Well, Pools A and B have come and gone, and things are looking a lot different , this year: 2009′s runner up is out, after losing out in a three-way tie at the top of Pool B – and Cuba beat Japan for the first time in the history of the World Baseball Classic. Pool 1 in Tokyo, Japan now features Cuba, Japan, Netherlands, and Chinese Taipei, and those games start Friday night local time/late Thursday, over here. With the Netherlands vs. Cuba. Should be interesting. I still don’t see the Netherlands as quite as good as Cuba – and the Taiwanese team may regress a bit without the home crowd behind them, but it should still be an intereting time. Remember that this is now double elimination format.
But over in this hemisphere, we’re about to start round-robin in Pool D. Also known as “Pool North America, but also Italy, but a lot of those guys are from North America”, Pool D is made of of USA, Mexico, Italy and Canada.
The teams in the US pool have stayed pretty constant over the years. In 2009, we had Venezuela insteado of Mexico, and in 2006, it was South Africa instead of Italy. You guys will know a lot more people in this Pool than in A and B, which is excellent for me, because I have to do less work. I think Pool D could be really exciting, but on the other hand, I don’t think we’ll get out of this pool without a tie-breaking procedure, and those can be kind of …un-dramatic, as we learned in Korea vs. Chinese Taipei.
USA – Reached the Final Round in 2009
Many people/the internet hive mind appear to think it’s do or die for the US this year, and it’s a disgrace that we haven’t won before. But in my mind, this is all half exhibition – the fun is seeing baseball players from all around the world on the same stage; winning stuff is just the gravy on the poutine. Plus the US did prett well in 2009 – losing to Japan, you know, that team that is really good at the WBC, in the semi-finals. I mean, maybe the US team doesn’t have quite the same hunger as some other teams– and why should they? The US doesn’t need to prove anything. The best players in baseball come from all around the world, which is great. They come to play in the United States of America (and sometimes Canada). That’s great too.
Plus, I think this USA team looks pretty dang good. They played an exhibition against the White Sox on Tueday, busting out this lineup:
That’s ‘Merican for “NOT TOO SHABS.”
Ok, so the pitching might be a little sketchy. But in a March tournament over 8 games with firm pitching limits, everyone’s pitching is sketchy. Plus, you know R.A. Dickey is a great choice for this tournament. First, he’s a knuckleball pitcher, which is great, but second, he’s also a knuckleball pitcher, which is super great! How crazy is that? Plus, closers are pretty great to have at this kind of event – Craig Kimbrel is really good at closing.
There have been some roster brou-ha-ha, like David Hernandez joining the team last week, after supposedly going to play for Team Mexico, in order to replace Chris Perez who went down with injury. It sounds pretty shenanigany, considering that Mexico is the the U.S. Team’s first opponent. However, David Hernandez is not quite Mexican (in an ‘eligible for a Mexican passport’ kind of way) to play for Mexico, which was just discovered recently. That sounds a bit convenient – but honestly, finding a major league reliever who is prepared to go pitch in the Classic, and has the ok from his team is probably a pretty attractice choice for a team that has an injury the week before an event.
Mostly, I think it sounds like a great team, even without Derek Jeter, that will do just fine this week.
Mexico – Reached Round 2 in 2009
In 2009, Mexico lost consecutive games to Cuba and Korea to be eliminated in Round 2. They weren’t terrible losses, but we learned more about Mexico in Round That Pool B was very offense heavy, between Cuba, Australia, and Mexico, with poor, young, South Africa to beat up on in the mix. Even though Mexico lost to Australia in their first meeting 17-7, they trounced them in their second game, 16 to 1. Mexico also scored 14 runs against South Africa, and a handful in their loss to Cuba in the final game of that Pool – so they scored about 41 runs in 4 games in that Round. Mexico has some hitting.
There are a lot of returning players for this team. The Gonzalez brothers are returning, though the Hairston brothers are not, and so is Jorge “I can’t remember his last name” Cantu and Karim Garcia. Karim Garcia, incidentally, is still doing fine for himself in the Mexico league. He hit a .967 OPS in 2012, so, the 37-year-old should still be effective in the Classic.
On the pitching side, Rodrigo Lopez will be back, as well as Oliver Perez, whose career has not gone particularly well since the 2009 Classic. They probably won’t miss Elmer Dessens and Rincardo Rincon who are both over 40 now – but they might miss Joakim Soria and Francisco Rodriguez.
What they might really miss is Yovani Gallardo, who was poised to really be the centerpiece of their pitching staff. Gallard strained his groin last week, and his status is pretty questionable. The Brewers have obviously been relatively open to the World Baseball Classic, that is, if you measure it in the number of players who will be participating, but that’s one thing, and saying “Ok, Yovani, go ahead and play in the WBC while you’re injured.” is another.
The brighest young thing on this squad is Sebastian Valle, who is a 22-year old who appears to be making solid progress as a catcher in the Phillies’ system. Mostly, these are guys who have been around the MLB minor leagues for awhile, without being quite good enough to make it on the next level, for an extended amount of time. Still, don’t underestimate that. There are a lot of teams who don’t have that level of base-line skill all across the board. Certainly, 2009 showed us that when Team Mexico’s bats get going, they really get going. Adrian Gonzalez is the keystone in this lineup – and well, we know what he can do.
Italy – Won a game in 2009
This seems like a typo somehow, but it’s true. Italy beat Canada in Round 1 of the 2009 World Baseball Classic, fair and square. That was thanks to a distinctly unterrible start from Dan Serafini – a former Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher, and some clutch relief efforts from Chris Cooper and Jason “weak shit” Grilli. Cooper has pitched for Grosseto in the Italian Baseball League ever since, so apparently that was a good experience for him – he did strike out 72 with 13 walks during last season, so he’s been pretty good to them, too. Jason Grilli will also be on the team. He hasn’t had the best years of his career since 2009, but did have a pretty significant resurgence with the Pirates in 2012 – striking out 90 batters in 58 2/3 innings – the highest K-rate of his career by a huge amount. Dan Serafini will also be back – he’s spent much of the last four years in the Mexican League.
As far as hitters go, Chris Denorfia, Alex Liddi, and Punto will all be back – but the star newcomer is Anthony Rizzo – top Cubs 1B prospect, who had a pretty good rookie season last year. There’s also a healthy dose of the better Italian Baseball League players, like Juan Carlos Infante, Alessandro Vaglio, Lorenzo Avagnina, and Stefano Desimoni.
But the best part about team Italy is the two Mike Piazzas. One is THE Mike Piazza, who is helping out on the coaching side. The other is Mike Piazza, his second cousin, and a pitcher in the Angels organization.
Italy will probably have a tough time of it – it’s a tough Pool, and now Canada’s got to be looking for revenge when they face off on Friday afternoon. Italy is good enough to upset the apple cart, though. Afterall, they did it last year.
Canada – 2012 Qualifier Winner
Canada always seems like they have a bunch of great players, but they haven’t done so well in the actual games. In 2006, they lost out on a tie-breaking format that penalized beign low on pitching -and they were. In 2009, they lost a close game to the US, and then got eliminated by a surprise loss to Italy.
Like many of the better teams, Canada has a few legit stars, and then fills the roster out with very capable prospects and minor league regulars, with a dash a hardened veterans in the mix as well. Speaking of Stubby Clapp, he’s finally hung up his cleats, but, of course, is along as a coach.
The good news for Team Canada this week was that Joey Votto decided to suit up for them, after all. Handsome, wonderful, first base superstar Votto missed quite a bit of time with two knee surgeries in 2012, and was not exactly quite right after his return, either. Apparently, though, he feels pretty good, and the Reds will let him play. Votto will play DH, while Justin Morneau (who is, ok, I guess) will play first. Other big names on the roster include Brett Lawrie, and John Axford, who drastically improves the pitching and the mustache quotient of this team.
As far as slightly lesser known players, Phillipe Aumont has dropped off a few top prospects as he ages, but he’s still pretty young, and you’ve got to love the strikeouts, even if you don’t love the control issues. Jameson Taillon, a Pirates starting pitching prospect, is the youngest of the bunch at 21, and is ranked pretty highly by both MLB.com and Baseball America. Trystan Magnuson is still named Trystan Magnuson. Former major leaguer Shawn Hill will also be pitching for Canada. He may not be in MLB anymore, but he kicked serious butt at the qualifier.
Two other big parts of Canada’s qualifier win, Tyson Gillies and Adam Loewen, are also coming back for this team. Gillies is a centerfield prospect for the Phillies. (With awesome rhyming, to boot). And Adam Loewen is a one time, very promising Baltimore pitcher/prospect, who is now trying to come back as an outfielder (Rick Ankiel style).