The World Baseball Classic 2013 will get underway Friday night, as Pool A will get us going for what promises to be a great display of international baseball talent.
With Japan returning as a two-time champion and the rest of the field intent on starting a new title run, we can start projecting which pool play games are going to be the ones to watch as it relates to the most exciting matchups of the tournament.
Team USA is prepared to make a serious run with its new roster, and looks poised to make 2009's fourth-place finish a thing of the past. Elsewhere, the star power from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela is overwhelming, and Korea is dangerous—as always.
As the schedule begins to play itself out this week and we start to categorize the best teams of this 2013 event, here's a look at some of the games that are going to be must-see-TV during baseball's biggest international bash.
Note: For a complete schedule of events and games at the 2013 WBC, check out the tournament's official website.
Pool Play Games to Watch
Pool A — Japan vs. Cuba; Wed., March 6, at 5 a.m. ET
Two-time and only champion of the event, Japan, will begin its quest for the title on Tuesday morning. On Wednesday, it will have a tough test in one of the most power-happy teams the 2013 WBC has to offer—Cuba.
Additionally, there's plenty of history between the two nations—even if they've only had two tournaments to establish such a rivalry.
Cuba was the runner-up team in the inaugural WBC and lost out to Japan again in 2009. With some of the nation's biggest stars (Aroldis Chapman, Yeonis Cespedes) banished because of Cuba's strict political implications, the game loses a little of its luster, but there are plenty of veteran Cubans who won't let the current champs take home an easy win.
One of those Cubans is Jose Abreu, who Jonah Keri of Grantland.com called "The best hitter you've never heard of" in a recent expose on what he's doing in Cuba right now.
Japan isn't devoid of talent, either. As Ben Badler notes on Twitter, the Japanese might be sending another ace to MLB soon:
Masahiro Tanaka starting tomorrow for Japan against Brazil. Big-time pitcher for Japanese WBC team and still 24 years old.— Ben Badler (@BenBadler) March 1, 2013
The Japanese squad is also without some of its biggest stars, namely two-time MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka, legend Ichiro Suzuki and budding star Yu Darvish. Either way, there's plenty on the line in this Pool A matchup, and it should decide the winner of this group.
Pool C — Venezuela vs. Dominican Republic; Thurs., March 7 at 6:30 p.m. ET
You want offense? This game has it. Defense? Venezuela and the Dominican Republic have that, too, and each team features a lineup that rivals any that MLB teams will put on the field during the 2013 season.
On the Venezuelan side, Elvis Andrus, Carlos Gonzalez and American League MVP Miguel Cabrera will lead a top-heavy position player roster into the tournament. While the lineup will be deadly, the pitching staff has some holes.
That doesn't bode well for the Venezuelans when looking across at the other dugout.
The Dominican Republic will feature some of the game's most complete players. The infield will be downright scary—Robinson Cano, Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez will all be starting in the dirt—and Nelson Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion will help complete a star-studded outfield, too.
Like the Venezuelan team, the Dominicans also lack the necessary pitching to be considered the undisputed favorites. Edison Volquez is the staff ace, but he's as inconsistent as he is electric, and Venezuela has some deadly hitters, too. Overall, this should be a whale of a game, both for bragging rights back in the states during the MLB season and for moving on in the tournament.
Pool D — United States vs. Mexico; Fri., March 8 at 9 p.m. ET
This is the first real test of an American team expected to go all the way to the final.
After disappointing efforts during the first two WBCs, the USA is sending a full squad to the tournament during its third go-round—complete with a Cy Young ace in Toronto Blue Jays new starter R.A. Dickey.
Giancarlo Stanton, Ryan Braun, Craig Kimbrel and David Wright are also going to be in attendance, and that should make Team USA junkies (of any sport) excited and engaged for this year's WBC.
How far will Team USA go?
However, it's not going to be all sunshine and roses. We've yet to see this team in action and don't know what kind of intensity or effort we'll get. Japan has been notorious with camaraderie and team-first play during its title reign—something USA will need to show before we even speak of crowning them as champs.
Jon Morosi of Fox Sports notes much of the same, speculating that Team USA's first game against border neighbor Mexico isn't going to be anything close to a walk in the park.
Mexico has Adrian Gonzalez, Sergio Romo and Yovani Gallardo—the last of which is slated to start against the U.S. after finishing seventh in Cy Young voting in 2012. Mexico doesn't have the All-Star caliber names that the U.S. does, but they do all want to be there—does the U.S.?
We'll find out on Friday in the first game with some big-name stars. It should set the tempo for what kind of WBC the U.S. will have, and Mexico, too.