The 'Spring' Classic - World Baseball Classic 2023
The Major League Baseball season concluded in November as the Astros toppled the Phillies in six games to claim the World Series title. Baseball once again returned to hibernation for the cold winter months. Winter turns to spring and the baseball season takes its place once more. This year, though, is slightly different. Before we can watch our favorite teams go to battle, a special tournament will commence. The World Baseball Classic allows players to suit up for their national teams and play for their country. Twenty nations will send their best players to claim the coveted trophy.
The history of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) is rather short. Its first iteration took place in 2006, and there have only been four tournaments since. With each passing classic, it seems the tournament grows in popularity and that trend is almost sure to continue. The WBC is key to help grow the game of baseball and spread it even further worldwide. Baseball is a major sport in many nations, including the United States, Japan, South Korea, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, but it lacks popularity in other regions. An international tournament showcases the best players on the planet playing, not for money, but for national pride. In the previous events, Japan, the Dominican Republic, and the U.S. are the only nations to win. Japan won the first two tournaments in 2006 and 2009 while the Dominican Republic and the U.S. won the WBCs of 2013 and 2017, respectively.
This year's World Baseball Classic is shaping up to be a great tournament with some nations making their first appearance and others looking to add to their trophy case. The 20 national teams are split up into four different pools. The first round is pool play where five teams will play each other. The top two teams with the best record will move on to the next round. From then on, every game is win or go home. In the quarterfinals, the winner of Pool A will play the second place team of Pool B and the winner of Pool B will play the runner up of Pool A. The same is true for Pools C and D, but on the other side of the bracket. The winners will move on to the semifinals and so on until the final game on Tuesday, March 21 in Miami, Florida.
The games of Pool A will take place in Taiwan at the Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium. This is one of the weaker pools of the field, as it includes Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), the Netherlands, Cuba, Italy, and Panama. Chinese Taipei will be led by Yueh-Ping Lin in their fifth appearance at the WBC. This squad does not have many big leaguers besides a few players who had quick trips to the big leagues or prospects who have yet to reach that level, but they certainly have experience in the WBC. They have only reached the second round once, so they sure have something to prove to the rest of the world.
The Netherlands is being led by Hensley Meulens in their fifth trip to the WBC. They have been one of the more successful nations in the first few tournaments, as they finished fourth in each of the last two. They field a number of MLB players such as Xander Bogaerts, Kenley Jansen, Jurickson Profar, and Andrelton Simmons. Pitching is likely the biggest concern for this team, but they have shown to have some magic when it matters most.
Armando Johnson leads the Cuban National team, which is an easy favorite to win Pool A. For the first time, Cuba is allowing players who defected from the country to play for their national team. This will hopefully give them the spark they have been looking for, as the team has been unable to get past the second round since their defeat in the 2006 Championship to Japan. White Sox teammates Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert Jr. will join Johnson in leading the team, with former MLB star Yoenis Cespedes also on the roster. The pitching looks a little lighter than expected, but many of these players are fresh off the Caribbean Series, so there is little rust to wear off.
Hall of Fame Catcher Mike Piazza leads Team Italy in their fifth appearance at the WBC. Italy has only made it past the first round once. Royals star first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino, also nicknamed the "Pasquatch" or the "Italian Nightmare," should be fun to watch. Former Mets ace Matt Harvey, as well as David Fletcher and Nicky Lopez, are other notable names. This team lacks the star pitching on paper, which is a similar problem of most WBC teams, but they could make some noise in a weaker pool.
The last team of Pool A is Panama, who are making their third WBC appearance and first since 2009. Luis Ortiz leads this club, which has very little MLB experience. Javy Guerra and Christian Bethancourt are familiar names, but this team will need some unlikely heroes for a deep run. It should be exciting for Panamanians to see their national team playing on the world stage for the first time in over a decade.
Cuba will likely move on from Pool A, but the second spot is certainly up for grabs. Chinese Taipei would be my choice for the second slot as they will be playing at home, so the crowd will be on their side.
Pool B will play their first games at the Tokyo Dome in Japan. Japan, Korea, Australia, China, and Czech Republic make up this section of the tourney. Japan is easily one of the favorites to win the WBC, as they have been the most successful country in its history. They are the only nation to finish in the top three of each WBC, and they have the roster to do it again. The Nippon Professional Baseball Organization is the best outside of Major League Baseball, so there are many high level players on this team. Yu Darvish, Lars Nootbar, and Seiya Suzuki are well known MLB players on the squad, while Munetaka Murakami and Roki Sasaki are young Japanese stars who will look to make their mark. It also cannot be forgotten that two-way player Shohei Ohtani will also suit up for Japan.
South Korea is also one of the favorites in this tournament, as Korea also has their own league in the Korean Baseball Organization League. They finished in the top three in 2006 and 2009, but have failed to reach the second round since. Kang Chul Lee leads this team of ball players who may not have the notable MLB talent of other squads, but they are sure to be competitive. Some key names are Tommy Edman and Ha-Seong Kim who will provide some key leadership in the infield.
Former big leaguer Dave Nilsson is leading Team Australia. Unfortunately, they have never made it out of the group stage in the four appearances. The club this time around does also not seem to be as strong as it has been in the past. The roster includes some guys who have big league experience, but there are not a lot of names that are recognizable.
Similar to Australia, China has never made it out of the pool stage of the World Baseball Classic. Dean Treanor leads this squad, which does not have many notable players on the roster. Additionally, the Chinese Professional Baseball League has not resumed since the pandemic. Hopefully, they can be competitive in the tournament.
The Czech Republic is one of the more exciting stories of the entire WBC, as they are making their first appearance in the event. Pavel Chadim leads a squad full of guys who mostly play for a Czechian Amateur League. Eric Sogard is the only former big leaguer on the team, but it should be a lot of fun to see this team play. This is another sign that we could be seeing baseball grow in other parts of the world. Although Czech Republic is a great story, Japan and Korea are the easy options to escape Pool B considering their talent and pedigree in the WBC.
Pool C will play their games in Phoenix, Arizona. Pool C is one of the more interesting pools, as it includes the U.S., Mexico, Colombia, Canada, and Great Britain. The United States is looking to repeat, and it surely has one of the best lineups ever constructed in baseball history. The roster is full of MVPs, including Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, and Paul Goldschmidt, with also a number of other MLB All Stars at each position. The pitching staff is not as comparable, but there are a lot of great pitchers on the roster. The coaching staff also features Mark Derosa, Andy Pettitte, and Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. Everything seems to be lining up for a U.S. repeat at the WBC.
Mexico is managed by Benji Gil and features a lot of MLB talent. Julio Urias, José Urquidy, and Taijuan Walker lead the pitching staff and there are a number of MLB players around the diamond. Alex Verdugo, Randy Arozarena, and Rowdy Tellez provide thump to the lineup. This team looks like they can compete at a high level and give almost any other squad a run for their money. Mexico is very well rounded and a country with such talent should be moving past the first round which they have not done since 2009.
Jolbert Cabrera leads Colombia, who are only making their second appearance at the World Baseball Classic. This team is not as star-studded as the others, but there are a lot of good players that could contribute to a winning club. José Quintana, Gio Urshela, and Donovan Solano are good players at the big league level and it would only take a few more pieces for this team to win a game or two. Fifteen-year MLB veteran Ernie Whitt is hoping to coach Canada to their first second round appearance in their WBC history. Similar to most teams, the pitching staff does not jump off the page, but the lineup has some studs. Freddie Freeman is the clear best player, but Tyler O’neil and Abraham Toro are nice pieces.
Great Britain is another nation making their first appearance in the WBC. Most of their club seems to be players who were born outside of Britain. They are only one of three national teams from Europe, and it would be great to see them win a game. It will also be fun to see the U.S. and Great Britain face off after they played each other in the World Cup just a few months ago. The United States and Mexico are the two clear best teams of Pool C, but Colombia could be a team that could sneak its way into the next round.
Pool D is probably the best group of the bunch, as it features three very good teams. Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Israel, and Nicaragua will all play in Miami, Florida at LoanDepot Park. Israel had a fun WBC in 2017, as they finished sixth in their first ever appearance, but they may have drawn the wrong ticket this time around considering the other teams. Ian Kinsler is leading this team and he was a part of some winning teams, so hopefully that experience can translate to the rest of the team. Nicaragua is another team that may not have enough talent to really compete against the three teams we will talk about next, but they will be making their first showing at the World Baseball Classic and I am sure they believe they could stun a heavy hitter.
Puerto Rico has finished runner up in the last two WBCs, so they are hungry to finally win the title. Newly retired and future Hall of Famer Yadier Molina is managing a team full of stars such as Mets shortstop Fransisco Lindor and Enrique Hernandez. They also added Marcus Stroman who was the 2017 WBC MVP for the U.S. The backend of the bullpen is also set and stone with All Star closer Edwin Diaz and Jorge Lopez.
Venezuela is looking to return to the top three for the first time since 2009 and they have a well-rounded team to do so. Ranger Suarez of the Phillies and others fill out a decent pitching staff who will have the luxury of throwing to veteran catcher Salvador Perez. The infield is full of key players such as Jose Altuve, Andrés Giménez, and Gleyber Torres, but the outfield is where this team truly shines as Ronald Acuna Jr, David Peralta, and Anthony Santander are excellent hitters for a lineup. Venezuela looks to be one of the more well rounded teams we’ve looked at.
The Dominican Republic is led by Rodney Linares and he certainly will not have a tough time fielding a lineup. This team is probably the best team to ever be constructed with an all star lineup and pitching staff. Every position has an MLB All Star, if not two, to field the position. Some names are Manny Machado, Juan Soto, Julio Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerroro Jr, and Rafeal Devers. The pitching staff has reigning NL Cy Young winner Sergio Alcantara and playoff hero Cristian Javier among a slew of other notable names. Pool D will be very interesting to see as there are three teams who could easily make a run at the championship. Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico will likely be the teams to move on, but it only takes a key win from Venezuela to get a spot.
There certainly is a talent disparity between some of the countries, as many of them seem to be absolutely loaded with baseball stars while others are mostly full of amateur stars. Baseball is a funny game though and nothing is guaranteed. We have seen plenty of upsets in the past and it only takes one game to get a team on a roll. No matter what, these teams will compete and play their absolute best. The passion and grit that is shown in the WBC is different from any other baseball I have seen. This will be especially true once we get to the later rounds as the best of the best around the World will be vying to hoist the Championship Trophy.