I’m sure all of you are setting your alarms for 1:30 a.m. (Pacific Time) Thursday morning to watch Japan against China at the Tokyo Dome in the World Baseball Classic kickoff on ESPN 2. The United States, managed by Davey Johnson (reunited with Mel Stottlemyre, Davey’s pitching coach on the great Mets’ teams of the 1980s, including the 1986 World Series team; Stottlemyre will be the U.S. bullpen coach) opens up Saturday against Canada. Team Canada, you might recall, had a huge upset victory over U.S. in the inaugural WBC in 2006.
Sure, it’s flawed, and yes, ther’s an awful lot of top-notch talent that’s not playing. But it’s still going to be compelling, and I see at least six teams that have a strong chance to win: Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Japan, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the United States. In the darkhorse category, I’d put Mexico, South Korea and Canada. And in the no-chance department, China, Chinese Taipei, South Africa, Australia, Panama, Italy and Netherlands.
Let’s look at the four Pools of four teams each, in which two nations will emerge from each:
Pool A: China, Japan, Chinese Taipei, Korea.
You’ve got to think that Japan will breeze out of this bracket, although South Korea took the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics. The Koreans are facing a big loss with news that Cleveland Indians outfielder (and former Mariner) Shin-Soo Choo might have to pull out of the WBC because of a sore left arm. The Koreans are already without their big slugger from 2006 (when they surprisingly made it to the WBC semifinals before losing to Japan), Seung Yeop Lee, who is sitting the WBC to prepare for his season in the Japanese League with the Yomiuri Giants. And Byun-Hyun Kim isn’t on the team because — true story — he lost his passport (it wasn’t Chan Ho Park that lost his passport, as I posted originally. Thanks to reader Kevin Lim for pointing out the mistake. Park is concentrating on making the Phillies’ staff). As for the Japanese, you know all about Ichiro, Kenji Johjima and Daisuke Matsuzaka — the MVP of Japan’s WBC championship in 2006 — but the pitcher everyone wants to see is Yu Darvish, who will likely be the next great player to head to the major leagues.
As for China and Chinese Taipei, they are still fledglings when it comes to baseball — and Chinese Taipei will be without their one star, Chien-Ming Wang, who is coming back from a major foot injury and wasn’t cleared by the Yankees to play.
Prediction: Japan and South Korea advance.
Pool B: Cuba, South Africa, Australia, Mexico.
It’s hard to go against Cuba when it comes to international baseball, though one of their top pitchers, Yadel Marti, has reportedly been kicked off the team over suspicions he tried to defect to the United States. They still have outfielder Yoandy Garlobo, who hit .480 in 2006. And I’ll bet they have a lot of other good players. Mexico has a sprinkling of familiar major-leaguers or former major-leaguers, including Jorge Campillo, Elmer Dessens, Rodrigo Lopez, Oliver Perez, Dennys Reyes, Ricardo Rincon, Joakim Soria, Rod Barajas, Jorge Cantu, Erubiel Durazo, Adrian Gonzalez, Karim Garcia, and the Hairston brothers, Jerry and Scott (their mom is Mexican). Australia should be more competitive than it was in 2006, when it was outscored 18-4 in losing all three games in played in the first round. The Aussies hit .113 and had a 6.85 team ERA. At least it will be fun watching ex-Mariners Travis Blackley and Chris Snelling. As for the South Africans, they appeared to have as much fun as anyone in 2006 — they were visibly in awe of Ken Griffey Jr. in an exhibition game I watched — but they were, and will be again, overmatched.
Prediction: Cuba and Mexico advance.
Pool C: Canada, United States, Italy, Venezuela.
Too bad that Canada is without many of its top pitchers, such as Erik Bedard, Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden and Jeff Francis. They still have some great players, like Jason Bay, Justin Morneau and Russ Martin, but I don’t see them having enough pitching. It will be interesting to see how much of a role Mariners’ prospecdt Phillippe Aumont has. The U.S. is good, but not as good as it could be, because at least a dozen top players aren’t participating, and they’ve lost Grady Sizemore, Joe Nathan and Brian Fuentes to injury this week. Still, a rotation topped by Roy Oswalt and Jake Peavy is still formidable, and the lineup features David Wright, Dustin Pedroia, Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter, Brian McCann, Curtis Granderson, Ryan Braun and others. The U.S. has lost several closing candidates, for a variety of reasons, which might leave J.J. Putz as the man to finish games. Watch out for Venezuela, even without pitching aces Johan Santana and Carlos Zambrano. Felix Hernandez will top the pitching staff, Francisco Rodriguez will anchor the bullpen, and the likes of Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Jose Lopez and Miguel Cabrera will be in the lineup. Italy has Mike Hargrove and Mike Piazza as coaches, and a few players you’re heard of: Nick Punto, Lenny DiNardo, Jason Grilli. It won’t be enough.
Prediction: Venezuela, United States advance
Pool 4: Dominican Republic, Netherlands, Panama, Puerto Rico.
The Dominican is loaded, not surprisingly, though it would be a major blow if Alex Rodriguez has to pull out because of the cyst in his hip. The pitching staff has Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Ubaldo Jiminez and a youngster named Pedro Martinez. The lineup has David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Guillen and Miguel Tejada, among others. Puerto Rico is the clear No. 2 in this pool, even though its pitching is not great. Javier Vazquez and Ian Snell are the best they’ve got. They should hit a bunch, however, with Carlos Beltran, Geovany Soto, Alex Rios and Carlos Delgado. Two interesting players to watch: Ivan Rodriguez and Bernie Williams. Panama’s best player, by far, is Mariano Rivera, but he’s not participating. And the Netherlands has Jair Jurrjens, Sidney Ponson and Mariners’ prospect Greg Halman. Andruw Jones didn’t make the team, which shows how far his career has fallen.
Prediction: Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico advance.
Pool 1: (projected) Japan, South Korea, Cuba, Mexico
Prediction: Japan, Cuba advance.
Pool 2: (projected) Venezuela, United States, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico
Prediction: Venezuela, Dominican Republic advance.
Championship round prediction:
Venezuela defeats Japan in championship game.
So there you have it. Please, no wagering. Gotta go catch a plane to Arizona. Any mistakes, typos or omissions I blame on rushing to the airport.