When the World Baseball Classic second round gets underway this weekend, it will feel like two different tournaments. On one hand, you have three teams with plenty of big league talent that is busy playing in their own national leagues. On the other hand, you have three teams filled with big leaguers.
With that in mind, we’re previewing the two different pools in different ways.
If you’re a fan of under-the-radar talent, this weekend’s Pool 1 play will be the best baseball you may see all year. While Pool 2 will see three major league heavy teams and the Cinderella team of the tournament, the Netherlands, face off for two semifinal spots, three teams with multiple major league caliber players who are not playing in the big leagues will battle in Pool 1. To get you ready, here are some names from Pool 1 to pay attention to this weekend.
Cuba: For MLB scouts, getting to see Cuba face Japan, South Korea and Mexico’s best is the chance to watch an all-you-can-eat steak buffet of top talent. Albertin Aroldis Chapman, a 21-year-old lefthander who touches 100 mph from the left side, is as good a pitching prospect as anyone in the States, while the lineup includes a multitude of young stars—Hector Olivera, Yulieski Gourriel, Yoennis Cespedes, Alfredo Despaigne—who could step right into the big leagues. The talent on this team is greatest offensively—Cuba is hitting .394/.478/.818 through three games. For all that young hitting talent, Cuba also has a leavening of veterans like 28-year-old outfielder Friedrich Cepeda, 37-year-old righthander Norge Vera, 35-year-old catcher Ariel Pestano and 35-year-old righthander Pedro Luis Lazo, who have seen everything by now and seem to ramp up their intensity to match the moment.
Japan: Team Japan may have four big leaguers in its lineup, but if the Japanese defend their title, they will do it with pitching and defense. A team that can send Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hisashi Iwakuma and Yu Darvish to the mound as starters can beat anyone, and the Japanese team has pitching depth behind the top three–Japan allowed only three runs in three games in the first round. Masahiro Tanaka combines a mid-90s fastball with a wipeout slider, while little lefty Toshiya Sugiuchi has surprisingly potent stuff. Japan also has a nearly air-tight defense, especially in the infield. Third baseman Shuichi Murata and shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima are especially sure-handed, but the entire Japanese infield is very fundamentally sound. After struggling last year for Seattle, catcher Kenji Johjima has found the fountain of youth with Team Japan, as he led the Japanese in the first round hitting .500/.545/.800 in 10 at bats. While not many U.S. fans have heard of him yet, Murata is the team’s best power hitter.
Mexico: Mexico is the forgotten team of Pool 1, even though they have more big leaguers than any other team in Pool 1. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez, infielder Jorge Cantu and outfielder Scott Hairston lead the offense, while the Mexican pitching staff with Joakim Soria and Oliver Perez compares well with anyone at the top. Mexico will need better performances from the likes of Elmer Dessens, Jorge Campillo and Pablo Ortega on the mound and hope its pitching—with an assist from coming down from the altitude of Mexico City—can keep pace with Cuba, South Korea and Japan.
South Korea: When South Korea won Olympic gold, it was a dramatic upset, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. South Korea had shown during the 2006 that it was legitimate contender, and the Koreans also won the 2008 World Junior Championships, another sign of the depth of talent in the country. Now, they are set up to have the best shot at advancing to the semifinals since Japan and Cuba have to face each other in the first game. Korea doesn’t have the pitching depth that Japan or Cuba has, but ace Hyun-Jim Ryu is excellent. The lefty who led South Korea to the gold medal in Beijing combines a 92-94 mph fastball with three other solid pitches. He also seems to produce his best work in the biggest games.
For Pool 2, you know the names of the stars, as the U.S., Venezuela and Puerto Rico are all big league-heavy rosters. With that in mind, here are some of the numbers that spell out the four teams battling for the Pool 2 crown.
Key Number: .978. That’s Team USA’s OPS through three games, and that’s surprising considering some of Team USA’s stars have gotten off to a slow start in the Classic. Injured third baseman Chipper Jones and his tag-team partner, David Wright, are a combined 3-for-20, while AL MVP Dustin Pedroia is just 2-for-16 (though both hits are doubles). Instead, the best American hitters so far have been stalwarts such as Derek Jeter (4-for-9) and Ryan Braun (4-for-10, two extra-base hits) as well as late additions such as Adam Dunn (3-for-6, two homers, six walks) and Shane Victorino (3-for-7). To win the Miami pool, though, the U.S. likely will have to have better performances from starters such as Curtis Granderson, Kevin Youkilis (who does have two homers), Pedroia and Wright.
Key Number: 1. Puerto Rico gave up only one earned run over its 27 innings in the opening round, striking out 28. Puerto Rico’s pitching staff doesn’t have the star power of its lineup, but starters Jonathan Sanchez (Giants), Ian Snell (Pirates) and ace Javier Vazquez (Braves) each pitched well in the opening round and should be able to give P.R. five or six innings apiece on the second-round, 85-pitch limit. Vazquez is pegged to face the U.S. in the second-round opener. One also is the number of home runs hit by Puerto Rico’s players other than Ivan Rodriguez, who has two homers and five RBIs but no major league job (yet).
Key Number: -4. That’s the Netherlands’ run differential through its first three games, so Pythagoras would have eliminated them by now, but the Dutch advance with two thrilling victories against the Dominican Republic. The question is whether other teams will hand victories to the Dutch like the Dominicans did. The Netherlands’ offense is the worst in the event so far in terms of average, though Panama was held scoreless in two games. The Netherlands has hit .151 so far with just three extra-base hits and a tournament-high 49 strikeouts in 126 at-bats. The ride in the first round was amazing and the story of the Classic so far, but to keep the story going, the Dutch are going to have to hit.
Key Number: .347. Venezuela’s hitters are batting .347 through four games, and lead the Classic with 50 hits through four games. As is the case with the U.S., Venezuela is getting it done with contributions from role players more than from stars. Sluggers such as Miguel Cabrera (4-for-16 with a homer) and Magglio Ordonez (3-for-13) figure to get on track, but it’s been big leaguers such as Jose Lopez (7-for-10, six runs scored), Gregor Blanco (6-for-10, two triples) and Endy Chavez (6-for-10) who have contributed mightily to the team’s offense.
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