The 2013 World Baseball Classic kicks off on Saturday from locations around the globe, but only the winners and runner-ups of each pool can advance to the second round.
All 16 competing nations have players connected to professional baseball in the United States. Plenty of these players are still fighting their way through the minor league system, and there are also several experienced veterans without current contracts that will want to show MLB teams that they still have something left in the tank.
Of course, many of these rosters will also feature active major league stars as well. Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, Craig Kimbrel, Yadier Molina and Jose Reyes are just a few of the big names that will suit up in the third edition of the WBC.
Read on to see which eight countries will survive the initial stage of games.
*The teams listed first in the following slide titles are the projected winners of the respective pool.
Japan has won each of the past two World Baseball Classics.
Pool A dates and location: Mar. 2 - Mar. 6 in Japan
As our own Joel Reuter explains, Japan and Cuba should benefit from soft competition in Pool A, as Brazil and China have arguably the two weakest offenses in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Japan is also going to receive loud support during its opening games because the city of Fukuoka will host them. Similarly, in 2006 and 2009, fans in the Land of the Rising Sun packed the Tokyo Dome to cheer on their countrymen.
Manager Koji Yamamoto will proceed with plenty of unfamiliar names. Former major league second baseman Kaz Matsui is the exception, while reigning Central League MVP Shinnosuke Abe could be a star in the heart of Japan's lineup. Yu Darvish declined an invitation to participate, but this starting rotation has a knack for boasting breakout stars on the international stage.
Slugger Jose Abreu serves as the most talented player on Cuba's roster. Though not a terrific athlete, he is gifted with extraordinary power.
Andrelton Simmons of the Netherlands.
Pool B dates and location: Mar. 2 - Mar. 5 in Taiwan
The Koreans will miss Shin-Soo Choo and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Regardless, they still have the talent to win a couple of contests in this pool.
A couple of dominant sluggers from the Korean Baseball Organization, Dae-Ho Lee and Tae-Kyun Kim, should still be effective. Also, the veteran pitching staff is entirely 25 years and older, with a handful of relievers in their 30s. Suk-Min Yoon, a Scott Boras client, is the biggest name. He threw 16 excellent innings in the 2009 WBC (1.13 ERA, 13 SO) and could make the transition to the majors next winter.
Experienced outfielders Roger Bernadina and Andruw Jones must be productive at the plate for the Netherlands. As you might have guessed from their complexion, both were born on the Dutch-controlled island of Curacao.
Andrelton Simmons of the Netherlands also showed promise—particularly with the glove—as an Atlanta Braves rookie in 2008. He will start in the infield alongside hyped Boston Red Sox prospect Xander Bogaerts.
Australia and Chinese Taipei enter as sizable underdogs.
Hanley Ramirez of the Dominican Republic.
Pool C dates and location: Mar. 7 - Mar. 10 in Puerto Rico
Spain isn't even consistent against other European competition, so they would be very fortunate to come away with even one victory in the WBC.
If only MLB teams were less overprotective, the Dominican Republic could remedy its weaknesses. Alas, Johnny Cueto (oblique) and David Ortiz (Achilles) ended the 2012 season on the disabled list. As a result, they will not participate in the WBC and will instead channel all of their energy to prepare for Opening Day. Third baseman Adrian Beltre has also removed himself from consideration after "tweaking" his right calf muscle.
Fortunately, Robinson Cano, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes will return from the 2009 roster to join Edwin Encarnacion in forming the world's most complete infield. The bullpen is also outstanding. Aside from hard-throwing power arms, the Dominicans have Francisco Rodriguez and Jose Valverde, who should be very motivated as they audition for major league deals.
Last in alphabetical order but potentially first in the ultimate Pool C standings, Venezuela has an All-Star lineup. Impressive depth could force Omar Infante and Marco Scutaro to come off the bench. Anibal Sanchez leads the rotation, while Jhoulys Chacin is a very underrated No. 2 option so long as his toe isn't an issue (h/t Troy Renck, The Denver Post).
Puerto Rico finished fifth overall in both the 2006 and 2009 competition, but there's not much to fear about the country's pitching staff this time around. Javier Vazquez recently backed out of the WBC and Yadier Molina can only do so much behind the plate to help the remaining nondescript arms.
Giancarlo Stanton of the United States.
Pool D dates and location: Mar. 7 - Mar. 10 in Arizona
Despite imposing rosters in the past, the United States hasn't come close to winning the World Baseball Classic before.
However, with so much depth in so many areas in 2013, it's tough to imagine the American team going away early.
Slim leads will be safe in the later innings with arms like Jeremy Affeldt, Craig Kimbrel and Vinnie Pestano in the bullpen.
A handful of their position players have been declining in recent years, but the U.S. can still depend on a star-studded, power-hitting outfield of Ryan Braun, Adam Jones and Giancarlo Stanton.
Italy is just an afterthought, as the second nation to emerge from Pool D will almost certainly be Canada or Mexico.
The squad north of the border has a handful of proven batters to battle with, including Brett Lawrie, Justin Morneau, Michael Saunders and Joey Votto. Even without those players, Canada still piled on 38 runs in just three September qualifiers. However, Russell Martin's absence will negatively impact the pitching staff.
Mexico will challenge the Canadians in pool play with major league pitching. Yovani Gallardo is as steady as anybody atop the rotation, while relievers David Hernandez and Sergio Romo are coming off career years. With that being said, aside from Adrian Gonzalez, it's unclear where the run production can come from.