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February 25, 2009
The World Baseball Classic
The first pitch of the World Baseball Classic is a week away. Rosters were announced Tuesday afternoon, making the whole thing a bit more real. We can now take a look at the players who will be on the field playing for their countries in March and get a sense of which teams are emerging as the favorites.
Remember that for all the anticipation of the United States and Dominican Republic matching up, it was Cuba and Japan that took the field for the championship game last time around. The US dropped out in Round Two thanks to a pitching collapse against South Korea and a fantastic pitching performance by Mexico that eliminated the Americans. The Dominican Republic advanced to the semifinals before losing to Cuba, 3-1. While the Classic was entertaining for baseball fans, the absence of the US squad from the semifinals and finals and the presence of three teams largely lacking MLB stars in those same rounds made the end of the first WBC somewhat anticlimactic. The marketing of the event is built in large part around the most famous players in baseball squaring off for their countries for a world championship, and that plan failed badly in '06.
That's why the timing of the event is so problematic, because many of the MLB stars are either absent due to injury or choosing to stay in spring training, a fact that impacts the US, Dominican, Puerto Rican, and other teams dependent on MLB talent. On the other hand, this event means everything to Cuba, because their team never gets to play against MLB talent. It's important to Japan, still fighting to see its leagues considered "major" the way the American and National are, and with its sprinkling of MLB players on its roster. South Korea is also trying to prove itself with a roster mostly devoid of stars. What the WBC needs-Jake Peavy vs. Alex Rodriguez for a world championship-and what it's most likely to get-two guys you've never seen before playing good baseball-are at odds.
Once again, the US has taken the interesting tack of stuffing the roster with relievers, a whopping ten. It's a glimpse of what baseball might look like if you had an NFL schedule. The adaptation makes sense not just tactically-when you have pitchers who are great for 15 pitches, you take as many as possible-but as a way of getting around the timing issues. Starting pitchers tend to have to build up to their job; what relievers do on March 1 and in September is basically the same. There's less risk in choosing relievers, less chance you'll interrupt their rhythm, and a greater chance of near-peak performance.
There are some surprises on the roster, primarily due to the need to fill spots with players who want to be there. Did you expect that some of the best pitchers America has produced include Matt Lindstrom and Jeremy Guthrie? That aside, the US is the only team to have its entire roster comprised of current MLB players. The Dominican Republic comes close, needing to fill out its bullpen with righty Julio Manon (last seen in 2006 with the Orioles) and two free agents, Alberto Castillo and Moises Alou, whose careers may be over.
Actually, that's an interesting aspect of this year's tournament. Because of the odd offseason MLB has just had, it's also serving as a tryout camp for some players who lack contracts. Juan Cruz is in the Dominican's bullpen, Ivan Rodriguez is one of the catchers for Puerto Rico, and Dennys Reyes and Ricardo Rincon are pitching out of Mexico's bullpen. (I want to note here that I have repeatedly said in radio interviews that the WBC would provide a stage for Manny Ramirez. That was an error-he is not on the Dominican Republic's roster for the event.)
Back in 2006, I thought that Venezuela would win the inaugural Classic thanks to their rotation, which included Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano, Kelvim Escobar, and Freddy Garcia, backed by a bullpen including Francisco Rodriguez and Rafael Betancourt. Few teams outside of the US had that much pitching. Alas, they didn't make it out of second-round pool play, losing a fantastic elimination game to the Dominicans, 2-1. This year's staff isn't quite as deep or impressive; Santana and Escobar are rehabbing injuries, and the bullpen behind Rodriguez isn't as impressive. Given their group, which includes the US and a Canadian team that can put runs on the board, they're no lock to advance.
Team Canada brings lefty pop, with Justin Morneau, Joey Votto, and Matt Stairs, as well as Russell Martin and Jason Bay from the right side. It's a little weak up the middle aside from Martin, and lacks established MLB pitchers aside from Jesse Crain. It's interesting to see Philippe Aumont on the roster; he is their most talented pitcher, and their chance of advancing will likely depend on having him beat Venezuela.
Some notes from each pool:
The Far East bracket will provide the least drama, as the emerging programs of China and Taiwan are served up to the mature ones from Japan and South Korea. China was outscored 40-6 in 2006, and while they were a little more competitive at the recent Olympics, they're only a threat to possibly steal a game from Taiwan-as they did in dramatic fashion in Beijing last summer. It would be a tremendous upset if either of the two underdogs won a game against Japan or Korea, and stunning if either were to advance.
Given the strength of Pools C and D, this one seems fairly weak, with Cuba and Mexico the only contenders. South Africa is unlikely to be more competitive this time around than they were three years ago, when they nearly beat Canada-they were leading with three outs to go-before being blown out by Mexico and the US. Organized baseball is just beginning to produce potential professionals in that country, and the roster includes some low-profile prospects such as Dylan Lindsay. It's not inconceivable that South Africa could beat Australia, which is also short on MLB players, though it has a few more products of the US minors. Australia went 0-3 and was outscored 18-4 back in 2006, and it's missing the best Australian pitcher in the majors right now, the Mariners' Ryan Rowland-Smith. Look for Mexico, with a roster heavy on MLB and ex-MLB players, to advance easily.
It bears repeating that the World Baseball Classic will always mean more to Cuba than to any other nation. For Cuba, international play is how it proves itself, with so few of its players getting to the major leagues due to the longstanding tension between its rulers and the United States. They can play, of course; Cuba won three gold medals and two silver in its five Olympics, and finished second to Japan back in the 2006 Classic. Because of the importance of the Classic and its lack of MLB players, Cuba faces none of the problems tht teams laden with MLB players do. The Classic doesn't compete with preparation for a season that may be more important than the event, the way it does for Americans and Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Cuba combines great baseball talent with a single-minded focus, and that will make them a favorite every time.
For a nation without much baseball, Italy put together a decent roster thanks to rules that enable players such as Nick Punto and Frank Catalanotto to don the red and green. Last time around, Italy hammered Australia, and was blown out twice in 2006; they'll have to sneak up on Canada to avoid being swept this time out.
It seems like this pool should come down to the Canada/Venezuela game, but remember that the US lost a first-round game to Canada two years ago when the Canadian lineup pounded Dontrelle Willis on its way to an 8-0 lead, then held on for an 8-6 win. Canada, in fact, missed the second round only by dint of the runs-allowed tiebreaker. This Canadian team doesn't seem quite as strong as that one, but in this format, it just takes one big game. All three of the games among the contenders are going to be critical, and assuming that the US can get through this pool is a mistake. They took a loss, and beat Mexico just 2-0 three years ago; the line between advancing and not is going to be thin. That this group is playing in Toronto, making Canada the home team for all three games, adds to the potential for an upset.
As mentioned, Venezuela isn't as strong as they looked in '06, and the loss of Santana is tough to take in a format where a single win can be so important. This is going to be a terrific pool to watch, and while the US is a favorite over the other two contenders, they're far from a lock to advance to the second round.
The Netherlands is the strongest fourth seed in the three pools, and they even blew out Panama in 2006. With Sidney Ponson, Alexander Smit, and Rick VandenHurk, they'll have three credible starters in the pool games. Depth and offense are both issues, but for five innings, they should be able to play with the competition. Panama went 0-3 in 2006, but that included a 2-1 loss to Puerto Rico and an extra-innings loss to Cuba. A lack of starting pitching and offense will put them behind the eight-ball, but if they can keep a game close, a fairly deep bullpen (featuring Manny Acosta and Manny Corpas) could help them to an upset.
Those nice thoughts aside, it would be a surprise if it wasn't the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico emerging from this group. The two teams went 6-0 in first-round pool play three years ago, and their rosters are almost entirely filled with MLB and former MLB players, along with a smattering of prospects. The matchup between these two squads, most likely on March 9, will be the best game of the first round.
Picking the winner of the WBC is fraught with all of the dangers associated with picking the winners of a post-season series, only we have less reliable information about the teams. I think we'll see Cuba, Japan, and the Dominican Republic back in the semis again, with the US surviving two very difficult groups to advance this time. At that point, it's single-game elimination, and I'd just be guessing as to the winners. I go back to first principles: this will always mean more to Cuba. Because of that, if I had to hazard a guess, I'd pick them to win.
One final point about participation. Just to give some kind of idea of the buy-in, I took a look at the percentage of the best players in baseball playing in this year's Classic. Bil Burke generated a list of the top players in baseball over the past five years, by WARP. Of those:
You can tweak the methodology on this all you want, but that issue won't just go away. If around half of the best players in baseball skip the World Baseball Classic, then the event won't survive, and as Keith Law has noted for ESPN, player pullouts make this situation worse. I don't know that there's a silver bullet for this problem, and certainly 100 percent participation isn't a realistic figure, but under the current circumstances, the WBC isn't attracting enough MLB players to warrant the hype being assigned to it.