tournament, Canada could catch everybody by surprise.

More on Team Canada’s roster

Italy

Italy has their work cut out for them in this group, entering pool play with the weakest roster out of the four teams. They should be able to put a solid lineup together featuring a handful of Major League players. Cubs’ 1st baseman Anthony Rizzo is the team’s best hitter and will be the centerpiece of the lineup. He hit an impressive .285 with 15 homers in 87 big league games a year ago, and looks to have the potential to approach 30 homers in a full season.

Joining Rizzo in the lineup is Alex Liddi, the first European-born Major Leaguer. Liddi is just 24 and currently battling for playing time in the Mariners infield after hitting a combined .224 over about 50 career games. Veterans Nick Punto and Chris Denorfia are the only other players with real big league experience in the lineup.

The Italians had a bit more trouble assembling a competent pitching staff, which is a common complaint with this year’s WBC teams. Alex Maestri, a pitcher for the Nippon League Blue Orix is probably the team’s nominal ace, though that’s not saying much. He struggled to make it past Double-A in the Cubs system before opting to play oversees in Australia and Japan. Pat Venditte, the Yankees switch-pitching prospect, is also on the roster and will come out of the bullpen, however, he’s only going to throw left-handed. He had surgery on a torn labrum in his right arm in June and has yet to really test it out. Jason Grilli will be doing the closing for the Italians, provided they can get a lead, which is easier said than done with this starting staff.

Mexico

Mexico doesn’t quite have the firepower to win the whole shebang, but they do appear to be a good bet to make it out of Pool D. The team has a handful of Major League All-Stars, of which the most famous is Adrian Gonzalez. If Mexico plans on lasting longer than a few games in the WBC they’re going to need the 2006-2011 version of A-Gon rather than the 2012 edition. Last year Gonzalez posted his worst OPS and his lowest homerun total and walk total since his 2nd year in the bigs.

If that’s the Gonzalez that shows up for this tournament, Mexico is going to have trouble scoring. The only other players with any real Major League experience in the lineup are Jorge Cantu, Karim Garcia, Ramiro Pena, and Luis Cruz. Cantu last played for an MLB team in 2011 when he hit .194 for San Diego in 50 game, Garcia hasn’t seen a big league diamond in nearly a decade, and Pena was given a whopping 4 total at-bats by the Yankees a year ago and is struggling just to make the Braves roster. That leaves Cruz as the only other legitimate talent outside of Gonzalez and even he has just a smattering of successful plate appearances under his belt.

Luckily, Mexico is packing one of the stronger rotations in the classic and a pretty solid bullpen too. Yovani Gallardo gives Mexico a legitimate ace at the top of their rotation, one who has 60 total wins in the last 4 MLB seasons. Gallardo’s pitching style may not play well in the first round of the Classic however. He’s a pitcher who’s prone to using a lot of pitches to retire hitters, and with a limit of 65 throws, he may not last much past the 3rd inning. Oliver Perez and Rodrigo Lopez will back him up as the #2 and #3 starters, and while they may not look like much, they have more experience than most others.

The bullpen is the real meat and potatoes of this roster and if Mexico does well in the Classic, you can bet they’re the big reason why. Sergio Romo closed out the World Series for the Giants just one October ago and he will be handed the final inning on the Mexican team. Alfredo Aceves, Marco Estrada, Fernando Salas, Oscar Villareal, and Luis Mendoza give Mexican manager Rick Renteria a deep crop of arms to pick from. If Mexico manages to get a lead, they have the kind of roster that’s built to protect it.

United States

The tournament favorites and my personal pick to take the Classic, Team USA easily has the finest collection of talent out of all 16 teams. If discussed their roster at length already (read that discussion here), but there has been one major change made to it. 1st baseman Mark Teixeira has been lost to a strained wrist, leaving not only the Yankees without their Gold Glover, but Team USA as well.

Filling in for Tex will be the Royals’ Eric Hosmer, a slugging, young left-handed hitter. Hosmer had some major struggles during his sophomore campaign of 2012, hitting just .232 with 14 homers after a fantastic rookie year. Part of his problem was just pure ole’ dumb bad luck. Hosmer had the lowest batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of any player in baseball a year ago and if you spent any time watching the Royals play, your eyes confirmed his bad bounces. While he’s not as strong as Teixeira defensively, Hosmer should be able to compensate for the loss of power.

As far as the rest of the roster goes, there isn’t much more that I need to say. The rotation is head-and-shoulders, knees-and-toes above the rest of Pool D, and the offense has an All-Star at every position, and most of them have been in the midsummer classic within the last 2 or 3 years. Anything less than a place in the finals will be a disappointment.

Game to Watch: Mexico v. United States, March 8th 9 pm Eastern time

This game probably won’t have the importance of the Mexico-Canada clash, but it will be the first time to catch Team USA in the WBC, and it should feature a dandy of a pitching match-up. RA Dickey, the reigning NL Cy Young winner, is scheduled to be on the bump for America and it looks like Mexico is countering with their ace, Yovi Gallardo.

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As I stated just a second ago, I fully expect Team USA to run rampant over this group, taking a perfect 3-0 record into the 2nd round. As for who will be joining them? I’m guessing that Italy is going struggle to win even a single game, which leaves the winner of the Mexico-Canada showdown as the 2nd place team. My odds are on Canada pulling off a minor upset to advance out of pool play. Either way, expect this group to be dominated by the red, white, and blue of America.

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