World Baseball Classic Preview: 5 Teams That Will Challenge Team USA
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Team USA has an extremely talented roster in the World Baseball Classic.
Filled with MLB stars, they are set to go to battle for their country on Friday, March 8 when they take on Mexico.
In both 2006 and 2009, the United States failed to live up to expectations with early eliminations.
Taking place early in spring training, the US team has looked at the World Baseball Classic as more of a competitive exhibition series.
For other countries, it’s a chance for them to prove to themselves and the world that they can compete at one of the highest levels. Plus they can make their countries proud.
Of course, it’s always extra motivation when playing the US, mainly because the sport was invented in America, and the championship round is played on US soil.
With a lineup of previous MVPs Ryan Braun, Jimmy Rollins and Joe Mauer, reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey and All-Stars Giancarlo Stanton, Adam Jones, Brandon Phillips, Gio Gonzalez and Craig Kimbrel, this team has some lofty expectations.
Kimbrel told Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com,
We’re not here just to say we play for Team USA. We want to say we played for Team USA and we won.
Team USA isn’t the only team to field a roster with MLB players. These teams could cause some problems for the American squad and will challenge their quest to be World Baseball Classic champions.
Here’s a look at some of the teams who could knock off the United States.
Dark Horse: Mexico
Mexico could surprise a lot of teams.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images
When the United States take the field for the first time, they’ll be playing Mexico.
Mexico doesn’t match up talent wise with some of the other teams in the Classic, but they have the potential to advance to the second round.
A lot is riding on the right arm of Yovani Gallardo, who is trying to come back from a strained groin. He will pitch on Friday against the United States, and he gives Mexico a solidified starter to pair up with Royals right-hander Luis Mendoza.
Gallardo commented on the start and the opportunity to face teammate Ryan Braun to Barry Bloom of MLB.com,
It's going to be an exciting game all around. No matter what sport it is, Mexico-U.S. always brings a lot of excitement. We got to talk about it a little bit going into this thing. It's the first time I'm going to get a chance to face [Braun].
While Team USA has plenty of pitchers to match up with Mexico’s, it may be the Mexican offense who gives us a surprise.
Led by All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, the team also has major league talent in Ramiro Pena, Luis Cruz, Jorge Cantu, Gil Velazquez and Karim Garcia.
Granted the offensive power drops off tremendously after Gonzalez, but this is a tournament where crazy things have happened. The Netherlands, as huge underdogs, defeated the Dominican Republic twice in the 2009 Classic.
Mexico’s bullpen is a strong point. It features San Francisco Giants pitcher Sergio Romo, the Dodgers’ Javy Guerra and Boston’s Alfredo Aceves, amongst others.
It won’t be easy for Mexico to escape Pool D with Canada, Italy and the United States, but they have the caliber of players who could make a run.
Mexico just needs to see someone to step up offensively and complement A-Gon.
Joey Votto is a power threat on the Canadian offense.
J. Meric/Getty Images
With the talent the United States has put together, the Canadians are eager to knock them off.
There are two former MVPs on Canada’s roster. Joey Votto won the award in 2010 and Justin Morneau won in 2006. Other MLB players on the squad include Brett Lawrie, Michael Saunders, John Axford and Jim Henderson.
The team also has a handful of prospects currently in the minor leagues.
Morneau is the leader of this team and one of the best Canadian baseball players of all time. He is going to be a key piece to the overall success of Canada.
In Pool D with the US, Canada seems to be the Americans top competition to get out of the first round.
It’s clear Canada is motivated this year to make some noise. Outfielder Michael Saunders told Adam McCalvy of MLB.com,
Canadians in baseball, I think we've come a long way in the last handful of years, and it's guys like [Larry] Walker and Votto and Morneau who are kind of paving the way, and making us realize we're not just a hockey country. Scouts are definitely all over Canada now because they know we produce some baseball players. We're coming here to win.
With the confidence and camaraderie surrounding this team, they've come to play. The United States will get every country’s best game and Canada is no exception. With a lot of familiar faces from around the MLB, it’s bragging rights for the winners.
Canada upset the United States in 2006; there’s no reason to think that can’t happen again.
Japan, the reigning champions, are off to a quick start in this years World Baseball Classic.
Koji Watanabe/Getty Images
Japan hasn’t experienced defeat in the World Baseball Classic. Though they’ve lost five games total in the previous two tournaments, the Japanese have won both Classics to date.
Putting together an impressive unit of pitchers, including two Sawamura Award winners and the 2012 Japan Series MVP, Tetsuya Utsumi, pitching will be vital for the Japanese.
They have escaped Pool A this year, starting the tournament 2-1 with wins over Brazil and China. They lost to Cuba by a score of 6-3.
The wins haven’t come easy, as Japan relied heavily on their pitching.
In the opener, Japan used a three-run eighth inning to come back from a 3-2 deficit and steal a 5-3 win. Tadashi Settsu received the win in relief, striking out four in three innings of work.
In the second game against China, Japanese pitchers struck out 15 Chinese batters in a 5-2 victory. Offensively, Yoshio Itoi smacked a three-run double to lead the Japanese.
There’s not many household names like we’ve seen in years past with the likes of Ichiro and Daisuke Matsuzaka (two-time Classic MVP), but Japan will always be a tough matchup for any team. Dice-K received recognition after his play in the Classic, so it wouldn’t be surprising for another Japanese player to draw interest from MLB clubs with a strong outing.
They have an entirely domestic team, with Kazuo Matsui the only player on the roster with major league experience.
If they match up against the United States at any point in the competition, they are capable of coming out on top with their excellent pitching staff and ability to produce runs.
Miguel Cabrera leads a potent Venezuelan offense.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Team Venezuela has a lineup that rivals, maybe even exceeds, that of the United States.
Led by Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, Venezuela is loaded, both with their offense and pitching.
With MLB talent up and down the lineup, there aren’t many holes on this team.
Looking to build on their third place finish in 2009, Venezuela has extra motivation after the death of President Hugo Chavez.
Baseball is the most popular sport in Venezuela, and the country is counting on their team to help take their minds off the passing of Chavez.
With an infield of Pablo Sandoval, Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, Miguel Cabrera and reserves Omar Infante and Marco Scutaro, there is plenty of offense to go around.
Add in outfielders Carlos Gonzalez, Martin Prado and Gerardo Parra, this team looks like they can win it all.
A solid pitching group led by Anibal Sanchez of the Detroit Tigers, Jhoulys Chacin of the Colorado Rockies and Henderson Alvarez of the Miami Marlins gives Venezuela high hopes.
When it comes to the bullpen, that’s one area that could be a weakness for this team. Francisco Rodriguez was once a top closer with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the New York Mets. However, he’s well past his prime and he'll be asked to anchor the back end of the bullpen.
It’s going to be a fun tournament for the Venezuelans, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they advance deep into the tournament.
They'll have to get out of Pool C first, with a competitive Dominican Republic team, if they wish to get an opportunity to possibly play the United States.
Hanley Ramirez (left) and Jose Reyes (right) look to right the ship for the Dominican Republic.
Al Bello/Getty Images
The Dominican Republic has one of the best offensive rosters in the entire classic. In Pool C with Venezuela, these two teams should advance to the second round.
With a balance of power and speed, the Dominican Republic team is an experienced squad with the will to win for their country.
There is a lot of pride in this team as they look to rebound from an early exit in the 2009 Classic. The performance has left a sour taste in the mouths of the players.
Jose Reyes, who played on the team in 2009 and is returning to play this year, told Jorge Ortiz of USAToday,
The first two Classics were a bit disappointing for us. We had great teams and didn't do much. This time we want to bring the crown back to the Dominican people.
The Blue Jays Edwin Encarnacion is the main power threat, batting behind Dodgers third baseman Hanley Ramirez and Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano.
They’ve shown they can hit. They crushed Cole Hamels and the Phillies pitching for 15 runs and 28 hits, splitting the gaps and finding the holes.
Following up that performance, they bested the Yankees 8-2 in preparation for the Classic, despite being flustered by the pitching of Hiroki Kuroda.
The Dominican pitching staff is led by Edinson Volquez and Wandy Rodriguez, with a fairly strong bullpen of Octavio Dotel, Jose Veras, Santiago Casilla and Fernando Rodney.
The roster is full of stars who are playing together and having fun already. This is the team that has the makeup to take home the trophy.
If their exhibition games the past two days are any indication of things to come, the Dominican Republic is the most dangerous team in the Classic this year.