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World Baseball Classic: Top Eight Teams

WORLD BASEBALL
CLASSIC PREVIEW

Let The Games Begin
By The Numbers
WBC Television Schedule
Top Eight Teams
Rest Of The Field
WBC Notebook
The Pitching Rules
International History
Cuba's Youliesky Gourriel

Compiled by Jim Callis, John Manuel and Will Lingo

March 1, 2006


Cananda
Cuba
Dom. Republic
Japan
Mexico
Puerto Rico
United States
Venezuela

CANADA

Outfielders: Jason Bay (Pirates) is Team Canada's best player and lone 2005 all-star. Larry Walker would have been an obvious choice, but he opted to retire after battling neck problems throughout last season. They don't have nearly the same profile, but Aaron Guiel and Ryan Radmanovich combined for 62 homers last year, mostly in Triple-A (Guiel) and independent ball (Radmanovich). There's not a pure center fielder in the bunch, though either Bay or Guiel should be able to man the position.

Infielders: Canada has more power on the infield corners in first baseman Justin Morneau (Twins) and third baseman Corey Koskie (Twins). Second baseman Pete Orr (Braves) was Canada's leading hitter at the 2004 Olympics, batting .353. Journeyman Danny Klassen, who hit .319 with 15 homers for the Astros Triple-A affiliate, is the shortstop. Canada's infield stands out more offensively than defensively.

Catchers: Russell Martin is Canada's best all-around catcher, but he turned down the World Baseball Classic so he can try to make the Dodgers out of spring training. Pete LaForest (Devil Rays), who hit .308 with two homers at the 2004 Olympics, takes over as the starter, making an extremely one-sided lineup even more lefthanded.

DH/Bench: Matt Stairs (Royals) will handle the DH duties 18 years after playing for Canada at the 1988 Olympics (where baseball was a demonstration sport). Team Canada mainstay Stubby Clapp will be on hand again as a utilityman. Center fielder Adam Stern (Red Sox) and Tigers catching prospect Maxim St. Pierre could be valuable as defensive replacements.

Starting Pitchers: Rich Harden (Athletics) would have been the ace, but he's still recovering from labrum surgery. That makes Jeff Francis (Rockies) the No. 1 starter, ahead of Erik Bedard (Orioles) and Adam Loewen (Orioles). Loewen will work Canada's opener against South Africa, followed by Bedard against the United States and Francis against Mexico.

Relief Pitchers: Eric Gagne (Dodgers) is still on the mend following elbow surgery, and Ryan Dempster opted to give his all to the Cubs after signing a $15.5 million contract extension. Yet the bullpen still should be a strength for Canada, which can count on Rheal Cormier (Phillies), Jesse Crain (Twins), Paul Quantrill (Marlins) and Chris Reitsma (Braves). Reitsma is the likely fill-in for Gagne and Dempster at closer.

Outlook: Canada should be able to walk over South Africa and will be an underdog against Team USA. That makes beating Mexico essential to advancing to the second round. The Canadians should be up to that task, but going any farther in the tournament will be an upset.

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CUBA

Outfielders: Osmani Urrutia has become the Ichiro of Cuba, regularly threatening to hit .400 (he did it four times) in Serie Nacional (Cubas national league) and winning five straight batting titles while using a line-drive approach. Frederich Cepeda and Carlos Tabares, who made an infamous, controversial catch against Australia in the 2004 gold-medal game, are veterans of the Olympic team but failed to make the World Cup roster.

Infielders: Home of many of Cubas top hitters, it features top prospect Youliesky Gourriel (see story, page 26), a third baseman, and World Cup MVP Eduardo Paret, a 33-year-old shortstop and veteran of the 04 and 96 Olympic teams. Second baseman Rudy Reyes, 26, has impressed scouts in international play with his athleticism. Cubas defense has the advantage of familiarity and practiceSerie Nacional was suspended for six weeks to help prepare for the Classic.

Catchers: Veteran Ariel Pestano, one of Cubas best clutch hitters and a member of its last two Olympic teams, led the Athens Games with 14 RBIs and a .514 average. Eriel Sanchez, who also plays first base, has as much raw power as anyone on the team other than Gourriel. He led Serie Nacional in RBIs (87) and ranked second in home runs (25) in 2004-2005.

DH/Bench: Sanchez is likely to share DH duty with corner infielder Michel Enriquez, a contact hitter who lacks power and hit .500 at the World Cup. Slugger Joan Pedroso, Serie Nacionals 2004-2005 home run champion, is also in the mix as a DH/1B. Cuba isnt afraid to platoon in its outfield, and the 30-man roster limit may allow they to carry 16-year-old phenom Dayan Viciedo, the MVP of the world youth championships in 2005.

Starting Pitchers: Cubas strength remains pitching, which has recovered from a wave of defections. Righthander Danny Betancourt, 24, currently ranks as Cubas top young arm with an 88-93 mph fastball, good changeup and plus curveball. He could start or relieve and closed the gold-medal win against Australia in Athens. Lefthanders Yulieski Gonzalez, Maikel Folch and 35-year-old veteran Adiel Palma should be in the mix to start.

Relief Pitchers: Pedro Luis Lazo is the best pitcher on the island and has earned comparisons to Lee Smith and even Roger Clemens for his power stuff, cool demeanor and mammoth size. Lazo pitches as a starter in Serie Nacional but often closes in international play. However, he started and lost the gold-medal game against Team USA in the 2000 Olympics, lasting only one inning. Teen pitchers Alberto and Israel Soto have live arms but have little international experience at this level.

Outlook: Its easy to expect Cuba to falter in its first international competition with major leaguers, but underestimating the Cubans makes little sense. Since wood bats and professionals were introduced in international play in 1997, Cuba has adjusted well. After losing Intercontinental Cups in 97 and 99 and losing to Ben Sheets and Team USA in the 2000 Olympics, Cuba has won every tournament it has entered. In the meantime, it has turned over its roster to young players weaned on wood bats and competition against professionals. Cuba may not be the favorite for once, but it also should not be counted out.

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DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

Outfielders: In a word, wow. Manny Ramirez (Red Sox) is in left field and Vladimir Guerrero (Angels) will play center to make room for Moises Alou (Giants) in right. Last season, that trio combined for a .309 average, 96 homers and 315 RBIs. In a sign of the Dominican's offensive firepower, Guerrero is expected to bat sixth. If the mercurial Ramirez decides not to show up, Willy Taveras (Astros) would take over in center, with Guerrero moving to right and Alou to left.

Infielders: The infield is nearly as impressive as the outfield. First baseman Albert Pujols (Cardinals) and shortstop Miguel Tejada (Orioles) started the 2005 All-Star Game and have MVP awards to their credit. Third baseman Adrian Beltre (Mariners) finished second in the 2004 National League MVP balloting, and his presence lessens the blow of the expected withdrawal by Aramis Ramirez (Cubs). Second baseman Alfonso Soriano (Nationals), who is expected to bat leadoff, has been selected to the last four All-Star Games.

Catchers: This is the weak link in the lineup, especially after Miguel Olivo (Marlins) withdrew from the team to spend more time learning the pitchers on his new club. That left Ronny Paulino (Pirates), who hit 19 homers last year between Double-A and Triple-A, as the best option.

DH/Bench: The best DH in the game, David Ortiz (Red Sox), will bat cleanup for the Dominican. The bench is strong, too, with infielders Luis Castillo (Marlins), Pedro Feliz (Giants) and Placido Polanco (Tigers) and outfielders Juan Encarnacion (Cardinals) and Taveras. Shortstop Rafael Furcal (Dodgers) and outfielder Jose Guillen (Nationals) would have been nice additions, but they're recovering from offseason surgery.

Starting Pitchers: The health of Pedro Martinez (Mets) and Bartolo Colon (Angels) will determine how far this team goes in the tournament. Martinez has a troublesome right big toe, while Colon sustained a minor shoulder tear during the playoffs. If they're both available, the plan is to pitch Colon and Miguel Batista (Diamondbacks) in the opener against Venezuela, then Odalis Perez (Dodgers) and Jorge Sosa (Braves) versus Italy and Martinez and Daniel Cabrera (Orioles) against Australia. Ervin Santana (Angels) has withdrawn from consideration, so Francisco Liriano (Twins), the best lefty prospect in the game, could be the next choice.

Relief Pitchers: There's uncertainty in the back of the bullpen as well because obvious closer Francisco Cordero felt a twinge in his shoulder in Rangers camp and may back out. Fernando Rodney (Tigers) appears to be Plan B. Damaso Marte (Pirates) is the lefty specialist, with Duaner Sanchez (Mets), Julian Tavarez (Red Sox) and Salomon Torres (Pirates) available in long relief.

Outlook: While the roster has more holes than one would expect from the Dominican, this still will be one of the most potent lineups in the Classic. The Dominicans should have little difficulty advancing to the second round. If their pitchers are 100 percent, they could win the tournament.

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JAPAN

Outfield: Ichiro Suzuki (Mariners) is one of only two American big leaguers on Japan's final roster (the other being Rangers reliever Akinori Otsuka), so he's almost certain to be igniting the team at the top of the lineup and playing center field. Veteran Kazuhiro Wada, who led the Pacific League in batting at .322 last season, is likely to be in left field, with Kosuke Fukudome in right. Wada and Fukudome, who hit .328-28-103 for Chunichi last season, were both key players for Japan's 2004 Olympic team as well.

Infield: Shortstop Shinya Miyamoto was Japan's leading hitter at the 2004 Athens Games, batting .500 as Japan won the bronze. The team should get plenty of power at the corners from first baseman Takahiro Akai, who led the Central League with 43 home runs last season, and third baseman Akinori Iwamura, who had 30 homers and 102 RBIs last season. At second base, switch-hitting Tsuyoshi Nishioka and lefthanded-hitting Munenori Kawasaki will likely share time.

Catcher: In his first full season in the Japanese major leagues, Tomoya Satozaki returned from surgery to remove bone chips in his left knee to help spark the Chiba Lotte Marines to their first Japan Series title in 31 years. Motonobu Tanishige gives the team a veteran, defense-first backstop with a little pop.

Bench/DH: The lineup's big power source will be first baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka, another Olympic veteran and the 2004 Pacific League MVP who led the league with 46 homers and 121 RBIs in 2005. Japanese manager Sadaharu Oh will have plenty of other bats to choose from, including emerging star Norichika Aoki, 24. Aoki, a center fielder, was the Central League rookie of the year after leading the league with a .344 average and stealing 29 bases.

Starters: The best-known Japanese starter to most American fans is righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka, who pitched for their 2000 and '04 Olympic teams and has been rumored to be considering a jump to the U.S. for the past couple of years. But he may not be the best pitcher on this deep staff. Lefthander Tsuyoshi Wada won the bronze-medal game for Japan in Athens and led the staff there with a 1.50 ERA, and lefthander Toshiya Sugiuchi was the Pacific League MVP last season with an 18-4, 2.11 mark.

Relievers: Here too Japan will have plenty of options to throw at opponents. The closer role will likely go to lefthander Hirotoshi Ishii, who saved 37 games for the Yakult Swallows in 2005 and had a 1.95 ERA. And expect to see a lot of righthander Kyuji Fujikawa in a set-up role along with Otsuka. He made 80 appearances last season and compiled a 1.36 ERA, and he led the Central League in a statistic the Japanese keep called "hold points."

Outlook: The Japanese should have no trouble getting out of their pool, particularly playing at home in Tokyo Dome. And because they're playing earlier than the other pools, they should be rested and ready for the second round, when they'll be a favorite with the United States to reach the semifinals. After that, it's single-elimination and anything can happen.

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MEXICO

Outfield: Mexico will be thinnest here, with Karim Garcia as the most reliable producer. The former big leaguer played last season in Japan, batting .307-21-60 for the Orix Buffaloes. He'll likely be joined by Mexican League veterans Mario Valenzuela, who hit .360-31-103 for Saltillo last season, and Luis Garcia, a 30-year-old who hit .353-17-63 for Veracruz.

Infield: A core of big leaguers or near-big leaguers will provide the strength of Mexico's team through the infield. Veteran Vinny Castilla (Padres) winds down his career by getting the chance to play third base for his country, while Erubiel Durazo (Rangers) will be in the lineup either at first base or DH. But the star of the team could be Jorge Cantu, who emerged with a .286-28-117 rookie season for the Devil Rays last year. He'll be at second base, with Benji Gil likely to win the shortstop job.

Catcher: A trio of big leaguers will compete for time, with the Humberto Cota the likely starter. Cota, who is expected to share time with Ryan Doumit in Pittsburgh this season, batted .242-7-43 in 297 at-bats in Pittsburgh last year, and he's a cut above backups Miguel Ojeda, who was traded to the Mariners over the winter, and Geronimo Gil (Orioles).

Bench/DH: Durazo could get time at DH if Mexico wants to give first base to Adrian Gonzalez (Padres), who would provide much better defense. Another DH or pinch-hitting candidate is ageless wonder Matias Carrillo, who hit .360-23-92 in the Mexican League last season and just celebrated his 43rd birthday.

Starters: Lefthander Rigo Beltran, the winning pitcher when Mexico knocked the United States out of the Olympic qualifying tournament in 2004, will be on the staff, but he'll be overshadowed on this team by righthanders Esteban Loaiza (Athletics), Rodrigo Lopez (Orioles) and Ismael Valdez (Marlins) and lefthander Oliver Perez (Pirates). A hot performance by any of those pitchers could make Mexico a pain in any game.

Relievers: Mexico has weapons here too, with righthanders Luis Ayala (Nationals) and Oscar Villarreal (Braves) the likely candidates for closer. Antonio Osuna (Nationals) could provide another useful arm if he's healthy. Ricardo Rincon (Cardinals) will be the team's main lefthanded reliever.

Outlook: Mexico has obvious strengths (infield offense, starting pitching) along with some glaring weaknesses (outfield chief among them), much like the Canadian squad they'll be fighting for the second berth out of the pool that should be won by the United States. The nation has little international baseball history but could write a big chapter by making it to the second round.

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PUERTO RICO

Outfielders: Carlos Beltran (Mets) is a given in center field and should hit third in the lineup while the talented Alexis Rios (Blue Jays) is the logical starter in right. But who plays left field? Puerto Rico has to pick from aging veterans Juan Gonzalez (free agent) and Bernie Williams (Yankees), Dodgers journeymen Jose Cruz Jr. and Ricky Ledee, and relative youngsters David DeJesus (Royals) and Luis Matos (Orioles).

Infielders: Carlos Delgado will man first base and bat cleanup, meaning Puerto Rico's two biggest stars both come from the Mets. The infield took a hit, when shortstop Felipe Lopez (Reds) and Mike Lowell (Red Sox) turned down invitations. Neither is hurtLopez wanted to spend time with the Reds' new staff while Lowell is trying to get back on track with a new team after slumping in 2005. Their absence likely means Alex Cora (Red Sox) will play shortstop and either Alex Cintron (Diamondbacks) or Jose Hernandez (Pirates) will start at third. If Nationals second baseman Jose Vidro can't play because of knee problems, Cintron could take over there.

Catchers: Though Yankees owner George Steinbrenner insisted that Jorge Posada sit the classic out, Puerto Rico is anything but hurting behind the plate. Ivan Rodriguez (Tigers) is destined for the Hall of the Fame, and brothers Bengie (Blue Jays) and Yadier (Cardinals) Molina are available as backups.

DH/Bench: Javy Lopez (Orioles) gives Puerto Rico another catching option, though he'll see most of his time at DH and first base. Eduardo Perez (Indians) is another DH possibility. As mentioned above, the club will have plenty of extra catchers and outfielders, but infield depth may be a question.

Starting Pitchers: The rotation is Puerto Rico's Achilles heel, and the pitch counts and format of the tournament will test the staffs lack of depth. Javier Vazquez (White Sox) is capable of beating anyone when he's at his best, but there's little behind him. Joel Pineiro (Mariners) is coming off a career-worst 5.62 ERA but is still the clear No. 2. After that, there's sleeper prospect Jonathan Sanchez (Giants) and minor league journeymen such as Josue Matos (Brewers), Chris Rojas (Pirates), Orlando Roman (Mets) and Jose Santiago (Mets).

Relief Pitchers: While Puerto Rico doesn't have a slam-the-door closer, it does have a solid group of late-inning relievers. Indians rookie Fernando Cabrera would be an interesting possibility to finish games, though Puerto Rico is more apt to use Roberto Hernandez (Pirates) or Kiko Calero (Athletics) in that role. J.C. Romero (Angels) is the top lefty.

Outlook: Along with Cuba, Puerto Rico is favored to prevail in Group C. But neither the Netherlands or Panama is a total pushover, and the Puerto Ricans' lack of starting pitching leaves them vulnerable. If they reach the second round, it's hard to envision them winning any game other than Vazquez' start.

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UNITED STATES

Outfield: Team USA will have plenty of athleticism but comes up a little short on power after players like Lance Berkman (Astros) and Barry Bonds (Giants) opted not to play. The starters will probably include Johnny Damon (Yankees) and Ken Griffey Jr. (Reds), while a leg injury will sideline Vernon Wells (Blue Jays), for either the first round or the entire tournament. That opens playing time for Matt Holliday (Rockies) and Jeff Francoeur (Braves), who were put on the roster to provide righthanded power off the bench.

Infield: Transplanting the left side of the Yankees infield into this tournament is a boon for the United States, as no country can match the Alex Rodriguez/Derek Jeter combination. Chase Utley (Phillies) and Michael Young (Rangers) will provide plenty of offense at second base, while Derrek Lee (Cubs) may be the best all-around first baseman in the field.

Catcher: Jason Varitek (Red Sox) brings it all to the table for Team USA, providing offense, defense and leadership. He's one of nine players on the roster with previous experience playing for a Team USA squad. Michael Barrett (Cubs) and Brian Schneider (Nationals) are solid backups and should play in blowouts, but Varitek will be on the field in any crucial situation.

Bench/DH: You can match other countries up against the U.S. at specific spots on the field, but when it comes to depth it's the clear leader. With players like Francoeur, Young and Chipper Jones (Braves) as backups, the team would suffer little dropoff with its subs. Outstanding young slugger Mark Teixeira (Rangers) figures to get most of the DH at-bats.

Starters: Roger Clemens has talked about his desire to pitch for Team USA for more than a year, and assuming his body holds up he should be the starter in the tournament's biggest games. After him, the staff is quite young, with Jake Peavy (Padres), Dontrelle Willis (Marlins) and C.C. Sabathia (Indians) lining up as the top three starters.

Relievers: Here again the depth of the United States gives it a clear advantage, particularly with the pitch limits in this tournament. Chad Cordero (Nationals), Brad Lidge (Astros), Joe Nathan (Twins), Huston Street (Athletics) and Billy Wagner (Mets) are all proven closers, and set-up men like Scot Shields (Angels) and Mike Timlin (Red Sox) should be just as useful. The only potential pitfall is a lack of lefthanders, with only Brian Fuentes (Rockies) on the roster at this point.

Outlook: While the roster could be better in spots (outfield, pitching), the Americans should have no trouble advancing through the first two rounds of pool play. But after that it's a one-and-done format, so they'll have to be sharp for every inning. Still, any loss for Team USA in this tournament will have to be considered an upset.

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VENEZUELA

Outfielders: Bobby Abreu (Phillies) and Melvin Mora (Orioles) were both all-stars in 2005, and Magglio Ordonez (Tigers) might have joined them had he been completely healthy. All three should bat in the upper half of the lineup for Venezuela, though a bigger question is the defensive alignment. None of them has played a major league inning in center field during the last two seasons.

Infielders: Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera is the team's best hitter and also is capable of playing the outfield if Venezuela opts to use Mora at the hot corner. The Venezuelans are loaded with shortstopseven with Cesar Izturis (Dodgers) unavailable while recovering from Tommy John surgeryand team captain Omar Vizquel (Giants) will stay at the position at which he has won 10 Gold Gloves. Carlos Guillen (Tigers) is the most likely candidate to shift to second base. Former big leaguer Alex Cabrera has hit 215 homers in five seasons in Japan, including a record-tying 55 in 2002 and 36 in 2005. He's the frontrunner to start at first base.

Catchers: Venezuela has a pair of all-star backstops in Victor Martinez (Indians) and Ramon Hernandez (Orioles). Martinez has the better bat, while Hernandez has a stronger arm. The two could spent their time alternating between catcher and DH.

DH/Bench: There's a significant dropoff from the starters to the reserves. Roberto Petagine (Mariners) has the most pop on the bench. Miguel Cairo (Yankees) and Caribbean World Series hero Alex Gonzalez (Red Sox) are the top infield backups, while Endy Chavez (Mets), Ricardo Hidalgo (free agent) and Juan Rivera (Angels) are the best of the second-string outfielders.

Starting Pitchers: Johan Santana (Twins) has been the best pitcher in baseball over the last two seasons, and the Venezuelans have more quality arms lined up behind him. Santana and Carlos Zambrano (Cubs) will pitch the opener versus the Dominican Republic; Freddy Garcia (White Sox) and Victor Zambrano (Mets) will follow against Italy; and Gustavo Chacin (Blue Jays) and Kelvim Escobar (Angels) will finish up the first round against Australia. The Angels aren't sure if they want Escobar to participate, which might open an opportunity for Carlos Silva (Twins). The Mariners held wunderkind Felix Hernandez back, but Venezuela still should have enough starting pitching.

Relief Pitchers: Francisco Rodriguez (Angels) should have no problem closing games. The middle-relief corps might be the least impressive part of this team, but it's still more than capable with Rafael Betancourt (Indians), Giovanni Carrara (Dodgers), Jorge Julio (Mets) and Juan Rincon (Twins).

Outlook: Fresh off its first Caribbean World Series championship since 1989, Venezuela is itching to make an even bigger splash in the much more visible World Baseball Classic. If the Dominican roster gets thinned out, Venezuela should be the top contender in its half of the bracket as it has the most well rounded roster this side of Team USA. Regardless, the Venezuelans should at least get to the final four.

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