WBC PREVIEW: POOL D
Latin American Baseball Shows Off Its Stuff in Guadalajara
The final WBC pool, Pool D, opens on March 9th from Guadalajara, Mexico. This pool could see some of the most hotly contested action in the tournament, as all 4 teams have at least an underdog’s chance of pushing through to the 2nd round. Mexico looks for redemption following a poor showing in 2013, while Puerto Rico looks to improve on its miracle run. Venezuela seeks a breakthrough to wash away what have been perceived domestically as underwhelming showings in the Classic. Italy brings another mixed roster of American MiLB and Italian Baseball League ballplayers, and pushes for more upsets to build baseball back home.
For Mexico, the 2017 World Baseball Classic is all about redemption. Mexican participation in the WBC opened with a strong showing in 2006. Mexico won the opening round Pool B in the inaugural classic with 10-4 and 9-1 victories over South Africa and Canada respectively, as well as a narrow 2-0 defeat at the hands of the US that gave Mexico the edge on tiebreakers. In the second round, Mexico was defeated 6-1 by Japan, and dropped a close 2-1 game to South Korea, eliminating them from advancing. But nevertheless, the Mexican team had enough left in them for one final hurrah knocking off national rival USA by a 2-1 score that dropped them from the tournament.
Again in Pool B in 2009, Mexico fared a bit more poorly. Mexico was rocked coming out of the gate by a 17-7 loss to underdog Australia which invoked the mercy rule in the 8th. The Mexicans, no staring elimination in the face, followed that game with a resounding 14-3 victory over South Africa, and, in a revenge game against Australia, a 16-1 triumph. Just when the seemed to have righted the ship, however, they were smashed in the final Pool B game 16-4 by Cuba in 7 innings. Despite the loss, Mexico advanced into the second round where they were beaten 8-2 by South Korea and 7-4 again at the hands of Cuba to be bounced from the Classic.
Compared to the prior 2 tournaments, however, 2013 was a disappointment for Mexico. They opened with an upset 6-5 loss to Italy which saw Sergio Romo let the game slip through his fingers in the 9th. A following 5-2 victory against the United States set the stage for a final game against Canada for a chance to advance. But Mexico fell flat in that game falling 10-3 and bowing out of the Classic in the first round in a game marred by an ugly brawl.
And the squad that Mexico brings into this year’s tournament has the talent to make a redemption tour possible. MLB and MiLB players litter the regular lineup, including Khris Davis in the outfield, Sebastián Valle behind the plate, and Brandon Laird (now of the Hokkaido Fighters of NPB) in the infield. Longtime team Mexico player Chris Roberson, of the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol, will also suit up again for his adoptive home.
But of all the names amongst Mexican position players, none will be more recognizable to American fans stateside, nor more important to how far team Mexico will go than Dodgers 1B. By the lofty standards of his own MLB stardom, González comes into the 2017 classic off of a down season which saw his OBP, SLG, OPS, HR and WAR drop from the prior year. All that notwithstanding, González still posted a .285/.349/.435 line and clubbed 18 HR, and remains an exceedingly talented player. Given the shortness of legitimate big league power on the Mexican roster, the ability of González to be the big bat in the middle of the lineup for Mexico may ultimately be the difference between a deeper tournament run and an early exit.
While the lineup is a little thin on MLB power, the Mexican pitching staff figures to be the strength of the team. Yovani Gallardo will likely take the top spot in the Mexican rotation, despite a poor 2016 with the Baltimore Orioles. He will be joined by starters Jaime García, Miguel González, and Jorge de la Rosa. In addition to these pitchers on the active roster, the Mexican staff figures to benefit the most from the WBC’s new pitcher pool, as team Mexico may be able to bolster its staff in the later rounds with the addition of both Toronto Blue Jaysstarter Marco Estrada and the Dodgers rookie phenom Julio Urías. Urías in particular may prove to be a huge addition for the Mexican team. For one, he is obviously immensely talented and would make almost any team in the tournament, but more specifically, he would provide Mexico with a left hander in the rotation, a luxury they are otherwise lacking.
The Mexican bullpen figures to be even stronger. Blown save in 2013 notwithstanding, Sergio Romo figures to again hold down the closer role, but he will be set up by a host of talented players. Roberto Osuna, Fernando Salas, and Joakim Soria figure to see plenty of action in high leverage moments late in games, while Óliver Pérez, with his janky windup and assortment of offspeed and breaking pitchers, figures to slot in nicely as a lefty specialist. As we have seen over the last two MLB postseasons, as well the previous installment of the Classic, a strong bullpen can take a team a long way in a short tournament format.
Prediction: 3rd Place
In one of the tightest calls of the tournament, I predict Mexico to finish a close third behind Venezuela and Puerto Rico. The Mexican team is strong and figures to seriously compete for one of the 2nd round berths. Ultimately, the lack of power from the lineup, especially in contrast to what we expect to see from the other Caribbean squads may hold Team Mexico back from advancing. That said, with the narrow gap in talent between these squads, don’t be too surprised if Mexico does complete its redemption story and find itself in round 2.
With the possible exception of Israel, Italy is the participant in the 2017 that most elicits the response “Wait, they play baseball there?” While there is indeed a domestic baseball league in Italy, the Italian Baseball League, which will supply several of the players to this year’s Italian team, Italy is another nation which has taken advantage of the rather lax player eligibility rules to stock up on American players of Italian heritage. This strategy served them well in the 2013 Classic.
Despite finding themselves in a pool containing contenders Mexico, Canada, and the United States, Italy was undaunted. They opened the tournament with a scintillating come from behind 6-5 victory against Mexico which saw them score the tying and winning runs in the 9th inning against Sergio Romo. That momentum carried right over into their next game. In one of the most shocking results of the entire tournament, Italy smashed Canada 14-4 in a game that saw the mercy rule invoked in the 8th inning.
Even their final game of the opening round, a 6-2 loss to the United States, was closer than the score belies. The US scored 5 of their 6 runs in a single outburst in the 5th inning, including 4 of those runs on a 2-out grand slam by American team captain David Wright. The game was otherwise a closely contested affair. Second round Pool 2 proved to be filled with heartbreak for the Italians, as they dropped close, tense, 1-run games to both the gold medalist Dominican Republic (5-4), and silver medalist Puerto Rico (4-3). Despite their elimination, Italy’s upset run and the overall quality of their play was certainly one of the biggest stories of the 2013 tournament.
This year’s team, like most in the Classic, is missing a few of the big names that MLB fans might have hoped to see on the roster. The 2013 Italian team, for instance was led by a young 1B by the name of Anthony Rizzo. This year, with Rizzo coming of an MVP caliber season, he would be a huge addition to the for Italy, but alas, has opted to prepare himself for the Cubs upcoming title defense. Likewise for the New York Mets Michael Conforto, who decided to forgo the Classic in order to be present for spring training and try to win a full time starting spot with his big league club.
Although the roster would appear to lack the star power of someone like a Rizzo on the roster, there remain a number of solid professional players on the 2017 team. Pirates backstop Francisco Cervelli provides Italy with a strong presence behind the plate, while the infield will likely boast names like Chris Collabello, Daniel Descalso, Alex Liddi, and Gavin Cecchini. The outfield features a number of players from the Italian Baseball League, such as Mario Chiarini and Sebastiano Poma, but MLB fans will recognize the name of New York Mets prospect Brandon Nimmo. Nimmo, the former MLB All-Star Futures Game participant, finally broke through to the big leagues last year, and, at 23, posted a .274/.338/.329 line in 32 games.
While the Italian lineup should be able to hold its own with the supplements from the American pro-leagues, the pitching staff will likely be the biggest struggle for Italy. Tommy Layne is the only member of the Italian staff who has been a regular starter in the major leagues. He will likely be joined in the rotation by MiLB farmhands Trey Nielsen, Nick Fanti, and Sam Gaviglio. Other names to watch, from outside the states, include Tiago da Silva of the Delfines del Carmen of the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol, and Alessandro Maestri of the Gunma Diamond Pegasus of the Baseball Challenge League in Japan. Maestri in particular has been called on for the Italian national team in the past, including at the WBC, and Italian manager Marco Mazzieri may opt to call on the experience of Maestri again.
Another intriguing option out of the Italian bullpen is ambidextrous pitcher Pat Venditte. Venditte has struggled during his brief stints in the big leagues, but has been an outstanding pitcher in the minors, accumulating a 2.51 ERA over 472.2 career innings. The versatility of a switch pitcher like Venditte is perfectly suited to short tournament baseball, where the ability to generate short term advantages moment by moment can be the difference between an early exit and going home with a medal.
Prediction: 4th Place
The presence of so many American minor league players means that Italy should never find itself totally unable to compete in the tournament, but the talent of the Venezuelans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans will likely prove to be too much for Italy. If their pitching staff can get on a hot streak, there is enough talent in the lineup to perhaps score an upset, but it’s hard to see Italy finishing over any of the Caribbean squads.
Coming into the 2013 Classic, baseball in Puerto Rico appeared to be in a bad way. Gone were stars of the past such as Carlos Delgado, Iván Rodríguez, and Bernie Williams, with comparatively little in the way of replacements at the major league level. As a result, the Puerto Ricans were given little chance, especially in an opening round Pool C featuring the mighty Dominicans and Venezuelans, and stars such as Robinson Canó, Edwin Encarnación, Miguel Cabrera, and Felix Hernandez. Nevertheless, the Puerto Ricans came out on fire, shutting out Spain 3-0, upsetting Venzuela 6-3, and even carrying a 2-1 lead into the 5th inning against the eventual champs from the Dominican Republic before falling 4-2. The hot play continued for the islanders, as the knockout stages of the tournament saw them score victories over Italy (4-3), the United States (4-3), and Japan (3-1). They could not overcome their powerful western neighbors however, as the Dominicans beat them twice more (2-0, 3-0) on their way to an undefeated record and a gold medal.
And it would appear that the inspired performance of the team at the 2013 tournament was no fluke, as Puerto Rican baseball has, in the years since, experienced quite a renaissance at the major league level, with a number of young and up-and-coming stars reaching MLB. And these stars are out in full force for the 2017 Classic. Of these young stars, none shines brighter than Houston’s own Carlos Correa. At just 21 years of age, the native of Ponce along Puerto Rico’s southern coast has already established himself as one of the best players the in the major leagues, and arguably the American League’s best shortstop, following up a stellar rookie campaign in 2015 with an even better sophomore one in 2016. But if any player can challenge Correa for top AL SS, one need look no further than his fellow countryman and 2017 teammate Francisco Lindor. Another of the brightest young talents in baseball, Lindor is fresh off a a 2016 season which saw him named to the All-Star game, take home a gold glove, finish 9th in MVP voting and lead his Cleveland Indians to within a single game of winning their first World Series title since 1948. And like Correa, it would appear that Lindor has only scratched the surface of his great talent. Joining that outstanding SS duo on the infield for Puerto Rico is Chicago Cubs second baseman Javier Baez. The “veteran” of the group at 24, Baez struggled during his first two years with the Cubs, receiving sporadic playing time and striking out in a staggering 39% of his plate appearances. 2016, however, was a revelation for Baez. He cut his strikeout rate to 24% on his way to a .273/.314/.423 line and played a scintillating second base. Baez star continued to shine as the calendar hit October, as he was one of the breakout stars for the Cubs as they finally brought a World Series title back to Chicago’s North Side.
For Puerto Rico, Baez obviously slots in as the 2B, but Correa and Lindor both play a natural SS. Look for Lindor to win out the starting spot at short in the field, where his superior defense gives him the edge. Correa, meanwhile, will likely find his playing time either at 3rd due to his strong throwing arm, or perhaps as the team’s designated hitter, if the Astros are uncomfortable with manager Edwin Rodriguez playing Correa out of position. Regardless, the future of Puerto Rican baseball looks bright with this trio in the fold.
Joining these wunderkinder are a few of the old guard for Puerto Rico. Once and future Astro Carlos Beltrán rejoins the Puerto Rican club for his now 4th World Baseball Classic. Beltrán ideally would slot in as the DH, but if Rodriguez wants to play Correa there, he may opt for the more adventurous route of Beltrán in the outfield, along with long-time Giants OF Ángel Pagán. Another veteran addition is Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. Despite something of a disappointing year for the Cardinals team, Molina remained one one of the more talented catchers in baseball, and he will likely find a spot around the 5th or 6th spot of the Puerto Rican lineup.
If there’s any truth to the notion that Molina gives a boost to his pitching staffs, Puerto Rico will almost certainly need it, because pitching is likely to be the single biggest weakness for the defending silver medalists. Some combination of José Berríos, Hector Santiago, Alex Claudio, Edwin Díaz, and Jorge López will likely garner the starting spots for team Puerto Rico, with the remainder joining a bullpen that will be a bit thin. Some names, such as José De León, are on the inactive pitchers pool (a goofy new rule designed to allow MLB players to essentially jump on the bandwagon should their team make it to the later rounds), but of sure things, the Puerto Rican bullpen will likely have to rely on former big leaguers Juan Carlos Romero and Orlando Roman. If Puerto Rico is to replicate their run from the 2013 tournament, they will likely need their staff to again pitch over its collective head.
Prediction: 2nd Place
The star power of Puerto Rico makes them, in this reporter’s opinion, a narrow favorite for the 2nd berth to advance from Pool D over Mexico. The Mexican pitching, both from the starters and relievers, will likely be better than that which the Puerto Ricans can muster, but the strength of the islanders’ lineup, especially their top flight stars, gives them a razor’s edge in the final standings.
Like Mexico, Venezuela is looking to wipe away the memory of a first round exit in 2013, and the (perhaps unfair) perception back home that the team has underperformed at the WBC. Much of this dissatisfaction stems from a WBC run last time out which saw the team, loaded with MLB stars, eliminated two games into the tournament following losses to the mighty Dominicans (9-3) and a Puerto Rican team (6-3) at the beginning of its cinderella run. A game 3 victory over Spain did little to quell the anger Venezuelan fans. While such frustrations are understandable for fans from Venezuela, a nation with a proud and rich baseball tradition, the anger is ultimately undeserved. Venezuela has, outside of last year performed well in the Classic. In 2009, the team made it all the way to the semi-final round before bowing out to silver medalist South Korea, and taking home the bronze themselves. In 2006, Venezuela found itself one win short of the same semi-final round after finishing in 3rd place in a “group of death” featuring Puerto Rico, a loaded Dominican club, and a pre-defection Cuban team that took home silver in that tournament.
As you might expect, any hope for a Venezuelan redeem team begins, in the rotation at least, with Félix Hernández. Hernández opted to sit out the last Classic, due to his ongoing contract negotiations with the Mariners, with Hernández’s agent saying that his participation in the tournament would be a “very big risk for the negotiations”. That reason for his absence didn’t go over so great back home in Venezuela, with a Venezuelan newspaper running the headline “Félix no va para el Clásico. Se devaluó Venezuela.” Hernández hopes to make amends with the fans back in Venezuela by authoring a strong performance in this year’s tournament. Coming off a bit of a down year, though only 30 years of age, one wonders if Hernández has simply had a rough year, or if 11 big league seasons (he broke into the majors at 19) are beginning to take their toll on the big right-hander. A solid showing in the Classic might help to propel Hernández to a comeback season, and will likely be a big part of any tournament run for Venezuela.
While all of the storylines will swirl around Hernández, Venezuela should have a strong pitching staff from top to bottom. The remaining two starting spots will likely be filled by left-hander Martín Pérez of the Texas Rangers, and new Padres hurler Jhoulys Chacín, with the possibility of Franklin Morales joining the club from the pitcher pool later on in the tournament. In the bullpen, manager Omar Vizquel will have a number of solid options to choose from. Veteran closer Francisco Rodríguez will likely get the nod at the back end of the team’s bullpen, though if Cubs closer Héctor Rondón opts to join the club in later rounds from the pitcher pool, he may push Rodríguez into a setup role. Bruce Rondón, Yusmeiro Petit, and Jeanmar Gomez should provide ample setup and middle relief, and longtime MLB veteran Wilfredo Ledezma returns from the Liga Venezolana de Béisbol Profesional to give Venezuela a true LOOGY.
But as strong as the Venezuelan staff looks, the lineup is where the true star power shines through for Venezuela. Salvador Pérez looks like a lock behind the plate. Miguel Cabrera, José Altuve, and Alcides Escobar ring the infield from 1B to SS. 3B looks to be a bit of an open competition, with Martín Prado, Yangervis Solarte, and Rougned Odor likely sharing time at the hot corner unless one of them gets hot and runs away with the position. The outfield will feature Carlos González in right, along with national team newcomers Odubel Herrera in left and Ender Inciarte in center. And to top it all off, Víctor Martínez slots in as the team’s regular DH.
Prediction: 1st Place
The Venezuelan team is too deep and talented to predict anything for them but the top spot in Pool D. The power throughout the lineup should make them favorites in each game they play, and the presence of Félix Hernández at the top of their rotation gives them a trump card that no one else in the group can match. They have all the tools necessary to put a rough 2013 tournament behind them, and it would appear they have the motivation as well.