World Baseball Classic: The MVP of Every Country's Team
The World Baseball Classic—in its third iteration since beginning in 2006—is in full swing.
If you're crazy about baseball like me, you've either stayed up way too late to watch games broadcast from Japan and Taiwan over the last week, or you recorded them and watched them during normal hours.
We've already seen Korea, Brazil, Australia and China get sent packing from pools A and B, and pools C and D just began their first round of play yesterday.
For all the explanations, rules and schedules, visit the WBC website.
All you need to know here is that there are 16 very talented international baseball teams fighting to be crowned the WBC champs. The first two tournaments made a winner out of Team Japan, which looks very strong again in 2013.
For some teams, telling who the most valuable player is simply coincides with matching that player to his MLB club. For others, like Cuba, there is a plethora of unknown talent that deserves careful consideration.
But who is most important to their teams for this tournament (as opposed to the traditional meaning of MVP)?
Let's identify the star of each and every team partaking in the World Baseball Classic this year. Keep an eye on the whole tournament, but especially the following 16 players both in the coming weeks and into the future as they try to make their mark in international and MLB competition.
MVP: Stefan Welch, IF
Welch was one of the lone offensive bright spots on Team Australia in their brief, 0-3 run through the first round of the WBC. The Pirates' minor leaguer went 3-for-10 in three games, but all three went for extra bases.
Thanks to two doubles and Australia's only homer of the tournament, Welch was able to rack up eight total bases in just the trio of games.
In time split between High-A and Double-A for the Pirates last season, Welch hit .266 with 13 home runs and 64 RBI. He's shown good gap power, knocking almost 30 doubles a year in the minors since 2010. At age 24, Welch has a shot to become an every day big league player in the near future.
MVP: Leonardo Reginatto, 3B
Team Brazil really wowed me in this tournament, even though they ended up going winless. After shocking Panama in the qualifiers to even earn a spot, these guys almost beat Cuba, played tight with Japan, and had a lead into the eighth against China in the opening round.
And you can attribute much of the offense to Reginatto, who has been playing in the Tampa Bay Rays organization for a few years.
This kid has a great swing, and came through in some big RBI spots early in games throughout the tournament. The manager of Team Brazil, Barry Larkin, said he expects Reginatto to be the next Brazilian-born player to reach the Major League level.
MVP: Joey Votto, 1B
Canada always has a pretty competitive international team, dotted with MLB stars.
But the leader of the pack, without a doubt, is the Reds first baseman. He is a former MVP in the big leagues and one of the most feared hitters in today's game.
What else can you say about a guy who has a career .316 average and three straight All-Star game selections? He averages about 30 homers and 100 RBI in a normal season. Back healthy after a knee injury in 2012, Votto should start his resurgence with a big WBC tournament.
MVP: Ray Chang, IF
Everyone knew that Chang was China's most dangerous hitter coming into the tournament, and he still couldn't be stopped.
Even though China only won their third game with a big comeback against Brazil, Chang was the big winner in that rally, driving in the go-ahead run to assure his team of an automatic invite to the 2017 tournament.
In 11 at-bats in the World Baseball Classic, Chang hit .364 with 3 RBI.
Between a ton of different minor league affiliates over the years, Chang has turned in a .272 career batting average, though with pretty mediocre stats otherwise. He might not be a star in the bigs, but he will continue to shine bright for China in international play.
MVP: Dai-Kang Yang, OF
This honor could go to former MLB pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, especially after he turned in a stellar performance in his team's first game. But the rest of that pitching staff is dominant, too.
If Team Chinese Taipei is going to get past some tough competition in the second round, they need to score runs.
And the best hitter on the team is Yang, who drove in four runs in three games in the opening round, and hit a home run to lead the team in both categories. In the Japan Pacific League, he has improved his numbers every season thus far and will continue to get better as he enters his prime.
MVP: Danny Betancourt, SP
I'm a huge fan of pitching, and Betancourt absolutely killed it in the opening round. We all know what that stacked Cuban lineup can do, but their Achilles heel is supposed to be the pitching staff. In games that Betancourt starts, it seems the opposition has no chance.
Against China in his first start, Betancourt struck out eight batters, including seven in a row at one point. He has very smooth mechanics, impeccable control and a devastating breaking ball. Even with the firepower in the lineup, Betancourt might end up being the most important piece on Team Cuba as the world's number-one ranked team takes aim at its first WBC title.
MVP: Jose Reyes, SS
I know, I know. Robinson Cano was on the opening slide.
There is a case to be made for almost every single hitter on this roster as the most valuable player for Team Dominica, but it's the guy setting the table who needs to put together the best tournament.
If Reyes is getting on base consistently and putting the big hitters like Cano, Hanley Ramirez, Nelson Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion in spots with runners in scoring position, this team will flourish. If Reyes is struggling and the Dominican Republic has to rely on its raw power, it could get upset.
MVP: Anthony Rizzo, 1B
No doubt about it.
We saw in the opening-round win against Team Mexico yesterday just how valuable Rizzo is for this team. If Italy really is going to shock the world and make a run into the next round or further, it's going to heavily rest on the bat of the Cubs' young slugger.
Rizzo has been a top prospect for a long time, and finally started settling in last season. He has the potential to smack 30 homers in the bigs, and will have to bring that power to the heart of the Italian order.
It will likely take one more win for his team to reach the quarterfinals, and beating Canada may be their best chance.
MVP: Kenta Maeda, SP
This is another team with a plethora of star players, and I had my pick of the litter. But Japan's WBC legacy has been built on good pitching and timely hitting. Maeda is supposed to follow in the footsteps of Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka as the international team's ace.
It remains to be seen if Maeda will make the leap to Major League Baseball, but he certainly has the tools.
In his one start so far, he cruised for five innings, allowing just one hit, one walk and striking out six. The 24-year-old posted a 1.53 ERA in 29 starts for the Hiroshima Carp last season.
MVP: Dae Ho Lee, 1B
This was a sad, sorry showing for one of the better teams in international baseball.
All the hype leading up to the tournament for Team Korea surrounded them wanting to avenge their 2009 WBC losses. Starting off with a shellacking at the hands of the Dutch wasn't a great route to go.
If there was a bright spot, it was their gigantic first baseman and DH, Lee. He doesn't have the greatest swing, but he is so strong that his pop-ups reach the warning track. For the tournament, he hit .455 with a .538 on-base percentage in 11 at-bats.
In 127 games in 2010 with the Lotte Giants of the Korean Baseball Organization (he played in Japan in 2012), Lee hit .364 with 44 homers and 133 RBI. Wow.
MVP: Yovani Gallardo, SP
Before today, this slot would have gone to first baseman and Dodgers star Adrian Gonzalez. But Italy just knocked off Team Mexico in the opening game of pool play, meaning that Gallardo's start today against the United States is of utmost importance.
Gallardo will be facing R.A. Dickey and a very powerful American lineup.
We've seen what the Brewers ace can do against the world's best, but he's also struggled at times. If he gets knocked around at all early, the Mexican team might be toast.
MVP: Andrelton Simmons, SS
The Braves rising star needs to be the MVP.
This might be the team I struggled with the most, given the plethora of young Major League talent, Andruw Jones' fantastic opening round performance, and some really solid starting pitching.
But Simmons hits at the top of the lineup and anchors the defense at shortstop. In the first round, he lived up to the hype, hitting .308 with three doubles. If Simmons keeps setting the table for Netherlands, their magical run might continue to the semifinals.
MVP: Yadier Molina, C
Is there really any argument?
Molina is the most important player on his stacked big league team, the St. Louis Cardinals. And the same thing applies here.
Not only is Molina the best defensive catcher in the tournament—so is the five-time Gold Glove winner the best catcher in the world, technically—but he can rake, too.
Team Puerto Rico is in an insanely difficult pool with the Dominican Republic and Venezuela the likely favorites. For his team to advance, Molina needs to put together some good at-bats in the heart of the order, and continue playing his stellar defense.
MVP: Yunesky Sanchez, IF
This guy is mostly unknown, despite playing for the Diamondbacks in Triple-A, before bouncing to the Pirates minor leagues, before hitting independent ball.
In his American baseball career, he's hitting at a good .295 clip.
Sanchez is playing independent ball for a reason, but this tournament could be a showcase for him to take one more shot at a return to the Major League dream. He drove in the winning run against Team Israel in the qualifiers to get the Spanish club to the WBC.
MVP: Ryan Vogelsong, SP
I can't imagine most teams being able to handle an R.A. Dickey knuckleball, so the rest of the rotation is going to have to be very good. Vogelsong of the Giants is solid in MLB right now, but it will be interesting to see how he handles the powerful Dominican, Venezuelan or Puerto Rican lineups in round two.
Vogelsong should get game two against Italy for U.S., which will be a bigger contest than most people expected after the Italians knocked off Mexico yesterday.
The U.S. team could be in danger of missing out on the second round if Vogelsong slips up in his start, depending upon their first game against Yovani Gallardo and the Mexican team.
MVP: Miguel Cabrera, 1B
Oh, come on. Obviously it's the reigning MVP and Triple Crown winner in the American League.
He's the best hitter on the planet, and has his sights set on proving it in the WBC.
His team got off to a rough start against the Dominican Republic yesterday, but Cabrera nearly hit a three-run bomb that could have changed the whole outcome.
That's why he is the most valuable player on a team full of strong candidates -- at any given moment, Cabrera can completely turn around a game with one swing. He may be the most valuable player in this whole tournament.
Just ask who opposing pitchers would least like to face in this tournament.