The World Baseball Classic is a tournament that is far from perfect. It occurs too soon in the season, before pitchers have stretched out their arms or batters have adjusted to live pitching. It conflicts with Spring Training and forces players who are in position battles or new to a team to sit out and it leaves most MLB teams playing without their full 25-man roster for a majority of the spring.
But, given that Olympic baseball didn’t include active MLB players and is now taken out of the summer games entirely, the WBC provides baseball fans their only chance to see competitive baseball on a global level, and their first chance after a long winter to see competitive baseball. For those players able to play, the tournament does mean a great deal for national pride. The tournament has a strong following worldwide, especially in Japan, where their country’s team has taken the first two championships.
With this is mind, let’s break down the teams to watch by putting together a pre-emptive, sure-to-be-incorrect top five power ranking:
Venezuela: They will feel the absence of Felix Hernandez, but this Venezuela team’s lineup is stacked. The team will be led by last year’s MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, who is surrounded by 2012 All-Stars Carlos Gonzalez, Pablo Sandoval, Asdrubal Cabrera and Elvis Andrus. Without Hernandez, the team will be forced to scrap for pitching, but the production within their lineup is so staggering it may not matter. Look for them to slug their way deep into the tournament.
United States: This U.S. team, as with both teams from past tournaments, can be just as easily defined by who’s sitting out than who is actually on the roster. This year’s team is without C.C. Sabathia, Stephen Strasburg, Justin Verlander, Mike Trout and Buster Posey, just to name a few. Still, this team, with Joe Torre at the helm, has just as good a chance to take this tournament as any of the past two rosters. They are led by an absolute monster of an outfield, with Ryan Braun and Giancarlo Stanton flanking Adam Jones in center field. They also boast what is likely the strongest pitching staff in the tournament led by National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey and Gio Gonzalez, Strasburg’s co-ace on the Nationals. While the team lacks infield depth, they should be able to push through the initial rounds on the strength of their powerful outfield and starting pitching.
Dominican Republic: The Dominican Republic team had an extremely disappointing tournament in 2009, not even making it out of the first round. The baseball-crazed country will be expecting much more from their team this spring, and it has the talent to do so. The team boasts a strong infield led by perennial MVP candidate Robinson Canó, along with José Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Edwin Encarnación, who is fresh off a breakout 42 home run season. The pitching staff leaves much to be desired. The only experienced MLB starters on the team are Edinson Vólquez and Wandy Rodriguez, as Ubaldo Jiménez and Johnny Cueto have been held out by their respective teams. Canó is always reliable for steady production and the infield bats surrounding may be enough to overcome any potential pitching woes.
Japan: The majority of fans will have a hard time finding a recognizable name on the two-time defending champ’s roster, as Japanese MLB stars Ichiro, Yu Darvish and two-time tournament MVP Daisuke Matzusaka are all sitting out the event. The only MLB player on the roster, current or former, is light-hitting middle infielder Kaz Matsui. Regardless, Japan is sure to field a competitive team with the best players from the Japanese professional league. They also have the advantage of practicing together for several weeks before the tournament. Japan has been able to win past tournaments with cohesive, fundamentally-sound baseball. Look for them to make a similar run this year, big league talent or not.
Cuba: Similar to Japan, Cuba boats a roster that is without any notable big leaguers, but a solid bet to be strong regardless. For political reasons, Cuban-born MLB players such as Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Céspedes and Kendrys Morales are not allowed to compete on the Cuban team. Cuba was competitive in both WBCs without MLB talent, so this year should be no exception. The tournament will allow the world a look at Cuban first-basemen José Dariel Abreu, dubbed the “Cuban Barry Bonds,” who will lead a lineup staked with Cuban league stars. Cuba has also had strong pitching in both tournaments, and will need to continue that trend in order to make a deep run into the tournament.
The first game of the WBC will be on Saturday at 5 a.m. when Japan hosts Brazil. The U.S. team opens the tournament next Friday, March 8 at 9 p.m. against Mexico.