World Baseball Classic action technically starts with Pool B on March 2, at 12:30 PM local Taiwan time. That, as it turns out, is 11:30 at night here on the East Coast. If you’re not familiar with the format, the WBC starts with four pools of four teams in round 1 – in Fukuoka, Japan, Taichung, Taiwan, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Phoenix, Arizona.
If early scandals are your thing, Pool B is for you – we already have Taiwan trying to sneak in and scout South Korea by posing as umpires, and Taiwan cancelling a training game against Cuba (training for its nearby Pool A play in Fukuoka) supposedly because Cuba went back on their agreement on which baseballs to use. You can view the full rosters at the World Baseball Classic website, here.
The games will be played in Intercontinental Baseball Stadium in Taichung. If you’re wondering which continents the stadium is ‘inter’, the name actually comes from the Intercontinental Cup, which was the first major event hosted by the stadium, in 2006. All 4 teams in Pool B were among the 8 competitors in that event, so this will be somewhat familiar.
Intercontinental Stadium is the regular season home of the Sinon Bulls, who are now apparently the EDA Rhinos, who finished in last place in the 2012 Chinese Professional Baseball League – which is Taiwan’s top league, boasting 4 teams. At 400 feet in center, and 325 in both corners, it fits the dimensions of many international parks, and should hold no surprises, other than being a little bigger in center field (the fence is very circular), than you might otherwise think.
The pools were clearly selected by finish in the 2009 WBC, so I’ll list them in finishing order, best first.
South Korea (2009 WBC runner-up) – Reached Final Round in 2009
South Korea has had some pretty good finishes in World Baseball Classics in years past. They placed third in 2006, and lost to Japan in 2009 in the Championship game, that alone may make them the favorite. I admit that I’m a big fan of South Korea, and the Korean Baseball Organization (Sidenote: Am Korean), but I’ll try to be as objective as possible.
First thing to note, Korea’s probably more of a hitting team than a pitching team. I mean, that may surprise you, as most of the Korean players drawing MLB interest in the last couple years have been pitchers. However, if you look at the foreign players who play in the KBO, they’re almost all pitchers. Also, I’d say the three most successful Korean players outside the KBO have all been hitters: Hee-Seop Choi, Shin-Soo Choo, and Dae-Ho Lee. Ok, there is Chan-Ho Park.
The Korean squad will be managed by Joong Il-Ryu, who manages the Samsung Lions – and has been the manager for the 2006 and 2009 Korean WBC teams.
I’d say they’re still the favorites. But their pitching could definitely get blown up by Australian or Dutch slugging for a game or two – and that’s all that it takes. Still, for Korea to not move on to round 2 probably profiles as ‘unlikely’.
Players to watch: The aforementioned Dae-Ho Lee pretty much conquered the KBO, with two MVP awards, the 2006 triple crown, and in 2010, he won the ‘septuple crown’ – leading the league in average, home runs, RBIs, runs scored, OBP, SLG, and hits. Not bad. In 2012, he moved to the japanese league – Nippon Professional Baseball, and did very well there, hitting .286/.368/.468 with 24 HRs. Of course, that makes him slightly better than Wily Mo Pena. But that’s certainly better than most of the other hitters in this pool
Other first baseman and wrecker of KBO pitchers is Tae-kyun Kim, who has his own triple crowns, MVPs, and brief stint in the NPB. His 2010-2011 NPB seasons weren’t quite as good, but his 2012 KBO OPS of 1.010 is pretty amazing. Perhaps more impressive is Jung-Ho Kang who put up similar 2012 numbers (more power, less patience), but did so while playing short stop; he’s also just 25, so has some pretty great years in front of him. Oh and he stole 21 bases. I’d really like for him and MLB to take a chance on each other. If you prefer speed, try out center fielder Yong-kyu Lee, who led the KBO with 44 stolen bases – and that’s in 130 games.
On the pitching side, the Dodgers’ big posting prize of Hyun-Jin Ryu won’t be playing, so the big name pitcher is Suk-Min Yoon, who is another Boras client with posting rumors in his past. Yoon didn’t repeat his excellent 2011 this past season, but he had a pretty good year by most standards – 3.55 ERA, 137 K/33BB. Due to pitch counts, the World Baseball Classic generally involves cobbling together a bunch of half-decent pitchers, and Korea has them, like Hi-Sang Yoon, Kyung-eun Noh, and dominant KBO closer Seung-hwan Oh. Oh has 249 career saves, 571 career Ks, and is apparently nicknamed Stone Buddha (“Dol-bucheo”), for being stoic and unshaken. Sounds like a born closer, to me.
Notable absences: The players with MLB clubs are all choosing to break camp with their new clubs, which is not un-understandable. Shin-Soo Choo (OF, Reds), Hyun-Jin Ryu (LHP, Dodgers), and Chang-Yong Lim (RH-reliever, Cubs) will be missed – but it’s still a pretty good team. (Incidentally, Dae-ho Lee is a longtime friend/rival of Choo’s – as they grew up playing baseball in Busan; and Choo’s uncle – Jung-Tae Park, a Lotte Giants coach, will also be a coach for this squad)
MLB connections: Jae Seo (RHP, ex-MLB, Mets, Dodgers, Rays), Seung Song (RHP, ex-minors, Red Sox, Montreal, Giants, Royals). Tae-Hyon Chong (RHP) was rumored to have signed with the Baltimore Orioles last off-season, but that deal apparently fell through, and Chong signed with the KBO’s Lotte Giants.
Kingdom of the Netherlands – Reached Round 2 in 2009
The Netherlands were the surprise darling of the 2009 WBC, upsetting the Dominican Republic twice, and beating Panama to move on to Round 2. They faired less well in Round 2, losing two straight: A hard fought 3-1 loss against Venezuela, and a bit of a drubbing at the hands of the USA, 9-3. The Netherlands probably profile as one of the weaker ‘Round 2′ teams
The Netherlands recent rise to prominence coincides somewhat with the movement towards more of the Netherlands Antilles-born players playing on the Netherlands squad. Like many WBC teams, the Netherlands will struggle with pitching. After all, they don’t have Sir Sidney Ponson back to eke out those gutsy innings against top opponents. Many of the Dutch players currently play in Honkbal Hoofklasse (A/N: Yesssssssssssssssss), the Netherlands’ baseball league, and one of the better leagues in Europe. Still, they have a good share of MLB players and prospects.
The Dutch team will be managed by Sir Hensley Meulens, the Giants’ current hitting coach. Meulens played for the Netherlands in the 2000 Olympics, but also played four years with the Yankees, and spent time in the NPB and the KBO, so he should know the international game pretty well. And Bert Blyleven is coaching, of course.
I’m not sure they can match last year’s performance, but they arguably have less competition to deal with now. I’d say Netherlands vs. Australia is a pretty big game.
Players to Watch: Shairon Martis‘s biggest moment is probably still his 2006 6+ inning mercy-rule no-hitter against Panama in the WBC. Since then, he’s pitched about 100 MLB innings for the Washington Nationals, but has spent most of his time in the minors, with the Pirates, and now with the Twins. Also returning is Robbie Cordemans, who tossed out some pretty nice relief appearances in the 2009 classic. He’s 38 this year, but may have some innings left in him. There’s also Ludovicus Jacobus Maria van Mil (you can call him Loek), who you may want to watch in a very literal sense. At 7’1″ he’s the tallest current minor leagues. He recently signed with the Reds, but was with the Twins organization for five years. Tom Stuifbergen is a righty, still in the Twins farm system. He hasn’t gotten a lot of great results, but has maintained an impressively low walk rate.
The Dutch have more high-profile players on the hitters side. Andrelton Simmons, of course, is the Braves’ shortstop prodigy, and has a good enough arm, that he might consider pitching for the Netherlands as well. (The Braves may not be so into this idea). There’s also Roger Bernadina, a solid 4th OF for the Nationals in 2012. The lineup’s power will come from two former MLB sluggers, both plying their trade in Japan. Wladimir Balentien, a one time Mariners prospect with ~500 MLB PA, has hit 62 Home Runs for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in the last two years (and was narrowly defeated in the 2012 NPB Home Run Derby by Dae-Ho Lee). Andruw Jones has a more impressive MLB resume, and recently signed with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. This round could get very exciting if it becomes a slugfest.
Simmons will have competition at the SS spot from Xander Bogaerts, a 23-year old prospect with the Red Sox organization, who is ranked #8 overall by Baseball America. Out of this pool, he’s probably as good a bet as any to see in MLB within a year or two.
Also, they have a catcher named Sebaastian Nooij. That’s officially my favorite name of Pool A.
Notable Absences: Sidney Ponson, obviously. Also, Kenley Jansen caught for the Netherlands team in the 2009 WBC. Yeah. That Kenley Jansen. The guy who saved 25 games for the Dodgers last year, and a 14.6 K/9 rate in his MLB career. What? Rick Van den Hurk and Jair Jurrjens have sort of had the shine wear off of them, but they could have been really useful to this team. And of course, the Netherlands will miss Greg Halman, a Mariners prospect who was killed in 2011.
MLB Connections: Yurendell de Caster (3B, ex-MLB, 2 plate appearances, Pirates), Jonatan Isenia (RHP, minors, Orioles), Dashenko Ricardo (C, minors, Orioles/Giants), Jonathan Schoop (SS, minors, Orioles), Curt Smith (1B, minors, Marlins/Cardinals), Hainley Statia (IF, minors, Brewers/Angels), Randolph Oduber (OF, minors, Nationals), Kalian Sams (RF, minors, Mariners), Leon Boyd (RHP, ex-minors, Blue Jays), Diegomar Markwell (LHP, ex-minors, Blue Jays), Mark Palewek (LHP, ex-minors, Cubs/Reds), Orlando Yntema (RHP, ex-minors, Giants), Quintin de Cuba (C, ex-minors, Mets).
Australia – Won a game in 2009
Australia actually came very close in 2009 to moving on to Round 2, winning a high-scoring game over Mexico, before losing a very close game to Cuba, and then being really crushed by Mexico in their rematch. Australia has no lack of potential roster qualifiers from the major and minor leagues. The problem here is really quality, an especially (especially especially) pitching quality.
Australia will be managed by Jon Deeble, who has pitched on the Australian national team, managed the low A Red Sox Affiliate Lowell Spinners, and was even the first base coach for the Red Sox in 2005. Perhaps most relevant here, he is currently the Pacific Rim scouting director for Boston, and helped sign Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima.
If you’ve been watching MLB Network, you’ve probably had a chance to catch some of these guys at work in the Australian Baseball League playoffs. Australia’s got some pretty decent hitters – which you can see from some of their 2009 results. Of course, the pitching isn’t so good in this Pool that they couldn’t slug their way into Round 2. Still, I feel like their team could use some balance, when it comes to pitching and defense. They’re probably not the favorites, despite having a few dozen players with major/minor league histories.
Players to Watch: You’ve got two international veteran pitchers on this team: Chris Oxspring started in the american minor leagues, eventually moved to the NPB and KBO, learned a knuckleball, was good enough to come back to the minor leagues, signing on with Detroit in 2011, and has since returned to Australia. He one of the best pitcher in the ABL in 2012 – leading the league in strikeouts. Brad Thomas is probably the most significant lefty on the squad. His best performance was 70 innings of relief for the Tigers in 2010, maintaining a 3.89 ERA, but he’s also played in the NPB, KBO, and most recently in Taiwan’s CPBL, where he led the league in saves for the Brother Elephants. Brendan Wise is further evidence of the Tigers’ koala-fever (the Twins are also quite fond of Aussie prospects), though they drafted him out of a Kansas community college – he spent 2012 at AAA Rochester for the Twins.
As far as better minor league players, Ryan Rowland-Smith threw over 300 innings for the Mariners, and spent 2012 stashed in the Cubs’s AAA club. Warwick Saupold is just 23, and had a great 2011 stint in the ABL that earned him a contract with the Detroit Tigers. In low A, and A+ in his first season, he was pretty good
For hitters, the Australian team has some pretty solid former minor leaguers, who have played all over the field. OF Justin Huber was once considered a top 100 prospect overall as a catcher in the Mets system. Then he got traded to the Royals for Jose Bautista, and had a knee injury that ended his catching days. Still, he turned up on the top prospect list in 2006, and earned a September call-up with the Padres. Since then he’s played for ABL, NPB and US Independent league teams. Luke Hughes was once a touted Twins infield prospect, and even spent extended time with the big-league club in 2011. Since then, he’s been traded, and then released by the Orioles, but he could still have a big league career of some sort, and in any case, is pretty good hitter in this context.
As a mild curiosity, Tim Kennelly, currently in the Phillies system, is listed on the Australian roster as a pitcher, but out of 612 games in the minor leagues, he’s appeared in 205 as a third baseman, 170 as a catcher, 137 as a right fielder, a few at 1B, 2B, and CF, and … 11 as a pitcher. He had a decent arm, and it looks like the Phillies were trying to find a place for his bat. I guess Australia is mostly interested in his arm.
Notable Absences: Same story as around the WBC, there are a few notable Australian pitchers who have not chosen to join this team. It doesn’t seem like Grant Balfour has ever had much interest (or ability) to pitch in the Classic, and Travis Blackley, who pitched for Australia in 2009, is probably looking to keep his spot on the A’s roster, after starting 15 games for them last year.
MLB Connections: Shane Lindsay (RHP, minors, Cubs/Rockies), Andrew Russell (RHP, minors, Braves), Ryan Searle (RHP, minors, Cubs), Clayton Tanner (LHP, minors, Giants/Reds), Alan de San Miguel(C, minors, Orioles/Twins), Matt Kennelly (C, minors, Braves), James Beresford (SS, minors, Twins), Mike Walker (3B, minors, Brewers), Stefan Welch (1B, minors, Pirates/Mets), COrey Adamson (LF, minors, Padres), David Kandilas (RF, minors, Rockies), Steven Kent (LHP, ex-minors, Braves), Dushan Ruzic (RHP, ex-minors, Reds/Marlins), Matthew Williams (RHP, ex-minors, Twins), Josh Davies (3B, ex-minors, Padres/Angels), Brad Harman (2B, ex-minors, Phillies), Mitch Dening, (RF, ex-minors, Red Sox), Joshua Roberts (LF, ex-minors, Indians)
Chinese Taipei – 2012 Qualifier 4 winner
At least Chinese Taipei came out of their qualifier with a lot of confidence. Though it was a week group, with New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines, CT really destroyed the competition both on offense and defense. In three games, they didn’t give up a single run, but scored 35 – mercy rule-ing 2 of their opponents.
They did look really good against lower tier opponents in November, but Chinese Taipei has a lot to prove after losing two straight in the opening round in 2009. I would say they’re a team that’s a leeetle more balanced toward their pitchers, which can be advantage in this format. Still, over 2-4 games, essentially anything can happen.
This team is pretty similar to the Qualifier team, which I talked about earlier, so I’ll just go over a few more notable players, and additions.
Players to watch: Yao-Hsun Yang is probably still the best pitcher on the team, with plenty of NPB bona fides, he proved it in the qualifier with dominant performances. Although a few NPB pitchers won’t be with the team, he’ll have more support from guys with MLB connections – like Hong-Chih Kuo and Chien-Ming Wang. Both have pitched well in MLB, but in have had trouble recovering from injuries in current years. There’s also Chia-Jen Lo, a lefty who was invited to Astros spring training this year. Lo actually hasn’t done that much pitching in the minors system – he’s got impressive strikeout stuff, but some serious control issues.
The hitters should look very similar to the qualifier. Bradley Woodrum at fangraphs talks about some of the best Taiwanese hitters, Ngayaw Ake (Chih-Sheng Ling), Yi-Chuan Lin, and Szu-Chi Chou. I glanced over Chou in my qualifier preview, but note that in 13 plate appearances in the qualifier, he walked 6 times, and got three hits for a .692 OBP. Now, the talent to learn not to swing at a lot of what Thailand, the Phillipines, and New Zealand were throwing maybe won’t help him as much here, where the pitching does at least take a step up, but it’s still kind of impressive.
They do add Che-Hsuan Lin, a long time Red-Sox prospect who did get his first MLB at-bats in 2012. His upside doesn’t look quite as good as it maybe used to, but he can still run, with a bit of power and ok discipline, so he should be a valuable bat for this squad.
Notable absences: Wei-Yin Chen who was really pretty good in his rookie year with the Orioles in 2012, will not be with the team. Nor will Fu-Te Ni of the Tigers, or Chin-Lung Hu, who kind of dropped off the face of MLB after failing a physical for a minor-league contract with the Phillies in early 2012. Apparently, he will be playing in the CPBL in 2013, but he won’t be in the WBC.
MLB Connections: Yao-Lin Wang (RHP, minors, Cubs), Hung-Wen Chen (RHP, ex-minors , Cubs), Yen-Feng Lin (RHP, ex-minors, Phillies), Yen-Wen Kuo (IF, ex-minors, Reds), Yung-Chi Chen (2B, ex-minors, A’s/Mariners)