2017 World Baseball Classic's Biggest Breakout Performers

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2017

2017 World Baseball Classic's Biggest Breakout Performers

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    Netherlands outfielder Wladimir Balentien.
    Netherlands outfielder Wladimir Balentien.Harry How/Getty Images

    The World Baseball Classic has its detractors (hi, Adrian Gonzalez). 

    This year's incarnation generated plenty of interest, however, thanks to some suspenseful, well-played games and a talented United States club that knocked off perennial powerhouse Japan in Tuesday's semifinal and won the gold against the brash, bleached-haired Puerto Rican squad in an 8-0 blowout Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium.

    Intriguingly, the tournament also featured breakout performances by players off the major league radar.

    You already knew Carlos Correa and WBC MVP Marcus Stroman were good at baseball. But who saw Josh Zeid coming?

    As the U.S. basks in its first victory, here's a look at 10 guys who rose from relative obscurity to shine on the WBC stage.

    Keep in mind, this is being written from an MLB-centric perspective. Some of these players are big names elsewhere, but not so much to the casual stateside fan.

Allan De San Miguel, C, Australia

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    Matt Roberts/Getty Images

    A 29-year-old journeyman who saw stints in the minor league systems of the Minnesota Twins, Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals between 2005 and 2016, Allan de San Miguel starred for Australia during its brief WBC run.

    In nine at-bats spread over three games, De San Miguel collected five hits, including two doubles and a home run.

    Impressively, his homer came off 27-year-old right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano, who was referred to before the tournament as "the ace of the Japanese baseball world" by Nippon Professional Baseball commissioner Katsuhiko Kumazaki, per Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times.

Esteban Quiroz, 2B/RF, Mexico

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    Miguel Tovar/Getty Images

    Speaking of players who crushed it in a particularly small sample, Mexico's Esteban Quiroz made a lasting impression in just 10 plate appearances.

    Quiroz tallied a double and two home runs among his four hits while collecting five RBI. Just because it's a ridiculous number, let's add that his tournament OPS was 2.633.

    The stocky 25-year-old, who is listed at 5'7", slashed .289/.396/.428 with 15 home runs last season in the admittedly hitter-happy Mexican League.

    Unfortunately, thanks to Mexico's controversial WBC exit, he didn't get a chance to keep raking against international competition.

Ryan Lavarnway, C, Israel

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    Matt Roberts/Getty Images

    Team Israel was the tournament's Cinderella, pulling off upset wins against South Korea, Taiwan, the Netherlands and Cuba.

    Among Israel's improbable heroes was catcher Ryan Lavarnway, a 2008 sixth-round pick out of Yale who owns a .198 career average in 134 big league games with the Boston Red Sox, Orioles and Atlanta Braves.

    In six magical WBC contests, Lavarnway went 8-for-18 with two doubles, a home run and six RBI.

    "It changed how proud I am about being Jewish," Lavarnway said from Oakland A's camp, where he's trying to stick as a non-roster invitee, per Carl Steward of the Mercury News. "I hope that we helped inspire a sense of community among Jews all around the world."

John Andreoli, RF/CF, Italy

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    Miguel Tovar/Getty Images

    A 2011 17th-round draft choice, John Andreoli wasn't in the Chicago Cubs' plans coming into spring.

    He probably still isn't, but it's not for a lack of trying.

    In 19 at-bats for Italy, Andreoli had six hits, including three home runs, while driving in seven runs and scoring five.

    He turns 27 in June and is almost surely ticketed for Triple-A Iowa. If injuries deplete Chicago's enviable depth chart, however, Andreoli's WBC power surge could put him in line for an MLB audition at some point. 

Yurisbel Gracial, 3B, Cuba

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    Matt Roberts/Getty Images

    The first of two Cuban hitters on this list, Yurisbel Gracial went 10-for-23 in six WBC games with four doubles, a home run and three stolen bases.

    At age 31, Gracial won't be the next Cuban to take MLB by storm, but his Classic output didn't come from nowhere.

    In eight seasons with the Cuban National Series and a stint playing independent ball in Quebec, Gracial owns a .305 average and .884 OPS with 72 homers and 92 steals.

Josh Zeid, RHP, Isreal

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    Another great story for Israel, Zeid allowed zero earned runs in 10 WBC innings and struck out 10. His most impressive outing came against Japan, when he tossed four scoreless frames.

    A 10th-round pick by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009, the 29-year-old hasn't pitched in the majors since 2014 and owns a 5.21 ERA in two forgettable go-rounds with the Houston Astros.

    On Tuesday, he landed a minor league contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, per MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo.

    As Zeid posted on Twitter, "This tournament was the single best baseball experience of my life."

Kodai Senga, RHP, Japan

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Sugano may have entered the tournament with the most hype, but Kodai Senga finished with the best numbers among Japanese pitchers.

    The 24-year-old right-hander struck out 16 in 11 innings next to just one walk, while surrendering seven hits and one earned run.

    Senga, who owns a 2.45 ERA with 316 strikeouts in 275 career NPB innings, flashed mid-90s velocity and a nice array of offspeed pitches.

    Assuming he's posted, you may not have to wait until the next Classic in 2021 to watch him pitch again on American soil. 

Alfredo Despaigne, LF, Cuba

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    Matt Roberts/Getty Images

    Before Cuba was eliminated by the Netherlands, Alfredo Despaigne had time to do some damage.

    In six games, Despaigne went 9-for-19 and paced the Cubans with three home runs and six RBI.

    Like Gracial, Despaigne is past his 30th birthday (he turns 31 in June) and has a long track record with the Cuban National Series.

    More recently, he's seen action in Japan, where he hit .280 with 24 home runs last season.

Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh, LF, Japan

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Japan didn't win the Classic as it did in 2006 and 2009, and the country's brightest star, Shohei Ohtani, sat out with an ankle injury.

    Still, its players got a chance to shine.

    In addition to the aforementioned arms, Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh lit up the stat sheet, going 8-for-25 with three home runs and eight RBI.

    Tsutsugoh turned 25 in November and had a monster season for the Yokohama Bay Stars in 2016, crushing 44 homers to go along with a .322/.430/.680 slash line and 110 RBI.

    As with Senga, expect multiple MLB teams to come calling if and when he's eventually posted.

Wladimir Balentien, RF, Netherlands

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Wladimir Balentien belongs here because he led the tournament in hits (16) and home runs (four) and finished with a .615 average for the Netherlands. 

    A .221 hitter in parts of three big league seasons between 2007 and 2009, Balentien has enjoyed success in NPB, where he hit 60 homers in 2013.

    More than anything, though, he belongs here for this savage WBC bat-flip, which he unleashed after launching a homer against Puerto Rico.

    Even the sternest, old-schooliest of unwritten-rule-enforcers have to tip their caps to that one.

    In all seriousness, Balentien was a revelation in more ways than one. Could it lead to another MLB shot? He's not ruling it out.

    "I think playing this tournament, having success, probably hope it opens a couple more doors for me, maybe, coming back to the States," the 32-year-old said, per MLB.com's Daniel Kramer. "Who knows?" 


    All statistics courtesy of the World Baseball Classic, Baseball Reference and MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

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