The World Baseball Classic can be a nightmare for teams, as superstar players compete in a major event just weeks before the MLB regular season begins, but it's a treat for fans. The tournament is a lot more interesting than spring training games.
Two-time defending champion Japan returns with hopes of remaining the only title holder in the event's short history. But it figures to face some tough competition from the 15 other participating countries, which are broken down into four initial groups.
Knowing that, let's examine the top contenders for the third World Baseball Classic, which begins with pool play on March 2.
The United States has been one of the event's biggest disappointments. The Americans failed to finish in the top three in either of the first two tournaments despite receiving the lion's share of the hype both times. They have a good chance to change that in 2013.
They have the most complete roster. R.A. Dickey leads a strong rotation after winning the Cy Young Award with the New York Mets last season. Dickey, now with the Toronto Blue Jays, should form a great one-two punch with Gio Gonzalez.
The American lineup is lead by a dynamic outfield of Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton and Adam Jones. Add in a David Wright-led infield and Joe Mauer behind the plate, and the United States shouldn't have much trouble scoring runs.
The only player casual American baseball fans might recognize on the Japan roster is Kazuo Matsui, who had stints with three major league teams. Otherwise, the squad is made up of players who haven't made the jump to MLB.
Which country will win the WBC?
That doesn't mean they aren't a threat to win their third straight title, though. Masahiro Tanaka and Kenta Maeda are two of the top young pitchers in Japan and should lead a formidable staff, which also includes Fukuoka Softbank Hawks veteran Tadashi Settsu.
The Japan offense is paced by catcher Shinnosuke Abe, an elite power presence. The rest of the lineup is a good balance of power and speed, which is going to put a lot of pressure on opposing pitching staffs and defenses, just like the last two tournaments.
One glance at the Dominican Republic lineup, and it wouldn't be crazy to consider it the favorite. The infield, potentially featuring Edwin Encarnacion, Robinson Cano, Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez, is enough to carry the team.
The problem lies in the pitching staff, which isn't anywhere near the same level as the lineup. Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez are expected to the lead the rotation, but neither player is more than an average pitcher in the majors.
That means the Dominican Republic is likely going to play a lot of high-scoring games. If they can keep slugging for a couple of weeks, they definitely can go the distance. But the lackluster group of starting pitchers stops them from getting top billing.