World Baseball Classic 2017: Projecting Tournament Favorites, Dark Horses

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2017

World Baseball Classic 2017: Projecting Tournament Favorites, Dark Horses

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    March is an important month for baseball fans. Not only does it signal the beginning of the exhibition season—and draw us ever closer to Opening Day—but every four years, it provides us the opportunity to see the best players in the world compete in a 16-team tournament, the World Baseball Classic.

    While some fans bemoan the fact that the tournament cuts into spring training, there's no denying that the action on the field is both exciting and entertaining. That's especially true as teams advance into the later rounds, consummating with the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, which begins on March 20.

    Final rosters aren't due for another few weeks, so much can change between now and then. But based on the players we know are participating, the competition teams will be facing in their respective pools in the first round and how they've fared in the past, we can begin to affix labels to some of these clubs.

    What follows is a look at four favorites—and four dark horses—in the fourth installment of the WBC.

Favorite: Dominican Republic

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    Robinson Cano will look to repeat his MVP performance in the 2013 WBC.
    Robinson Cano will look to repeat his MVP performance in the 2013 WBC.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz told Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times back in September that they'd be back in the WBC to help the Dominican Republic defend its 2013 gold medal. “It was like a dream,” Cruz said of their run to a tournament title“We won every single game. We had fun. It was a blast.”

    He'll be joined in the Dominican outfield by Pittsburgh's Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, while Cano, the MVP of the 2013 international extravaganza, will play alongside Baltimore's Manny Machado and Texas' Adrian Beltre in the infield.

    Cleveland's Edwin Encarnacion won't be rounding things out around the diamond, however, announcing at his introductory press conference with the Indians that he planned on skipping the WBC, per WKYC.com's Matthew Florjancic.

    Even without Encarnacion in the mix, that kind of offensive firepower should make things easier for St. Louis' Alex Reyes and the rest of the team's yet-to-be-revealed starting rotation. Two of the game's best relievers, New York's Dellin Betances and Tampa Bay's Alex Colome, will be waiting in the bullpen.

    If the pitching can keep things close, the Dominican Republic has an excellent chance to win its second straight WBC crown.

Favorite: Japan

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    Fans will finally get to see what makes Shohei Otani such a special player.
    Fans will finally get to see what makes Shohei Otani such a special player.Masterpress/Getty Images

    Winners of the first two installments of the WBC (2006, 2009) and the only team that has medaled in all three editions of the tournament, the Japanese will be looking to improve upon its bronze medal finish in 2013.

    “For Samurai Japan, the goal is to put together the strongest team possible and recapture the title,” NPB commissioner Katsuhiko Kumazaki said last month, per Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times.

    While Houston's Norichika Aoki is the only current MLB player to have so far committed to playing, the best non-MLB affiliated talent on the planet, Shohei Otani, a 22-year-old dual-threat as a pitcher and a hitter, leads a deep roster that features many players with previous WBC experience.

    Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma, Los Angeles' Kenta Maeda, and New York's Masahiro Tanaka are among the current big leaguers who could join Aoki in the tournament. Adding any of them to Japan's rotation would only improve their odds of winning their third gold medal.

Favorite: Puerto Rico

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    Carlos Beltran will look to win gold in what figures to be his final WBC appearance.
    Carlos Beltran will look to win gold in what figures to be his final WBC appearance.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Four years ago, the Dominican Republic silenced Puerto Rico's bats in the championship game, holding the team to three hits in a 3-0 loss. Finding offense shouldn't be difficult this time around, with Javier Baez, Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor all set to make their respective WBC debuts.

    Where will they all play? Manager Edwin Rodriguez wouldn't commit when asked. "They're going to be all over the place," Rodriguez recently told MLB.com's Austin Laymance. "They all have to be playing everywhere. They know that. We know that. Any [of them] can start at shortstop."

    Neither Carlos Beltran nor Yadier Molina can start at shortstop, but the veteran duo will provide the club with much-needed leadership and tournament experience. 

    On the mound, New York's Seth Lugo and Minnesota's Hector Santiago are two of the team's known starters, while a trio of young relievers—Texas' Alex Claudio, Seattle's Edwin Diaz and Detroit prospect Joe Jimenez—give the club a potentially dynamic three-headed monster to deploy late in games.

    That said, Puerto Rico's success will hinge on just how productive its star-studded lineup is. With the names we know, it's not hard to envision another trip to the tournament's final game.

Favorite: United States

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    Adam Jones will be looking to improve upon a .467 OPS in the 2013 WBC.
    Adam Jones will be looking to improve upon a .467 OPS in the 2013 WBC.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    It's inconceivable that the United States has yet to medal at the World Baseball Classic, but the facts are indisputable: Team USA has only made it to the semifinals of the tournament once, back in 2009, when it was eliminated by eventual champion Japan.

    So how can we call Team USA one of the favorites in 2017? Good luck trying to find a hole on the roster.

    Perennial All-Stars such as Colorado's Nolan Arenado, Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt, Detroit's Ian Kinsler, Washington's Daniel Murphy are among the eight infielders on Team USA's roster, while Baltimore's Adam Jones, Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen and Miami's Christian Yelich will be roaming the outfield.

    Tampa Bay's Chris Archer, Washington's Tanner Roark and Toronto's Marcus Stroman give Team USA a trio of excellent starters, with Baltimore's Mychal Givens, Houston's Luke Gregerson and Cleveland's Andrew Miller ready to take the ball when needed out of the bullpen.

    They'll be throwing to the duo of Jonathan Lucroy and Buster Posey, arguably the two best catchers in the world.

    Washington's Max Scherzer was originally slated to be part of the rotation, but a stress fracture in a knuckle on his right hand will keep him out of action. Speculation has surrounded Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw and Boston's David Price as potential replacements.

    Games aren't won on paper. All these big names mean nothing if they can't get the job done between the lines. But it's impossible not to look at Team USA's roster and think that this could finally be the year they break through to the championship round.

Dark Horse: Mexico

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    Adrian Gonzalez will have to be a catalyst for Mexico in 2017.
    Adrian Gonzalez will have to be a catalyst for Mexico in 2017.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    After failing to advance out of the first round in 2013, Mexico had to play its way back into the field of 16 this time around, beating Nicaragua in qualifying play to earn a return trip to the WBC.

    Los Angeles' Adrian Gonzalez leads the way offensively, joined by Oakland's Khris Davis and Danny Espinosa, recently acquired by the Los Angeles Angels from the Washington Nationals. Espinosa's former teammate Anthony Rendon could join the festivities, as could Gonzalez's current teammate Yasiel Puig, according to a report from MLB.com's Chad Thornburg,

    The bulk of Team Mexico's MLB experience lies in its pitching staff. While Atlanta's Jaime Garcia and Chicago's Miguel Gonzalez are the two starters currently locked in, the bullpen is especially deep in big league talent:

    • Roberto Osuna (TOR)
    • Oliver Perez (WAS)
    • Sergio Romo (FA)
    • Fernando Salas (FA)
    • Joakim Soria (KC)
    • Carlos Torres (MIL)

    That group could recieve even more reinforcements, per Thornburg, with Texas' Matt Bush, Miami's A.J. Ramos and Toronto's Aaron Sanchez looming as potential additions to the roster.

Dark Horse: Netherlands

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    The Netherlands needs a big performance from Jurickson Profar, among others.
    The Netherlands needs a big performance from Jurickson Profar, among others.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    There are lots of questions surrounding the Netherlands when it comes to pitching, especially now that All-Star closer Kenley Jansen isn't expected to participate, per a report from Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register.

    Without Jansen, the team's pitching staff includes former MLB hurlers Jair Jurrjens, Shairon Martis and Rick VandenHurk. That's far from intimidating.

    But with Boston's Xander Bogaerts, New York's Didi Gregorius, Texas' Jurickson Profar, Baltimore's Jonathan Schoop and Los Angeles' Andrelton Simmons, the Netherlands boast an infield that's on par with those the favorites in the tournament will be trotting out.

    At the very least, that quintet makes the Netherlands a dangerous team to face, one that's capable of putting a bunch of runs on the board in a hurry. Whether their pitchers will be able to keep the opposition's bats at bay, however, remains to be seen.

Dark Horse: Korea

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    Seattle's Dae-Ho Lee was a force for Korea in the 2013 WBC.
    Seattle's Dae-Ho Lee was a force for Korea in the 2013 WBC.Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

    One of the only teams that has already finalized its roster for the 2017 WBC, Korea boasts an experienced group that features a trio of MLB players—Texas' Shin-Soo Choo, Seattle's Dae-Ho Lee and Baltimore's Hyun Soo Kim.

    Notable absences from the club are Pittsburgh's Jung Ho Kang, St. Louis' Seung-Wan Oh and Minnesota's Byung Ho Park. Kang was kicked off the team earlier this month after news broke that he was involved in a DUI incident; Oh was suspended for gambling by the Korean Baseball Organization before he signed with St. Louis last season; and Park is recovering from wrist surgery.

    In a first-round pool with Chinese Taipei, Israel and the Netherlands—and only the latter thought to be a potential contender—Korea should have no problems advancing to the second round of the tournament. Once they get there, anything is possible.

Dark Horse: Venezuela

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    MIguel Cabrera's presence ensures that Venezuela will be competitive in the WBC.
    MIguel Cabrera's presence ensures that Venezuela will be competitive in the WBC.Al Bello/Getty Images

    It's hard to look at some of the big-name talent on Venezuela's roster and not consider the club a favorite in the WBC.

    Houston's Jose Altuve, New York's Asdrubal Cabrera, Detroit's Miguel Cabrera, Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez and Kansas City's Salvador Perez give Venezuela a dangerous, formidable offense, while Felix Hernandez returns as the ace of the pitching staff.

    But there are questions about how the rest of the roster will shape out.

    Will Cleveland's Carlos Carrasco join King Felix in the rotation? Will Detroit's Fernando Rodriguez and Bruce Rondon sign on to serve as the team's primary relievers? Who will join CarGo in the outfield? The answers to those questions will ultimately decide if Venezuela is truly a contender or just a pretender.

                              

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of WorldBaseballClassic.com.