No matter what your thoughts or beliefs are about the World Baseball Classic (WBC), any true baseball fan is excited for the return of competitive baseball. Yes, there are several of the best players in Major League baseball today who are not in the tournament (like Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Johan Santana, and Joe Mauer), but don't forget there are still big names in the field (like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Ichiro Suzuki, and Jake Peavy). The exciting thing about this tournament, and any baseball game for that matter, is once it starts it becomes a team game and then you only win or lose as a team with no attachment to the players you are missing.
The popular favorite to win the WBC is the Dominican Republic. However, it is definitely not a sure bet. One big fear is the pitching staff has to rely on two talented pitchers, who are still new to the annual baseball workouts and spring training preparations, in Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto. The lineup, although gaining Alex Rodriguez (if his hip does not cause him to miss the tournament), is missing some key players in Albert Pujols and Alfonso Soriano from the disappointing fourth place team in 2006.
Any idea who finished in the top three in 2006? Japan won; Cuba was second; and South Korea was third. Starting with this year's South Korea team, only one MLB is on this roster (Shin-Shoo Choo of the Cleveland Indians), so it is difficult to predict their future in this tournament (as well as China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Netherlands, or South Africa who each have zero current MLB professional players).
Speaking of Cuba, this team is an unheralded favorite to finish highly any time it is involved in a baseball tournament. This is the main reason why no team should be discounted in this series. The best "team" is going to be the best team. Yes, I realize that this statement brings thoughts of John Madden, eating his own words and saying the team who wins the game scores the most points, but seriously, the problem with professional sports in world classics is that there is an obsession with collecting the most superstars. (Make sure to revisit the 2004 Men's Olympics Basketball Team and compare it to the 1980 Men's Hockey team for the United States if you doubt this further.) However, Cuba and reigning champion Japan demonstrated that teams that work together as a unit to win games by utilizing each other's strengths and compensating for the weaknesses can succeed.
Finally, with Japan, they can be considered a favorite to win this year as well, as Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka are returning for the Japanese. Let's not forget the trek of Dice-K as the 2006 tournament left us with him as an international star starting the hype of the bidding war that the Boston Red Sox won (a great move for Boston). This year, no one will be surprised if he performs as well, so the element of surprise is gone. This brings an interesting discussion to look forward to; who will be this year's Dice-K and become an international star with the temptation of millions of dollars from MLB team in the whim? People may debate the relevance of this classic, but baseball has benefited greatly from the contributions of Dice-K. For MLB fans, this is enough to distract your attention from following current prospects in spring training or wondering who will win the fifth outfielder spot on your favorite team.
Anyways, as I stated, it is difficult and bordering impossible, to truly justify picking a team to win this tournament. We don't know the quality of the foreign teams until we see them play. For that matter, we have no idea how the United States team will play as a team. The United States should definitely be treated as the favorite to win this tournament, despite the sounds of doubt in the media. Yes, it is fair to be inferred that the MLB is the best baseball league in the world, but this is unproven and this does not mean we can provide the best team. Truthfully, who do you trust more to win, a team like Cuba that has been practicing for years together or a team like the US who are teammates for the first time earlier this week? Your heart would say the US, but your mind unquestionably will say Cuba. How is the United States team expected to perform?
Let's start on offense. Few can deny the impressive nature of the infield. You have last year' AL MVP at second base in Dustin Pedoria and his teammate and fellow MVP competitor at first base in Kevin Youkilis. Then at third base, you have last year's NL batting champion Chipper Jones and arguably one of the best young hitters in the game in David Wright. At catcher, you will find two talented younger players poised for a big year with last year's Silver Slugger winner Brian McCann and Chris Iannetta of the Colorado Rockies who should be poised for a big season. Then, of course, there is everyone’s favorite captain-playing-shortstop, Derek Jeter (or if you're a Phillies fan, Jimmy Rollins).
The outfield is a little weaker with the injury to Grady Sizemore. However, expect the important high on base percentage from all, with needed power coming from Adam Dunn and Ryan Braun and valuable speed from Shane Victorino and Curtis Granderson. The performance of these outfielders could very well dictate the United States' success in this tournament. And let's not forget the valuable presentence of Mark DeRosa who can be prepared to take over at any position on the field (except catcher) as an insurance policy.
In terms of pitching, the starters can disappoint the casual baseball fan who expects to see Cole Hamels, Brandon Webb, Scott Kazmir, or Tim Lincecum throwing pitches during the most crucial games. This is no reason to be disappointed as Jake Peavy and Roy Oswalt are equivalent alternatives. Ted Lilly and Jeremy Guthrie may seem like lesser selections, but it is important to note that Ted Lilly offers experience as a starting option who has shown drastic improvement over the last four years in his career. The selection of Jeremy Guthrie can be deemed shocking as last year was his first complete year in baseball as a 29 year old starting pitcher. Possibly, this could be a breakout tournament for him as his number last season were solid; but take Guthrie as a surprising selection that demonstrates the lack of interest in the WBC of top pitchers in the MLB.
The relief pitching is the area that causes the most fear. Sadly, this group has taken some hits as in the just the past week the two best options in BJ Ryan and Joe Nathan had to back out (and Brian Fuentes will not be available till the second round). This leaves the team with some unfamiliar names that have not gotten much publicly from their MLB respective teams. Only JJ Putz has legitimate experience as a closer and he is now a set-up guy. Nonetheless, this roster includes some of the better setup pitchers in baseball like Scott Shields, Brad Ziegler and Jonathan Broxton. It is unquestionable that these players put together great complete seasons last year, but the question is how will they perform in the clutch in the WBC. Don't expect the same low ERAs against this competition in the tournament. I would not be surprised if a couple pitchers are victimized by a three or four run inning in the WBC.
Who do you yhink will win it all?
What players do you expect to emerge as stars?
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