World Baseball Classic: Pool Play Preview
The rosters for the World Baseball Classic are, for the most part, set. Adrian Beltre and a few others may still be question marks, but by and large teams know who will and won't show up when the games begin late next week.
Each of the four pools has a clear favorite, with the exception of pool C which may be the most difficult pool to emerge from. However, since the tournament is double elimination, each pool will also send a second team into the knock-out rounds.
This should provide good drama well into the first round, even after Japan and the rest of the favorites have secured passage to the next round.
Japan is one of very few teams that will present anything resembling their best lineup, which gives them a massive advantage over the other teams in this tournament.
If every nation brought their best players, which someday they will, these games would be a lot closer. As it is, Japan boasts arguably the best team in the Classic.
Their pitching is anchored by Yu Darvish, 2006 MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Kyuji Fujikawa. Ichiro Suzuki is still their best hitter, but the lineup is deep behind him. The Japanese team will rely on solid pitching hope their high OBP from 2006 returns in the 2009 iteration.
This is probably the weakest pool with China and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) providing little suspense as to who the two advancing teams will be. Korea had the best record in pool play in 2006, but lacks their main power source this time around.
Nevertheless, Korea will prove to be formidable coming off their Gold Medal win in Beijing last summer and is ranked one spot higher than Japan in the latest IBF rankings. Korea could sneak past Japan and take the top spot, but no matter the permutation, these two teams will be the ones playing late into March out of this pool.
One of the tightest pools this year, due largely to who won't be playing.
Last year's runner-up, Cuba, is a difficult team to pin down, largely because they have exactly zero major league baseball players and a rather opaque media apparatus (if you don't speak Spanish, that is). Nevertheless, the Cubans are the No. 1 team in the IBAF rankings, and, like the Japanese, will bring their best possible team to the games.
The battle for the second spot would seem to heavily favor Mexico, the team that dropped the United States out of the 2006 Classic. However, their best pitcher, Yovani Gallardo, has pulled out due to injury concerns which may open the door.
Mexico's bullpen is solid with Royals' closer Joakim Soria and free agent lefty Dennys Reyes on the back end, but their rotation is weak behind the young Jorge Campillo. Oliver Perez is a decent No. 2, but beyond him is nothing to speak of.
Offensively, Team Mexico is fine, if unspectacular. Adrian Gonzalez is the major run producer, so a slump by him could be a large problem.
If there is anyone who could challenge Mexico for their spot, it may be Australia. They are a very young team, but could surprise an unprepared opponent. Mexico is certainly the favorite, but if they stumbled, the Aussies could sneak past them.
The toughest pool in the tournament is also the one decimated by drop outs.
If everyone plays, Venezuela wins this pool going backwards. Johan Santana and Carlos Zambrano should be anchoring the best rotation in the world, instead, Felix Hernandez is the team's ace with Carlos Silva a real risk to see the mound. If that's not a drop off, I don't know what is.
They'll be fine offensively: Bobby Abreu, Magglio Ordonez, and Miguel Cabrera lead and offense that will pound anything near the strike zone and should be able to keep Venezuela in most of their games.
I don't have a great feeling about the US team, but that, too, is probably because of how good this team could have been. The rotation is good, but shallow, and probably will end up being the Achilles' heel of the team.
They do have some margin for error, however, because the real strength of the team is in the bullpen.
Brian Fuentes, J.J. Putz, B.J Ryan, and Brad Ziegler could all close for nearly any team in the tournament, but Joe Nathan will almost certainly get the call in the ninth. Manager Davey Johnson has his choice of elite guys to put on the hill if team USA gets a lead, but Nathan may well be the best closer in baseball.
The offense reads like a fantasy team: Brian McCann, Derek Jeter, David Wright, Dustin Pedroia, Grady Sizemore et al. Johnson even admitted he'll have trouble figuring out how best to use the incredible talent he's been given.
Team Canada has a solid offense, but brought too little quality pitching to truly trouble either Venezuela or the United States. Jesse Crain, one of the Twins' worst pitchers, is one of Team Canada's best, and that is a recipe for an early exit.
Favorite: Dominican Republic
Runner-Up: Puerto Rico
When the Dominicans fell to the Cubans in 2006, it was one of the upsets of the tournament. This time around, the Dominicans may have brought an even better squad.
Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto lead a decent rotation, though Francisco Liriano is clearly going to be missed. The bullpen is anchored by Tony Pena and Juan Cruz with Angels' closer-to-be Jose Arredondo in line to end games.
The offense is probably the best on paper the tournament has to offer, even if Adrian Beltre obeys the Mariners' order to stay in camp. Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, David Ortiz, and either Alex Rodriguez or Adrian Beltre at third doesn't leave much to be desired.
Their outfield is fast and should provide the power hitters plenty of chances to drive them in.
Like Pool A, this pool has a clear break between the top two teams and the bottom two. Puerto Rico is closer to the level of the Dominicans than to either the Netherlands or Panama, so this should be a pretty easy set of pool games for them.
Three good starters: Jonathan Sanchez, Ian Snell, and Javier Vasquez, lead a young bullpen that could give away a lead or two. Former University of Miami closer Carlos Gutierrez could end up being used at the end of games, but if he struggles, he'll be on a short leash.
Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Geovany Soto will provide the power in this very solid line up, with Mike Alviles and Jose Lopez setting the table. Alex Rios provides plus defense in the outfield and another solid bat in the lineup.
One last piece to consider, especially in pool play, is home-field advantage. The Japanese, Mexicans, Canadians, and Puerto Ricans will play their games in front of the home fans. In international games, this provides a real and palpable advantage.
I can't see the advantage of having their pool games in Toronto be enough to overcome poor pitching for the Canadians, but the other three could all see improved finishes given the home support.
With less than a week until games begin, it's time to get excited about international baseball. Teams may not have brought their absolute first choice roster, but there is still more than enough talent to make this a compelling event.
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