The World Baseball Classic is almost here! OK, so you're not excited, but we at The Outside Corner are. Accordingly, we're going to use the rest of the week to preview each of the first round pools. Today: Pool A.
In the first two WBCs, the IBAF lumped all of the Far Eastern teams into one bracket, which resulted in only two out of Japan, South Korea, and Chinese Taipei being able to advance to the second round. This year, there are two pools being hosted in Asia. This allows the three above-mentioned teams from being shoved into the WBC's version of a Group of Death, but it also forces Cuba and Brazil to travel to Japan to play their first round games.
To be frank, this arrangement means that Pool A is not terribly interesting. Japan is made up of NPB professionals and they're still the only team to have ever won a WBC. Cuba is traditionally one of the strongest international sides in the world. Brazil has some rookie-ball level players. China (presumably) has gloves and bats.
After the jump, let's break down the teams in this pool, talk about players to watch, and make predictions.
The two-time defending champs of the WBC aren't quite the same team as in past years. You won't find the only MVP the WBC has ever known, Daisuke Matsuzaka, on the roster this year. You won't find Yu Darvish, either. In fact, you won't find even one active MLB player on the Japanese roster in 2013 and if all you're familiar with is MLB players, then you'll only recognize Kazuo Matsui, who hasn't played for an MLB team since 2010.
This does not mean that this Japanese club is without talent, and given that their country actually cares about this tournament it's probably fair to call them the favorites again. Catcher Shinnosuke Abe (pictured above in the 2009 WBC with Tetsuya Utsumi) is the reigning Nippon Pro Baseball MVP, coming off of a season for Yomiuri in which he hit .340/.429/.565 with 27 home runs and 104 RBIs. He also won the Japan Series MVP in 2009. The last three winners of the Eiji Sawamura Award (the NBP's version of the Cy Young) are also on the club: Tadashi Settsu, Masahiro Tanaka, and Kenta Maeda.
Cuba's currently the IBAF's top ranked team. I have no idea how the IBAF ranks teams, but I'd suspect it has to do with how national teams perform in international tournaments. As you likely know, the world's other major baseballing nations (the US, the Dominican Republic, Japan, Venezuela) funnel players into the MLB or NPB and the top players don't participate in international tournaments whereas in Cuba, the top players only make it to a professional league outside of by defecting. Of course, the process of defecting leaves well-known big league stars like Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman ineligible for the WBC. What I'm saying is that as a result of all of this, I'm not sure that Cuba's top IBAF ranking means a whole lot when compared to a team like Japan.
So what do we know about Cuba's team? Yulieski Gourriel has long been one of Cuba's best players and was the focus of some intense defection rumors for a time, though he never left the country. He made the all-WBC team back in 2006. Outfielder Alfredo Despaigne has won three of the last four Cuban National Series MVP awards. The one award he didn't win went to first baseman Jose Abreu. All of these guys are on the team.
China beat Chinese Taipei in the 2009 tournament, in what was probably the biggest upset in WBC history. They're being managed by John McLaren. Their pitching coach is Bruce Hurst, and Art Howe is one of the coaches. That's right: Art Howe can't even get a gig managing the Chinese National Team at this point. This is what the Mets do to a man. I literally know nothing else about their team and I'm not even sure how to go about finding things out about them or why I would want to do that.
Brazil doesn't have much of a baseball history, but they breezed through Panama in their qualifier and while you likely can't name a whole ton of Brazilian baseball players, much of their team is made up of minor league players. Here's a list of Brazilian players that have been signed by Major League franchises: Murilo Gouvea, Rafael Moreno, Andre Rienzo, Thyago Viera, Felipe Burin, Iago Juanario, Pedro Okuda, Leonardo Reginatto, Lucas Rojo, and Paulo Orlando. Here's the problem: of that group, only Orlando has risen to Double-A and beyond him only Gouvea, Rienzo, Burin, and Reginatto have made it to the States to play beyond the Dominican or Venezuelan Summer Leagues.
Predictions: The easy part is to say that Japan and Cuba will finish first and second while Brazil and China will finish third and fourth. Brazil is probably better than China, but China has a much easier trip to Fukuoka than Brazil does. It's hard to really separate Cuba and Japan, too; Cuba's supposedly got quite a team and Japan doesn't quite have the star power of past seasons, but it looks to me that between their rotation and the home continent advantage that Japan probably has the advantage in this pool. That's semantics, though. Japan and Cuba will advance.