I was one of those who thought that Major League Baseball’s decision to debut the World Baseball Classic was a great idea seven years ago. The NBA and NHL get popularity boosts with the Olympics (and to a lesser extent the World Championship), but Major League Baseball didn’t have that type of event. Sure, baseball was in the Olympics, but no major-league stars could play because it was in the summer. And now it’s no longer an Olympic sport, with the final baseball competition (and softball) being staged at the 2008 Games in Beijing. Starting the WBC was largely in part to the IOC’s decision to end baseball at the Olympics (that was decided in 2005).
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The inaugural 2006 World Baseball Classic was pretty much a hit with many of the sport’s top stars competing. It was a chance in particular for American baseball fans to see Asian and Latin American players who were on MLB scouts’ radar but hadn’t made a name for themselves in the States or been signed yet. Future big leaguers like Kosuke Fukudome and Daisuke Matsuzaka competed for Japan in the 2006 event, for example, and would land themselves huge MLB contracts. Ditto for Cuba’s Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo, who are both now starters with the White Sox. Fittingly, Japan and Cuba squared off in the historic final in 2006, with the Japanese winning the championship game 10-6. They won it again in 2009, and Dice-K was named tournament MVP both times.
The international baseball-crazy countries Japan, Korea and Cuba still consider the World Baseball Classic a top event and bring their best players. However, it seems to have lost some major steam these days with many top major-leaguers taking a pass. It’s just too much of an injury-risk for many players, especially pitchers. Major-league GMs don’t want to see their guys throwing important innings that early in the spring. Matsuzaka started having elbow troubles after the ’09 event. Thus, you won’t see the Tigers’ Justin Verlander, Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw or Mariners’ Felix Hernandez, the three best pitchers in baseball. Cincinnati flat-out blocked ace Johnny Cueto from playing in the WBC. You also won’t see the two most exciting young position players in the baseball and the reigning Rookies of the Year, the Nats’ Bryce Harper and Angels’ Mike Trout.
You will see San Diego pitcher Edinson Volquez in the tournament for the Dominican Republic. He pitched in the ’09 event but had Tommy John surgery five months later. Some blamed the WBC. That also scared many GMs. I do want to share a few stats from a great article by ESPN’s Jayson Stark debunking the WBC injury myth. According to Stark, players who didn't play in the WBC four years ago were almost twice as likely to spend time on the disabled list that April as players who played -- 17.8 percent of non-WBC participants versus 9.5 percent of those who did participate. In only two of the past eight seasons has MLB started the season with less than nine percent of active players on the disabled list. Those were the two WBC seasons.
This year’s event opens with pool play in Asia this weekend. Japan (+275 to win the tournament on WagerWeb) opens its bid to three-peat with a Saturday opener at the Japan Dome against Brazil, one of the long shots at +10000. The Japanese will really have to earn another championship because they don’t have a single player from a major-league roster with stars Ichiro Suzuki, Hiroki Kuroda and Yu Darvish sitting out. Japan will be led by 24-year-old right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who played sparingly for Japan at the 2009 tournament. He had a 10-4 record with a 1.87 ERA last season for the Rakuten Eagles and was the 2011 “Cy Young” in Japan. The Japanese would likely have to get through both Cuba (+1500) and Korea (+900) to reach the semifinals in San Francisco. I like those odds because Japan won’t leave its country until the semis; Korea doesn’t have a major-leaguer on the roster and Cuba has been watered down with MLB snaring most of the country’s top prospects.
The United States, managed by Joe Torre, is the +250 favorite on WagerWeb and opens play on March 8 at Chase Field in Phoenix against Mexico. The Americans were a bust in the first WBC in not reaching the semis, and they lost in that round to Japan three years later. The USA roster is very strong in terms of hitters with Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton, Joe Mauer, Brandon Phillips, David Wright, Adam Jones and Mark Teixeira. The pitching staff isn’t all that great, led by Gio Gonzalez and reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. Remember, too, that starters don’t pitch very long due to strict inning limits, although Dickey probably could throw complete games with his knuckleball. Thus, it likely depends more on the relievers for Team USA. There are some solid ones, led by Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, Indians stopper Chris Perez and Arizona’s Heath Bell (although he stunk with Marlins last season).
The Americans’ Pool D appears to be the weakest of the four with Mexico, Canada (which should advance with Team USA) and Italy. The second round, which will take place at Marlins Park, will be a challenge, however, with the Dominican Republic (+265) and Venezuela (+850) expected to advance out of Pool C, although Puerto Rico (+1500) could upset one of those two. The Dominicans have a loaded infield of Jose Reyes, Robinson Cano, Edwin Encarnacion and Hanley Ramirez (maybe Adrian Beltre, but he’s hurt right now and out of the first round). The outfield is “iffy,” and the starting pitching rather weak, although the team does have great relievers in Fernando Rodney and Jose Valverde.
Venezuela is in much the same boat as the DR with guys like AL MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, Marco Scutaro and World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval in the infield. The outfield features Carlos Gonzalez and Martin Prado but not much else. Unfortunately for Venezuela, the Mariners’ Hernandez and Mets’ Johan Santana aren’t playing. Thus, there’s not a lot of known pitching beyond Anibal Sanchez, Carlos Zambrano and Francisco Rodriguez.
Still, I like Venezuela and that stellar lineup to face Japan in the March 19 championship game at AT&T Park in San Francisco and for the Venezuelans to take home the title. This tournament simply means more to those two countries than any other outside of maybe Cuba.
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Read more articles by Alan Matthews