For the next two weeks, baseball will turn its eyes from meaningless exhibition games to…well, whatever the World Baseball Classic is to you. At the very least, it’s a chance to watch a lot of accumulated baseball talent, much of it from leagues that you might not get to see much, from the American minors to Cuba’s Serie Nacional and Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. With the start of play on this side of the Pacific finally upon us, I’m going to take a look at three interesting prospects (or young not-fully-established players), a key storyline (or two or three), and one interesting non-prospect to watch for in each of the four pools.
Pool A (Seoul, South Korea)
Most Interesting Prospects (Or Close Enough)
Tyler Krieger, 2B, Israel (Cleveland Indians): For the purposes of the WBC, Israel is the land of the MLB fringe first baseman and the polished middle-infielder. Krieger is the most prospect-y of the bunch, a 2015 fourth-rounder out of Clemson that projects as a potential regular at second. He’s got a nice swing from both sides of the plate, some speed, and defensive chops at second. Krieger’s already slid over to second from short because of shoulder issues, and “second base prospect without a lot of power” is always going to be a tough profile. Double-A is always a good test.
Jurickson Profar, IF/OF, Netherlands (Texas Rangers): We may stretch the definition of prospect a few times here. Profar hasn’t been eligible for lists since 2013, but has also yet to establish himself as a full-time—or particularly good—major leaguer quite yet. You may already know the story, but in brief, he lost over two years of developmental time due to recurring shoulder injuries, a period in which Rougned Odor eclipsed him as a young star and grabbed the starting second base job opposite Elvis Andrus. When healthy in 2013 and 2016, Profar has been deployed as a super-utility player for the Rangers, picking up at least ten games at all four infield positions, left, and DH, but he has yet to hit much, and his free agency clock is starting to tick faster than his player development clock. Already into his arbitration years thanks to all that MLB DL time, Profar looks primed to be something resembling an everyday LF for the Rangers in 2017, but he’s playing center for the Dutch in the WBC.
Wei-Chung Wang, SP, Chinese Taipei (Milwaukee Brewers): The former Brewers regime thought highly enough of Wang to pluck the lefty as a Rule 5 pick out of the Gulf Coast League after 2013—and then carry him the entire season despite an ERA over 10. The developmental disruption and shoulder problems tanked his stock for a few years, and he ended up outrighted off Milwaukee’s 40-man, but Wang turned in a solid 2016 split between Double-A and Triple-A to get back on the radar. Wang is one of the “designated pool pitchers,” a new stipulation that allows teams to shuffle pitchers on and off the active roster between rounds even if they’re healthy. (So yeah, this is a really thin pool for young talent unless you just want to write about Dutch shortstops.)
The rise of Team Israel: Nominally the 41st-best national baseball team in the world, Israel made it into the WBC for the first time through sectional qualifiers last fall in Brooklyn. Yet this isn’t the same Israeli team that’s competed in low-level international tournaments for the past few years. Anyone with a Jewish grandparent is eligible for Israeli citizenship and thus a spot on their national sports teams, and the folks running the Israeli baseball team have actively scoured the minors for as many decent players of Jewish heritage as they can find. With the exception of longtime Team Israel ace (and VP at New York’s City Winery) Shlomo Lipetz, every player on Israel’s roster is a current or former player in the majors or affiliated minors. They were unsuccessful in convincing any of baseball’s top Jewish players, like Ryan Braun or Joc Pederson, to come along for the ride, but they have assembled a pretty strong roster core of decent career high-minors players like Ty Kelly, Josh Zeid, and Nate Freiman, supplemented by former major-league regulars like Ike Davis, Sam Fuld, Ryan Lavarnway, and Jason Marquis. At press time, with Pool A play having kicked off early for travel reasons, Israel’s rag-tag bunch of Triple-A quality Americans sits at 2-0, squeaking by a strong South Korea team and outclassing an overmatched Chinese Taipei, and is very likely to advance into the second round of play next week.
The return of Honkbal: The most entertaining recurring storyline of the WBC era belongs to The Kingdom of the Netherlands. Bolstered by talent from the tiny baseball-rich Dutch protectorate island of Curacao, the Netherlands has consistently overperformed in this tournament, reaching the second round of pool play in 2009 and the semifinals in 2013. Almost as importantly, they’ve usually been the most fun team to watch, playing an exciting, speed-and-defense oriented game while playing the David role against Goliaths in the Dominican Republic in 2009 and Cuba in 2013. As we’ll discuss shortly, their infield is almost too loaded this year, but they’ve also got a decent outfield (led by NPB star Wladimir Balentien) and a pitching staff with significant experience in organized baseball, including Loek van Mil, Jair Jurrjens, Rick VandenHurk, and Shairon Martis. Unfortunately, 2009 catching star and current contender for best closer in the world Kenley Jansen appears unlikely to join the team even if it advances to later rounds.
A Player To Watch
Xander Bogaerts, IF, Netherlands (Boston Red Sox): Bogaerts is one of the five best shortstops in baseball, a fine two-way player, but will likely see little-to-no time there in the WBC. The Netherlands is deep in exactly one thing: natural shortstops. Their three best players — Bogaerts, Andrelton Simmons, and Didi Gregorius—are all starting MLB shortstops, and they’ve also got Jonathan Schoop and Profar. Simmons and Gregorius will reportedly split shortstop reps, with Bogaerts at third and Schoop at second. Bogaerts does have a World Series ring from his time largely as a third baseman down the stretch in 2013, but struggled there on both defense and offense in 2014, prompting a permanent shift back to short.
Pool B (Tokyo, Japan)
Most Interesting Prospects (Or Close Enough)
Yoelkis Cespedes, OF, Cuba (Granma): Yes, he’s Yoenis’ younger half-brother. Only 19, Yoelkis started turning heads internationally during this winter’s Caribbean Series. Yoelkis is a bit smaller than Yoenis, at least at present, and doesn’t have Yoenis’ raw power. He does have the arm, the speed, the overall athleticism, and purely aesthetically, the look of his older brother. Almost every notable Cuban baseball prospect has come stateside in the past few years as salaries have skyrocketed and relations have improved; with the new international bonus caps and extended eligibility, players like Cespedes may have less incentive to leave Cuba until their mid-20s.
Victor Mesa, OF, Cuba (Matanzas): The son of Cuban baseball legend and former national team manager Victor Mesa, Victor Victor Mesa has already established himself as one of Cuba’s best players at age-21. Granted, it’s a depleted crop, but Mesa’s probably the best prospect left in Cuba, combining potential high-end defense in center with a potent bat. One can easily suppose that he’ll never come stateside because of his father’s status in the community, but that was also said for many years about the Gurriel brothers, right up until the last round of defection rumors started. In any event, this will be a rare chance for MLB teams to legally scout Cuba’s finest international players against strong competition.
Tetsuto Yamada, 2B, Japan (Tokyo Yakult): The Japanese team became less interesting with the scratch of two-way deity Shohei Otani, but don’t underestimate what’s left. At 24, Tetsuto Yamada has established himself as one of the preeminent sluggers in NPB, belting 38 homers in each of the past two seasons while playing second base. Speculation has already started in the Japanese press about Yakult’s willingness to post Yamada, so he may be on the way to the States soon.
What does Cuba have left on the island?: Cuban baseball has been absolutely ravaged over the past decade-plus by defections. Let’s have some fun and imagine what a representative lineup of Cuban players playing in organized baseball might look like:
The rotation behind Raisel Iglesias would either include journeymen like Roenis Elias and Odrisamer Despaigne or untested prospects like Yadier Alvarez and Adrian Morejon, but that’s a lineup that can hit and field with anyone, even the Dominican Republic and United States. And we haven’t even mentioned Aroldis Chapman yet. Instead, the actual Team Cuba rolls out a team mixing a handful of young stars like that haven’t defected with old warhorses like Jonder Martinez, Vladimir Garcia, and Frederich Cepeda. With a very stratified pool, Cuba still should advance unless disaster strikes, but their opening night loss to Japan might be telling on the overall level of talent left. One can hope that relations between Cuba and the United States will continue to improve such that a unified team of all players of Cuban heritage playing under their flag becomes possible. From a fan’s perspective, that would be one hell of a team to watch.
A Player To Watch
Alfredo Despaigne, OF, Cuba (Fukuoka SoftBank/Granma): In one of the signs of thawing relations between Cuba and the western world, Cuban players have recently been allowed to play in various foreign professional leagues, mostly in Mexico and Japan. Despaigne, one of the Cuban national team’s best players for a decade now, has played in both since 2013, and has been one of the Pacific League’s better outfielders for the past three years. Despaigne is only listed at 5-foot-8 and because of his size doesn’t project to MLB stardom like many of his former Cuban teammates have gone on to achieve. Yet he’s quite fun to watch in international competitions, a throwback to a time when Cuba would roll out some of the world’s best talent in tournaments like the WBC.
Pool C (Miami, Florida)
Most Interesting Prospects (Or Close Enough)
Jorge Alfaro, C, Colombia (Philadelphia Phillies): I’m not sure we’ve written more about any prospect over the course of their prospect-dom on this site than Jorge Alfaro. I’m writing about Alfaro because I can’t write about Alex Reyes, who was supposed to be the ace of the Dominican staff before Jeffrey Paternostro and our team put the demon hex on him, costing Reyes both the tournament and the MLB season with Tommy John surgery. Alfaro very well might be Colombia’s best rostered hitter, and if they’re going to make any noise in this pool will need to have a big offensive and defensive series. We’ve been waiting for the breakout for what seems like forever but is really only six years of perfectly normally-paced development; maybe it starts this week.
Alex Bregman, 3B, United States (Houston Astros): Well, that happened quickly. The second overall pick in 2015 entered the 2016 season a respectable 39th on our top 101 prospects, shot up to fourth on our midseason list, and then overcame an 1-for-32 start to graduate off into one of the game’s top young superstars. A natural shortstop, Carlos Correa’s presence caused Bregman to pick up a number of different positions for a versatile Astros squad, but he seems to be settling in as a third baseman for the time being. Bregman had an interesting decision on what country to declare for in this WBC: be a utility player on a potentially-contending Team USA, or be Team Israel’s cornerstone star. He chose the United States; it’s early, but given Israel is the talk of the baseball world this week, Bregman might regret that one.
Tyler O’Neill, OF, Canada (Seattle Mariners): O’Neill went from a prep career in British Columbia to the Seattle system that has all of its outposts in the more remote corners of the minors, so if you missed his Futures Game cameo, this might be your first chance to familiarize yourself with the 53rd-best prospect in the game. O’Neill gives Yoan Moncada stiff competition for the most impressively chiseled frame, top prospect division, and brings with the body the appropriate power and overall athleticism. O’Neill consolidated and even improved upon 2015 gains moving up from the Cal League to Double-A Jackson in 2016, raising his stock significantly in the process. He’s already on the doorstep of The Show, but a strong run in the middle of Team Canada’s lineup might expose him to the larger baseball community as a potential star.
Can anyone beat the Dominican Republic?: The Dominican has the deepest position player roster in the tournament—their regular starting infield should look something like Carlos Santana, Robinson Cano, Manny Machado, and Adrian Beltre, and that’s leaving Jean Segura, Jonathan Villar, and Jose Reyes on the bench. Even losing Alex Reyes, they still have Carlos Martinez leading a rotation that can run out five or six legitimate MLB starters, and a large group of power pen arms led by Dellin Betances, Jeurys Familia, Fernando Rodney, and Alex Colome will shorten games substantially. Many of their players participated in winter ball and are already in midseason form, and Team DR has usually brought a high level of intensity to the proceedings in the past. There’s a ton of variance in a two-week tournament, of course, but this looks like one of the two best squads in the tournament, along with…
Will the real United States stand up?: Once again, the United States should have the best team in the field. It’s our game and we have the best leagues, right? But in the three prior WBCs, the United States has failed to medal, with a high finish of fourth in 2009. What gives? First off, the United States has had chronic problems getting their best players to participate. A starting rotation that should include Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, and Madison Bumgarner is instead fronted by Marcus Stroman, Danny Duffy, and Chris Archer, all fine pitchers but certainly not America’s best. Even on the hitting side, there’s no Mike Trout, no Mookie Betts, no Josh Donaldson. Still, Team USA’s talent set it as the co-favorites along with the Dominican Republic, but as Syndergaard reminded us last week, there’s no true glory in this for the American players, no World Series ring or bolstering of the Hall of Fame case. The WBC may just mean more to the rest of the world, and that’s not a bad thing for the growth of baseball internationally. We’ll see if the United States sleeping giant wakes up this time, or if this continues to be nationally-televised spring training for America’s second-tier stars.
How far can Jose Quintana and Julio Teheran pitch Colombia?: On paper, the Dominican Republic and United States should easily advance out of this pool, and Canada is the third-strongest overall team. But Colombia, a first-time qualifier and the clear weakest team in the pool, has two aces in the hole in Jose Quintana and Julio Teheran. The WBC rules limit starting pitchers to 65 pitches—and functionally, one appearance—in the first round, so you’re probably looking at five or six inning starts at best even from the best pitchers in the bracket. Could that be enough to sneak Colombia into bracket contention at 2-1?
A Player To Watch
Andrew Miller, RP, United States (Cleveland Indians): If the United States does medal in this tournament, it’ll be because of their bullpen, where they’ve managed to convince enough of the top names to participate to have a dominant relief corps peppered with all types of elite relievers. With highly restricted pitch counts early, that might make a bigger difference than you’d think. Miller’s dominance and tactical flexibility was the baseball story of last October, and in theory he could be just as leveraged in this tournament as that one. In practice, I suspect he’ll be much more limited in usage, because cranking Miller up like that in March off a short offseason might negatively impact the team that pays him, the Cleveland Indians.
Pool D (Guadalajara, Mexico)
Most Interesting Prospects (Or Close Enough)
Gavin Cecchini, IF/Brandon Nimmo, OF, Italy (New York Mets): Like Team Israel, Team Italy has gotten pretty aggressive with going after American-born players out of American baseball with enough Italian heritage to qualify for citizenship, to supplement a small handful of native-born Italians. The best prospects of the group are a pair of Mets that have nothing left to prove offensively in Triple-A but no obvious MLB role in Cecchini and Nimmo. Defensively, well, Cecchini needs to find a defensive home at second or his arm is going to play him out of a real major-league career, and Nimmo remains a tweener that the Mets are apparently uncomfortable playing regularly in center defensively or a corner offensively, but given the weakness of Italy’s roster, they’ll play short and center respectively here. Both might be auditioning here for trade opportunities later in the season into organizations that believe more.
Luis Urias, IF, Mexico (San Diego Padres): Tell me if you’ve heard this profile before: a tiny, hit-tool-first middle-infield prospect gains the admiration of the universe for his advanced bat-to-ball skills and hustle. Welcome to the latest iteration, Luis Urias, a very fun man to watch play baseball. He’s probably not going to be able to play on the left side of the keystone at higher levels, and there’s not a lot of power, speed, or other things that involved physicality here. But Wilson Karaman has written some very glowing things about Urias’ ability to hit. And the potential that carries up the chain is real enough that we put him in an absolutely loaded Padres system top ten after the season.
Alex Verdugo, OF, Mexico (Los Angeles Dodgers): Joining Urias as a young prospect with an interesting hit tool is Verdugo. The 20-year-old does a little bit of everything offensively, with strong bat-to-ball skills and some gap power. Defensively, well, his arm is good enough that he was on the longer list for inclusion in last week’s piece about potential two-way prospects. He was on the bench for Tuesday’s exhibition game, but let’s hope that was an aberration and Verdugo gets a chance to play, because he’s one of the most exciting prospects in the tournament.
Puerto Rico’s young shining stars: After a few down decades following its inclusion in the domestic Rule 4 draft, Puerto Rico’s baseball talent is coming back with a vengeance. Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Javier Baez are three of a very small handful of the best middle infielders under 25, already some of the game’s brightest new stars with considerable remaining upside. Edwin Diaz, not quite yet 23, is already one of the best relievers on the planet. Jose de Leon and Joe Jimenez are both very interesting pitching prospects. The Twins contingent of Jose Berrios, Eddie Rosario, and Kennys Vargas could all still have quality MLB futures. And anchoring it all is the future Hall of Famer who runs a baseball academy in his own name in hopes of spurring on the game’s continuing development and growth, Carlos Beltran.
How much of Julio Urias will Mexico get to use?: The Dodgers have been coy all offseason about how they plan to deploy the 20-year-old phenom this season. Urias threw only 127 â…” innings between the minors, majors, and playoffs in 2016, yet that was still enough to land him as the cover boy for this year Tom Verducci “Year-After Effect” article. The Dodgers are at least on some level believers in limiting young pitchers’ innings, and with a foundation as low as Urias currently has, he’s just not going to be pitching a full 32-start schedule for a few more years yet. The Dodgers have publicly considered leaving Urias in extended spring to slow down his season by a few weeks or more, but he seems to be ramping up on a completely normal five day starter’s rest cycle in the Cactus League. Despite that, the Dodgers blocked Urias from participating in the first round of pool play for Mexico. He’s been placed in Mexico’s designated pitcher pool, so he could slide right in if Mexico advances. It’ll be a much tougher road past Puerto Rico and Venezuela without getting a start from Urias, of course.
A Player To Watch
Carlos Correa, IF, Puerto Rico (Houston Astros): Correa is in a bit of a similar situation to Bogaerts for The Netherlands—he’s one of the five best shortstops in the world, but the team also has a star that shines equally as bright and is clearly a better defender. In Correa’s case, it’s hard to justify playing him at short much over Francisco Lindor, and that’s before you account for Javier Baez’s unique presence. With Carlos Beltran probably needing to DH, Correa has indicated a willingness to shift to third for the tournament, a spot which has always projected as a potential long-term home for a large young man that may still be growing. The Astros may be having this same conversation with Correa sooner or later regarding swapping spots with Alex Bregman.
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