Maybe the World Baseball Classic isn’t your thing. That’s OK, we don’t have to agree on everything. The tournament kicks off Monday, with two Pool A games in Seoul, including Israel versus South Korea at 4:30 a.m. What, you have something better to do?
The U.S. team kicks off against Colombia on Friday at 6 p.m. in Miami (all games are on MLB Network), followed by a showdown against the Dominican Republic on Saturday at 6:30 (which has already sold out). Here are a few things to watch in this year’s tournament:
How will the Dominican lineup shape up?
Adrian Beltre is battling a strained left calf muscle and is 50/50 on whether he’ll play. Jean Segura has already been added to the roster to replace Hanley Ramirez, who will remain in Red Sox camp as he deals with a right shoulder injury. Either way, the Dominican team is in good shape as Segura, Jonathan Villar or Jose Reyes can play shortstop with Manny Machado sliding over to third base if Beltre doesn’t play. If Beltre does elect to play, he could just DH, pushing Nelson Cruz to right field. We haven’t even mentioned Robinson Cano and Carlos Santana, or an outfield featuring Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Jose Bautista. Yes, the Dominican lineup has plenty of depth.
Who starts for the United States against the Dominican Republic in that pool-play game?
Johnny Cueto is the likely starter for the D.R., although manager Moises Alou could go with Carlos Martinez. Meanwhile, U.S. skipper Jim Leyland has four starters on his first-round roster: Chris Archer, Tanner Roark, Marcus Stroman and Danny Duffy. While Leyland earlier talked about using two starters in one of the three first-round games, that’s now unlikely due to the possibility of playing four games in four days. If three teams finish 2-1 in pool play, tiebreaker rules will seed the teams, with the first-place team advancing to the second round and the other two teams playing an extra game to move on. That possibility almost necessitates holding one of the four starters in reserve.
Wait, who’s that on Team Canada?
Canada and Colombia are the other two teams in Pool C with the Dominican and U.S. The Canadian roster is interesting to say the least, as the two biggest names on the pitching staff are Ryan Dempster and former Cy Young winner Eric Gagne. Dempster last pitched in the 2013 World Series and Gagne hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2008.
It remains to be seen how much those two will factor into the plans. One guy who will is lefty Adam Loewen, the fourth overall pick back in 2002 — the highest selection for a Canadian-born player. After hurting his arm, Loewen shifted to the outfield and briefly reached the majors with the Blue Jays in 2011. Now he’s back pitching and appeared briefly with the Phillies and Diamondbacks the past two seasons.
The lineup is anchored by Freddie Freeman — yes, that Freddie Freeman. Both his parents are Canadian and he’s honoring his late mother by playing for Canada. An intriguing prospect to watch is Mariners outfielder Tyler O’Neill, a muscle-bound slugger who was the Double-A Southern League MVP in 2016 after hitting .293/.374/.508 with 24 home runs as a 21-year-old. The Canadians are obvious long shots, but they did upset the U.S. in 2006 in a game that Loewen actually started and pitched 3⅔ scoreless innings.
Can Puerto Rico surprise again?
The runner-up in 2013 to the Dominican, Puerto Rico will try to repeat that magic run, albeit with a much different roster. Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and Javier Baez will now anchor the infield instead of Mike Aviles, Irving Falu and Andy Gonzalez. Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran are playing again, as is Angel Pagan, who curiously remains unsigned after a solid 2016 season with the Giants. Hector Santiago and Seth Lugo line up as the top starters, with Jose Berrios trying to reclaim his status as a rotation option for the Twins after a disastrous rookie season.
Who is a non-MLB player to watch?
Players like Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes first introduced themselves to U.S. audiences in the World Baseball Classic. The big name this year was supposed to be 22-year-old Japanese wunderkind Shohei Otani, a two-way star who posted a 1.86 ERA with 174 strikeouts in 140 innings and hit .322/.416/.588 with 22 home runs. You can make the argument he’s the best player in the world. Alas, he’s sidelined with an ankle injury and will miss the tournament. Instead, keep an eye on 25-year-old outfielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who hit .322 with 44 home runs for Yokohama of the Central League.
Who are some top prospects in the tournament?
Besides O’Neill, a few other prospects to keep an eye on:
Alex Verdugo (Dodgers), Mexico: Ranked No. 31 among Keith Law’s top 100 prospects, he hit .273/.336/.407 as one of Double-A’s youngest players.
Jorge Alfaro (Phillies), Colombia: Ranked No. 45 on Keith’s list, Alfaro is an athletic catcher with a cannon arm who has spent years on the top-100 lists. He may finally get a chance in the majors this year.
Joe Jimenez (Tigers), Puerto Rico: He struck out 78 in 53 ⅔ innings in the minors, reaching Triple-A, and looks like a future closer.
Jorge Lopez (Brewers), Puerto Rico: A top-100 prospect entering 2016, he struggled with a 5.78 ERA in Triple-A.
Josh Naylor (Padres), Canada: Drafted 12th overall by the Marlins in 2015, the bad-bodied first baseman was traded to the Padres in the Andrew Cashner deal after not hitting like a first-round pick.
Brandon Nimmo (Mets), Italy: Another former first-rounder, Nimmo hit .352 in the high-octane environment of Las Vegas, but his power hasn’t developed and he’s blocked on the Mets’ depth chart.
Yoelkis Cespedes, Cuba: The younger half-brother of Yoenis, the 19-year-old outfielder is considered one of the top prospects still in Cuba.
Victor Mesa, Cuba: Just 20, Mesa is the son of the longtime Cuban national team manager of the same name, and is a speedster with a strong arm in the outfield.
Who could be the surprise team?
Mexico has plenty of experience on the pitching staff with Yovani Gallardo, Jaime Garcia, Miguel Gonzalez and Vidal Nuno, plus relievers like Roberto Osuna, Sergio Romo, Oliver Perez and Joakim Soria. None of those starters is an ace, but all are certainly capable of putting a good game together and pulling off an upset, and Dodgers lefty Julio Urias could join the staff in the second round. The offense features Adrian Gonzalez, Verdugo and Brandon Laird, the former major leaguer who hit 39 home runs in Japan. Mexico beat the U.S. in 2013, but lost to Canada and Italy and failed to advance. It’ll have to get by Venezuela or Puerto Rico, but will have home-field advantage in Jalisco.
Know your WBC rules!
We mentioned the possible tiebreaker game, which is a new addition this year. A few other things to be aware of:
• Starting in the 11th inning, teams start an inning with runners on first and second base (the last two batters from the previous inning).
• Pitch counts: There is a 65-pitch limit in the first round, which escalates to 80 pitches in the second round and then 95 for the semifinals and final.
• There are also restrictions on rest days required based on pitches thrown and pitchers cannot pitch three days in a row (the U.S., for example, plays three games in three days in pool play).
• Designated pitcher pool: Certain pitchers on a team can be replaced in the following round. For the U.S. team, Roark and Duffy are in the pool and could get replaced in the second round by Michael Fulmer, Drew Smyly or J.A. Happ if Leyland wants a different starter.
Who is the craziest “What, he’s playing?” guy in the tournament?
Well, it’s hard to beat Gagne, but how about Jason Marquis pitching for Israel? Loek van Mil of the Netherlands is the 7-foot-1 pitcher who has been in the minors since 2006 (he pitched briefly and poorly for the Twins’ Rochester affiliate in 2016). George Kottaras is one of the Canadian catchers. Sugar Ray Marimon is on the Colombia roster, which is really just an excuse to write “Sugar Ray Marimon.”
OK, who wins?
As powerful as the Dominican lineup is, I’ll go with the United States. After all, the U.S. is due, having never reached the championship game and the semifinals just once in three tournaments. The lineup is strong with the likes of Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Daniel Murphy, Ian Kinsler, Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton and the U.S. has the deepest bullpen, with guys like Andrew Miller, Nate Jones, Luke Gregerson, Sam Dyson, Mychal Givens and David Robertson.