As Major League Baseball's spring training kicks into gear, fans also have another big event to look forward to: the third edition of the World Baseball Classic. The tournament kicks off this Friday as Australia take on Chinese Taipei.
Four pools of four teams will fight it out, with each team playing each other once and the top two teams advancing to the knockout stages. This article will highlight the teams that should be favored to emerge from their respective pools.
Pool A: Japan, Cuba, China, Brazil
Of course, two-time defending champions Japan will be favored to emerge from their pool. After all, Japan has always been a powerful squad and currently ranks third in the International Baseball Federation's world rankings.
A player to keep an eye on will be 24-year-old pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka played in the 2009 WBC, but was overshadowed by the likes of Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Now, the youngster will look to take the spotlight and perhaps end up on the radars of some MLB teams.
The second team that should emerge from this group is the IBAF's top-ranked squad, Cuba. Despite not having any MLB players on their roster, the 2006 runners-up should definitely be a force to be reckoned with.
They will be led by veteran outfielder Frederich Cepeda. Cepeda was fantastic in Cuba's shorter run in the 2009 competition, batting .500 with three homers and 10 runs driven in over six games (via baseball-reference).
Pool B: South Korea, Netherlands, Australia, Chinese Taipei
This group is interesting for the fact that all four teams are ranked in the IBAF top 10. From this, the first favorite to advance is the Netherlands. The Dutch side stunned many in 2009, defeating the powerful Dominican Republic twice.
The team will be without top MLB prospect Jurickson Profar, but still boast top youngsters like Xander Bogaerts and Andrelton Simmons. Additionally, they bring back hurler Shairon Martis, who threw a seven-inning (mercy rule) no-hitter in the 2006 edition of the WBC.
The other team that should get through is South Korea. They've made the final four in both other editions of this tournament, including a runner-up finish in 2009. So clearly, they've got plenty of experience with how to get it done.
Korea does not have national hero Shin-Soo Choo this time around, but still has a roster full of holdovers from that 2009 squad. Given a good depth of talent and experience, they should have what it takes to move on.
Pool C: Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Spain
To take a term from major soccer tournaments, this would be termed the "Group of Death" for many, given the immense array of talent to be displayed. The first team to emerge from this group should be Venezuela, and for good reason.
From AL MVP Miguel Cabrera to top-class outfielders Martin Prado and Carlos Gonzalez, pitchers like Anibal Sanchez and Carlos Zambrano and postseason heroes Pablo Sandoval and Marco Scutaro, what's not to like with this squad?
Edging out the second spot advancing from Pool C is the Dominican Republic. They endured a disappointing 2009 tournament, being dumped out by the surprise package Netherlands. But they've got what it takes to rebound.
An infield of Edwin Encarnacion, Robinson Cano, Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez looks like something out of a video game. Combine that with solid pitching from the likes of Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez, and you've got a formidable team looking to go far.
Pool D: United States, Canada, Mexico, Italy
This promises to be yet another competitive group, from which the United States will be expected to advance. After all, it is the United States, with all their fantastic Major League talent set to take control of the tournament.
Take an infield of Mark Teixeira, Brandon Phillips, Jimmy Rollins and David Wright, an outfield of Ryan Braun, Adam Jones and Giancarlo Stanton and Joe Mauer catching for Gio Gonzalez and R.A. Dickey, and it's hard to imagine this team not being a tournament favorite.
Coming in second in Pool B should be the USA's northern neighbors, Canada. With plenty of MLB talent of their own, the Canadians ought to be a tough task for any of the 16 teams involved here.
Joey Votto is set to show how healthy he really is, having missed a good portion of 2012 through injury. Also, keep an eye on young pitcher Jameson Taillon. The Pittsburgh Pirates prospect could really make a name for himself with a strong showing.