The 2017 World Baseball Classic is baseball’s most potent international offering. The tournament, which saw its field narrow to 16 teams after preliminary rounds last year, started early on Monday with Israel’s thrilling 2-1 victory over hosts South Korea, and it will continue through March 22nd. Those dates are an issue, however, as they replicate the same problem as every other World Baseball Classic to date: it takes place during Major League Baseball’s spring training phase.
In terms of pre-season preparation, baseball has one moving part that complicates things without precedent in other sports: the throwing arm. Throwing is an unnatural, degenerative exercise, so pitchers have to ease into the abuse; it’s why they report to spring training before anyone else. This deeply hamstrings an event like the WBC, as players skip it so that their regular process of preparing for the MLB season isn’t disrupted. It’s not just pitchers bailing out; position players have also decided against fighting for the Classic crown in favor of preparing for the upcoming season.
For example, Khris Davis, who hit 42 homers for the Oakland Athletics last season, decided against playing for Team Mexico, a team in need of position player depth. As MLB.com reports, Davis called the decision to skip the classic “horrible. I feel terrible,” but not terrible enough to put his A’s career at stake. “You take on a lot, and it’s a lot of days away, and my main focus is to perform for the organization, and I feel like I want to get off on the right foot. Not that this would be a distraction, but I think this would kind of complicate things a little.”
After his 2015 MVP season, Bryce Harper essentially said he’d participate in the Classic if better players played, which is a slightly insulting cop-out that nonetheless is grounded in truth. Both NL and AL MVPs Kris Bryant and Mike Trout will stay in Arizona to play in front of spring breakers and senior citizens in titillating Cactus League action, instead of representing the stars and stripes in Miami and beyond.
Many believe that for baseball to thrive globally, the sport needs a legitimate international event. Pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, who pitched in the 2013 WBC for the USA and was the official Spanish translator for his latino Royals teammates during their 2015 title run, penned an essay at The Players Tribune that year entitled “Let’s make International Baseball Awesome.” Guthrie calls for an event that is not the WBC, but rather, something more akin to a Baseball World Cup, one that takes place in the middle of the season, so players are in peak form.
As it stands now, the World Baseball Classic, is not this event. That doesn’t mean that the tournament will not make for fantastic television, though.
One needs only watch highlights of past WBC games to see how much more fun the game looks out of the sleepier, more conservative MLB context: Japan, winners of the first two WBC, boasts an interactive fan culture of tidily choreographed sing-alongs that is unparalleled. By winning in style, the Dominican Republic, champions in the last Classic back in 2013, proved that nobody would be seriously injured if players seemed to enjoy themselves while playing a game.
With that in mind, even the group stage of the tournament has higher stakes than spring training games, so we broke down each pool to see who you need to keep an eye on, and who will advance to the knockout rounds.
Pool A: Netherlands, South Korea, Israel, Chinese Taipei
With so many talented major league infielders from Curacao, the Netherlands are the clear frontrunners in pool A. Andrelton Simmons, Jurickson Profar, Didi Gregorious, Xander Bogaerts and Jonathan Schoop only need some pitchers to step up to keep the ball in the yard. Hopefully for the Dutch, it will be Jair Jurrjens, who owns a 3.72 career Major League ERA after some great years with the Braves, though he’s been exiled due to injuries. If Team Netherlands can get a lead, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen is pretty automatic, though you shouldn’t expect a throwback, 6-out save—Team Netherlands will count on the few affiliated arms in their bullpen to bridge to Jansen. On the other end of the spectrum, expect Chinese Taipei, the country that may or may not officially exist, to finish last, though they could steal a game started by former Yankee Great Chien-Ming-Wang, who is still the Beyoncé of Taiwan.
The second position is a toss up. Team Israel has an ex-factor in the WBC: players with nothing to lose. Their roster is full of experienced players like Ike Davis, Scott Feldman, Ryan Lavarnway, Sam Fuld, Craig Breslow, and Jason Marquis, who’ve had stints of success in the Major Leagues, and won’t be holding anything back, as they aren’t projected to be major contributors to their MLB teams. However, South Korea has another ex-factor: they’re training almost exclusively as a team, as their roster is almost exclusively populated by players from their Korean Baseball Organization, which has become a legitimate feeder of MLB talent. Their roster is headlined by Cardinals closer Seung-Hwan Oh, known as “The Final Boss” or “The Stone Buddha”—whichever you prefer. Despite Israel’s opening day win over South Korea, a slip up here or there and the second position should be up for grabs on the final day.
Pool B: Japan, Cuba, China, Australia
Let’s get this out of the way: while the level of Australian and Chinese baseball is improving, they’re still at least another Classic away from truly competing. It doesn’t help that they were drawn in a group with two of the favorites to win the entire tournament. Team Japan is the powerhouse here, though they only have one current MLB player representing them, Astros OF Nori Aoki. Viral sensation Shohei Ohtani is the first player since, maybe ever, to be compared to Babe Ruth; not only is he, today, one of the best pitchers on the planet, he is also one of the best hitters in Japan, who has yet to reach his ceiling as a hitter. He may just be the best player on the planet, and is expected to sign a deal worth at least $200 million dollars when he eventually leaves the Japanese League. That being said, Ohtani has an ankle injury that will keep him off the mound, so Japan may have its weakest WBC team yet this year.
Ohtani’s injury could leave the door open for the other historically great nation in Pool B: Cuba. Unfortunately, this does not look like the island nation’s year. Hundreds of Cuban players have defected this decade, and unlike Team Japan, the players who leave the country are declared ineligible for international competition. If that weren’t the case, a Cuban team featuring Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Kendrys Morales, Jose Iglesias, Jorge Soler, and Aroldis Chapman would be among the handful of teams capable of going undefeated en route to a title. In that parallel reality, U.S./Cuba relations improve to the point of an MLB expansion team in Havana, and Jose Fernandez is still alive to pitch. In the real world, however, Donald Trump is president, the quality of baseball has never been so low on the island, and soccer is now the most popular sport among the Cuban youth. They’ll advance, but Japan should be safe at the top.
Pool C: Dominican Republic, United States, Colombia, Canada
For viewers that crave big names, it’s fortunate that the United States and the Dominican headline pool C, which means they will square off at least once, on March 11. This is the single most fascinating matchup that the group stage can give us in terms of star power. The cultural differences between the two nations will best highlighted by the most anticipated matchup within a matchup: Texas Rangers and USA reliever Sam Dyson facing Toronto Blue Jays and Dominican OF Jose Bautista. Remember this?
A superior American team could be made of the American players not participating in the classic; the team is missing three players under 29 who will probably be 1st ballot hall of famers in Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. The US is still stacked, though, and will be eager to finish in the top 3 in the Classic for the 1st time.
Though Colombia has a winter league of its own, this is their first time in the tournament, so not much is expected of the cafeteros. The young starting pitching duo of White Sox ace Jose Quintana and Braves ace Julio Teheran is as good as any in the tournament; should the Colombians receive a few timely hits from some of the relatively unknown players on roster who are eager to put themselves on the map, one of the favorites could be headed back to Spring Training early. We just wouldn’t bet on that.
Pool D: Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Italy
Behind Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, one of the best catchers to ever play the game in Yadier Molina, and oldie but very goodie Carlos Beltran, Team Puerto Rico might be the most dynamic team in the tournament. In last year’s World Series, the biggest stage in baseball, both Lindor and Baez performed marvelously: the former with a consistency beyond his 23 years, while the latter proved he is arguably the most elegant defensive artist in the game.
But the Puertorriqueños aren’t as deep as Team Venezuela and Team Mexico on the mound. Likely to take the ball for Team Venezuela against them in the opener is former AL Cy Young Felix Hernandez, who drew a “best shape of his life” story this spring. Mexican pitchers Marco Estrada, Julio Urias, and Roberto Osuna and Sergio Romo are as talented a pitching core as there is in the tournament, though there aren’t many bats beyond Arian Gonzalez, because of Khris Davis’s aforementioned bailing.
In terms of recognizable names for the casual fan, the advantage in Pool C leans ever so slightly to Venezuela, behind more than a dozen Major Leaguers. Headlining are, of course, Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter of our generation and last year’s AL batting champ, and el Gigante, 5’6” Astros All-star second baseman Jose Altuve.