World Baseball Classic: The Rest Of The Field
Background: The Aussies have been inconsistent performers on the international level. They won the Intercontinental Cup in 1999 as the host nation, but did not make it ou t of pool play in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. They bounced back to win silver in Athens in 2004, but failed to reach the medal round in September's World Cup in Amsterdam.
Offense: Dave Nilsson, a career .284 hitter in the big leagues
and an all-star in 1999, will pace this team’s lineup, though he no
longer catc hes. Futures Game MVP Justin Huber should help form a solid
1-2 punch with Nilsson. Ex-minor leaguers Gavin Fingleson and Brett
Pitching: Former Padres farmhand Chris Oxspring, who threw 15 scoreless innings in Athens, wasn’t cleared to play by his new team in Japan, leaving a void in the rotation. Lefty Paul Mildren was 10-3, 3.08 for high Class A Jupiter in 2005 and had a 1.46 ERA in 12 Wo rld Cup innings. John Stephens is a journeyman with solid stuff and a great feel for pitching, and should join big league veteran Damian Moss in the rotation. Self-taught knuckleballer Phil Brassington, a former Royals farmhand, could also be one to watch.
Outlook: Having been grouped with Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, getting out of the first round will be nearly impossible. Australia's clash with Italy is its best chance of leaving Orlando with at least one win.Return to Top
Background: China kick-started a baseball program, dormant during the Cold War, as soon as Beijing was announced as the site of the 2008 Olympics. China since has developed its own six-team professional league, and had its great est success in 2005 with a bronze medal during the Asian championships last May . Major League Baseball has helped train and equip Chinese players. Ex-big leaguers Jim Lefebvre and Bruce Hurst are China’s manager and pitching coach.
Offense: China has yet to develop a power hitter and relies on a fundamental offense of singles, bunts and baserunning. One scout identified diminutive center fiel der Sun Ling Feng, just 5-foot-6, as the team’s biggest threat for his ability to make contact and plus speed. He led China with 11 hits in six World Cup gam es, as well as four steals. Shortstop Zhang Yu Feng, the China Baseball League’s batting champion in 2005, had six extra-base hits in the Cup with two of China’s three homers.
Pitching: China’s pitchers generally top out in the mid-80s. Wang Nan was the CBL’s top pitch er last year, going 4-1, 0.62 and walking just three in 43 innings for the lea gue champion Beijing Tigers.
Outlook: Political passions will run high in the Asia region, and China is the decided underdog. Any victory against its three more-established foes would be a ma jor accomplishment, and nothing would be sweeter than to knock off Taiwan, which China sees as a breakaway republic (hence the Chinese Taipei nomenclature) rather than an independent nation.Return to Top
Background: The Azzurri are without a rich baseball tradition. They failed even to qualify for the 2005 World Cup and finished last in the 2004 Olympics. They will be armed with numerous Italian-Americans for the Classic, which should make them far more competitive.
Offense: Mike Piazza is the most notable Italian-American hitter joining the squad, particularly after the Rangers’ David Dellucci dropped out. Fellow carpetbaggers Mike DiFelice, Frank Menechino and Tony Giarratano should provide more offense than an infield made up of Italian natives.
Pitching: Former Cardinals righthander Jason Simontacchi was Ita ly's ace in the 2000 Olympics when he had 1.17 ERA, and he is set to lead the st aff again, though that could change if he gets a pro contract. Former Oklahoma State righthander David Rollandini, who was 8-3 , 1.60 in the Italian league in 2005, and righty Jason Grilli , the fourth overall pick in 1997, should be in the mix for the rotation. The staff could get a huge boost from Italian-American relievers Dan Miceli, Mike Gallo and Lenny DiNardo.
Outlook: With help from its Italian-American contingent, Italy could potentially pose a problem to pool favorites Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. They likely lack the offensive punch, but they stand the best chance of wreaking havoc in Orlando.Return to Top
Background: Europe’s best baseball nation, the Netherlands is coming off a strong showing as host of the World Cup in September, when it finished fourth. The international highlight for the Dutch was beating Cuba in pool play in 2000 Olympics. The team’s stalwarts should be players from colonial possessions Aruba and Curacao.
Offense: Curacao native and 2005 home run champ Andruw Jones
is the obvious star. He will get support from Winter League Player of
Pitching: Failed Blue Jays prospect Diegomar Markwell was the star in Amsterdam, posting a 2.01 ERA in 22 innings. Righthander Rob Cordemans is a Dutch team staple and also pitched well in the World Cup (2.63 ERA, 17 strikeouts in 14 innings) after going 13-1, 0.7 7 in the Dutch league. Lefthander Alexander Smit (Twins) has plus stuff and has pitched well in international play, though has failed to succeed above rookie ball.
Outlook: The Netherlands would have gotten a serious boost from big leaguers Mark Mulder, Kirk Saarloos and Shea Hillenbrand, who were on the provisional roster. Without them, they still have an outside shot of getting past Panama and Cuba into the medal round.Return to Top
Background: Like Australia, Korea has been inconsistent in international play. Its fierce rivalry with Japan was on display in Sydney in 2000, when Korea beat Japan in a raucous game for the bronze medal. But the Koreans lost out to Japan and Taiwan in the Asia Games in 2003, failing to qualify for the Athens Olympics.
Offense: First baseman Seung-Yeop Lee, 29, hit a record 56 home runs playing in the Korean Baseball Organization in 2003. Lee now plays for the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan and hit .260-30-82 last season. Lee likely pushed Dodgers first basem an Hee Seop Choi to DH; Mariners outfielder Shin-Soo Choo should start as well. The KBO’s 2005 batting champ Byung-Kyu Lee, a speedy center fielder, and Lee Jeong-Bum join him in an offensive outfield.
Pitching: The most recognizable names to North American fans will be on the staff, including righthanders Chan Ho Park (Padres), Jae Seo (Dodgers), Byung-Hyun Kim (Rock ies) and Sun Woo Kim (Rockies), as well as lefthanders Dae Sung Koo (formerly of the Mets) and Jung Bong (Reds).
Outlook: Korea typically relies on speed but has two power lefthanded bats in Lee and Choi . If its pitching staff gets hot, it should join Japan as one of two Asian count ries that qualify for the second round.Return to Top
Background: Panama does not have the baseball tradition of some of its Latin American counterparts, though it did finish second in the 2003 World Cup and boasts Yankees closer Mariano Rivera as one of its own. Rivera will not be participating in the Classic. Panama will have to follow up its strong bronze-medal showing from September’s World Cup without him. The team also lost its manager when Roberto Kelly quit.
Offense: Brewers all-star Carlos Lee anchors the lineup, while big leaguers Olmedo Saenz (Dodgers) and Einar Diaz (Indians) should help as well. They will be aided by outfielders Freddy Herrera and Audes de Leon, who led the team in Amsterdam by hitti ng .389 and .368.
Pitching: Miguel Gomez and Ramon Ramirez were dominant in the World Cup. Gomez, a former Blue Jays farmhand, had the third best ERA in the tournament (0.49) and he threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings in the bronze medal game to earn the save while Ramirez was 2-0, 1.13. Major leaguers Ramiro Mendoza (Yankees) and Bruce Chen (Orioles) should fortify the staff, though Rivera's participation might have made them one of their Pool's favorites.
Outlook: In a relatively wide-open pool with Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Netherlands, the Panamanians can be competitive. If they hope to move beyond pool play a win over the Netherlands, whom they defeated in the bronze-medal game in Amsterdam, will be a necessity.Return to Top
Background: Baseball has gained little traction in Africa, and South Africa is the best of a bad lot. Its fourth straight All-Africa Games championship in 2005 included an aggregate score of 158-6 for South Africa, which also qualified for the 2000 Olympics. That team played the spoiler, beating the Netherlands for its most significant international victory and keeping the Dutch out of the medal ro und.
Offense: More South Africans have been signed to hit by major league organizations than to pitch, so this is the club’s strong suit. First baseman Nick Dempsey, forme rly of the Dodgers, Expos and Indians systems, has a slow bat but raw strength in his 6-foot-5, 210-pound frame. Shortstop Paul Bell shined defensively for the 2000 Olympic team; he and Dempsey hit .296 in the World Cup.
Pitching: Royals farmhand Barry Armitage, 26, is South Africa’s top player and went 4-3, 3.87 with seven saves at Double-A Wichita last summer. Lefthander Donovan Hendricks, 19, went 1-2, 6.99 for Rookie-level Danville in the Braves system and is the only other pro on the staff.
Outlook: The slam-dunk No. 16 seed if the tournament were seeded, South Africa will be fortunate to be competitive. Its best chance will come whenever Armitage is on the mound.Return to Top
Background: A nation passionate about its improving baseball scene, Taiwan frequently serves as a host for international tournaments, including the 2001 World Cup. The island nation off the coast of China has produced four big leaguers in Chin-Feng Chen and Hong-Chih Kuo (Dodgers), Chien-Ming Wang (Yankees) and Chin-Hui Tsao (Rockies). Tai wan earned a spot in the 2004 Athens Olympics and finished 3-4, in fifth place. In a tuneup for this tournament, Taiwan went 4-4 in a series against Australia .
Offense: Taiwan's preliminary roster tilted young and included several minor leaguers, including shortstop Ching-Lung Hu (Dodgers) and second baseman Yung-Chi Chen (Mariners), who formed a dynamic double-play combo at the ’05 World Cup. Chen, the first Taiwanese player to reach the majors, remains the team’s top power threat. Teen shortstop Chung-Shou Yang was a first-round pick in Japan’s 2005 draft but may sit behind Hu.
Pitching: Taiwan wanted Wang to lead the rotation, but the Yankees righthander and ’04 Olympian with a history of shoulder trouble declined. The Dodgers have released Kuo to play, though. Righty Wei-Lun Pan was Taiwan’s top starter in Athens, going 2-0, 0.75, and Lin En-Yu, who went 12-8, 1.72 for the Macoto Cobras in Taiwan’s pro league, should get a start.
Outlook: Taiwan’s defense and pitching usually keep it competitive internationally. Without its U.S. minor leaguers, Taiwan will have talent but will be older and lack depth. It’s likely battling Korea for the second spot coming out of Asia.Return to Top