Pool A, which is set to get the tournament underway on March 6th from the Gocheok Sky Dome in South Korea, will see some tight competition as well as a number of the most intriguing WBC storylines. Long time rivals South Korea and Chinese Taipei get a fresh chance to clash, with each facing roster turmoil while the Netherlands enters with a newfound target on their back following their cinderella run to the semifinal in 2013. Even newcomer Israel boasts a roster primed to play spoiler should someone take them lightly. So let’s dive right in and take a closer look at the dogfight that is WBC 2017 Pool A
The "Blue Goblins" (파란 도깨비) enter the tournament as the heavy favorites in Pool A, with the #3 ranked team in the world looking to rebound from a disappointing 9th place finish in the 2013 Classic which saw them bounced from opening round pool play despite a 2-1 record. That team beat Australia 6-0, as well as Taipei in the final game by a score of 3-2 but was eliminated following to a shocking 5-0 upset at the hands of an upstart Dutch team that went on a wild run to the tournament semi-finals. That loss cost Korea the run differential tie-breaker, and, ultimately the opportunity to advance.
Since that disappointing finish in 2013, the Blue Goblins have roared back with avengeance, capturing the gold medals at the 2014 Asian Games with a 6-3 win over Chinese Taipei, the 2015 WBSC Premier 12 with an 8-0 win over the United States, and the Asian Baseball Championship with an undefeated 5-0 record. The Koreans bring all that momentum as well as an exceptionally talented roster into the 2017 classic, one which will be managed by the long time KBO and national team manager In-Sik Kim.
The most striking thing about the roster which Korea brings into the 2017 tournament is all of the MLB talent which is absent from the team. Baltimore Orioles LF Hyun-Soo Kim has withdrawn from participation to focus on preparing for the upcoming MLB season. The Dodgers Hyun-Jin Ryu and the Twins Byung-Ho Park are each also absent from the roster, as both are recovering from injury (although in Park’s case, it is not clear he would have made the roster in any case). The Rangers Shin-Soo Choo, as far as we know, is healthy, and is willing to suit up for Korea, but Texas has filed a formal request with the WBC governing body to block him from participating in the tournament. Another notable absence is Pirates 3B Jung-Ho Kang. Kang was named to Korea’s preliminary roster for the tournament, but following his arrest for DUI in early January (Kang’s third arrest for such an incident), manager In-Sik Kim suggested that Kang would not be welcome on the team Korea roster, and indeed, he has followed through with such threats.
South Korea will not be entirely without MLB reinforcement however. Former big leaguer Dae-Ho Lee (currently with the Lotte Giants) is a likely candidate to start at 1B or as the DH. Lee will be joined by St. Louis relief ace Seung-Hwan Oh, though Oh’s inclusion was not without controversy. Oh is a veteran of all three prior World Baseball Classics, and coming off a rookie season in the big leagues which saw him post a 1.92 ERA, a 0.916 WHIP, and hold opponents to a .190/.241/.269 line. Despite his stellar play at the highest levels of baseball, Oh was initially left off the roster for Korea due to legal troubles in his native Korea, where he was convicted of overseas gambling in Macau, which is illegal under Korean law. He was sentenced to a fine of 10 million won (approximately $8300), and was subject to a 72 game ban from the KBO. It was thought these issues would cost him his spot as the national team closer, but evidently manager Kim had a change of heart regarding Oh, and he will again don the powder blues.
While the MLB names (or lack thereof) may draw the attention of the fans back stateside, Korea has plenty of talent on the roster drawn from the KBO back home. Following the departure of Ryu, left-hander Kwang-Hyun Kim took over as the de-facto ace of the national team, but unfortunately, elbow surgery has sidelined him for the tournament. Likely taking his place at the top of the team Korea rotation will be Kia Tigers Hyeon-Jong Yang. The 28 year-old Yang possesses a career 3.93 ERA (in the midst of an offense era in the KBO that makes the steroid era blush), and has posted a miniscule (for the league) 3.01 ERA over his past two combined seasons. He throws a fastball which sits right around 90, and has been clocked as high as 95. His slider is his best out pitch, and has been graded by scouts as MLB quality, though he doesn’t throw it as often as one might like. His changeup has good action, but he has struggled with control of the pitch. Overall, control will be the biggest issue to watch for Yang, as he has posted an unseemly career BB/9 of 4.7 in the KBO.
Backing up Yang, and likely serving as Seung-Hwan Oh’s setup man at the back end of Korea’s bullpen will likely be the ageless Chang-Yong Lim. The side-arming relief specialist once had plenty of life on his fastball, averaging around 93 MPH in the 2009 KBO season, and once clocking in at 99 MPH. At 40 years old, that velocity is now behind him, but he can still touch 90 on the gun, and still has excellent movement on his 2-seamer. Lim couples that pitch with an assortment of off-speed junk, including a slider, a forkball, and even occasionally a blooper curveball. Combined with his unusual delivery, and penchant for shifting arm angles, Lim remains a tough pitcher for right handed batters, especially those seeing him for the first time. Another stout addition to the bullpen will be Chang-Min Sim. The youngster is coming off a sterling season with the Samsung Lions which saw him save 22 games and post a 2.88 ERA. Between Oh, Lim, and Sim, look for Korea to have the top bullpen in Pool A.
Even without Choo and Kim (Hyun-Soo) in the Korean outfield, there will still be quality players, starting with veteran slugger Hyung-Woo Choi. Once considered a hot KBO commodity to join the major leagues, Choi is now 33 years old and unlikely to come stateside. He nevertheless remains one of the most productive offensive players in the KBO, boasting a 2016 season which saw him bat .376/.464/.651, hit 31 HR (36 pro-rated to a 162 game season) and drive in 144 runs (169). At this point in his career, Choi is not much of a defensive plus in the outfield, and is a likely candidate for either defensive substitution later in games, or for splitting time between the outfield and DH depending on the lineup which In-Sik Kim sets for the tournament.
Joining Choi in the outfield will be the speedster Ah-Seop Son. Son was posted during the offseason before the 2015 season, but received no bids from MLB teams who were worried that his club the Lotte Giants would not make him available for a reasonable sum. Despite the snub, Son posted another strong season in the KBO, batting .317/.406/.472 with 13 home runs. Son was even better in 2016, finishing with a .322/.420/.475 line, 18 home runs, and even swiping 40 bases. Son is a natural corner outfielder with the Giants in Korea, but manager In-Sik Kim, if he is daring enough, may consider starting Son in centerfield, to generate more offense and open up more space for other bats to play the less demanding corner outfield spots.
Prediction: 1st Place
Korea looks like the team to beat in this group. Even with their absences, they have the strongest pitching in Pool A (and easily the strongest bullpan), likely the best defensive club, and arguably the strongest lineup. The Dutch may have the brightest stars, but expect Korea to be the best team when Pool A play ends. Then again, they looked like the strongest team last time too...
Chinese Taipei enters the 2017 Classic after a great deal of turmoil. The WBSC #4 team had a fair showing in the 2013 tournament. They finished with a 2-1 record in opening round play, including a 4-1 victory over Australia as well as an impressive 8-3 knockout against the tournament darling Netherlands. In their final first round game in 2013, Taipei lost a hard fought game to South Korea 3-2, but advanced to the second round based on run differential.
The second round was, however, less kind to Taipei, as they dropped a close 4-3 game to Japan in extra innings before being smashed by 4 Cuban home runs in a 14-0 defeat which eliminated them from contention. Since the 2013 Classic, Chinese Taipei has continued solid showings in international baseball. They claimed the silver medal at the 2014 Asian games, dropping the gold medal match 6-3 to Korea, as well as in the 2015 Asian Championship, finishing 4-1 behind only undefeated gold medalist South Korea (5-0).
Despite the strong showing in 2013 and the solid performances thereafter, the Taipei team found itself embroiled in controversy in the leadup to the 2017 tournament, a controversy which requires a bit of explanation. Taipei’s international baseball operation is run and organized by Chinese Taipei Baseball Association (CTBA). This is the organization which is recognized by the Taiwan Sports Administration, which funds domestic sporting in country, as well as by the International Olympic Committee, and the World Baseball and Softball Confederation. At the same time, however, professional baseball in the country is governed by the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL). You may think of the CTBA and CPBL as the equivalent in Taipei of USA Baseball and Major League Baseball, but critically, unlike in the US, where it is clear that Major League Baseball is the dominant power, with USA Baseball never meaningfully challenging the hegemony of MLB, the CTBA and CPBL have a long and contentious relationship, specifically regarding the operation of the national team.
In the leadup to this year’s Classic, the CTBA and CPBL found themselves at odds regarding the manager for the national team, with the CTBA and the Taiwan Sports Administration favoring current Uni Lions manager, Tai-Yuan Kuo, and the CPBL backing the EDA Rhinos’ Chun-Chang Yeh. Following a 2-1 vote between the three parties in which Kuo was selected as the team’s skipper, the CPBL moved unilaterally to boycott the upcoming tournament, announcing via the Taipei Times:
"The league will respect the Sports Administration’s decision on the national team head coach for the WBC. However, because the Sports Administration did not respect the league, the teams, or the coaches when it was inquiring about possible candidates for the head coach position, and because the CPBL does not get to play a leading role in a tournament that is made up of mostly professional players, we have decided not to offer any support when the national team is training for the tournament."
While the CPBL has boycotted the tournament, it has been left to the discretion of the individual teams whether to allow their players to participate in the tournament. 3 of the 4 have agreed to participate, but, critically, the Lamigo Monkeys have opted to support the boycott and block their players from participating. This is a real gut-wrencher for the national team, as the 2013 team featured 7 players from the Monkeys, and blocked by the boycott include national team starting catcher Hung-Yu Lin, and Taiwanese phenomenon Po-Jung Wang. Wang burst onto the scene in the CPBL last year as a rookie with the Monkeys, authoring a .414/.476/.689 line, and clubbing 29 HR’s (40 pro-rated to 162 games), driving in 105 runs (147), stealing 23 bases (34), and running away with both the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards. Losing out on Wang will hurt Taipei’s shot at an upset, but is also a shame for baseball fans around the world who would have gotten their first look at one of the best up-and-coming young stars outside of MLB.
Not only will Taipei be missing some of the best stars from their domestic circuit back home, they will also be without the services of a number of their potential MLB standouts. Marlins left-hander Wei-Yin Chen has opted to pass on the tournament at the request of his club. Likewise for longtime MLB farmhand Chin-hui Tsao. One name which MLB fans will recognize is Chien-Ming Wang, who will likely be among the top pitchers in the Taipei rotation.
Despite the tumultuous boycott, as well as the absence of big leaguers like Chen, Chinese Taipei won’t be completely left in the lurch, as they’ll still have quality players to call on when it comes time for the opening pitch. Behind Wang in the rotation, Taiwan will be able to call on hurlers Kuan-Yu Chen of the Chiba Lotte Marines, a 26-year old owning a career 3.76 era in NPB, Chun-Lin Kuo of the Seibu Lions, and Chia-Hao Sung of the Rakuten Golden Eagles all of Nippon Professional Baseball, along with Shao-Ching Chiang and Ping-Hsueh Chen, both of whom pitch in A ball for the Indians, and AAA pitcher Wei-Chung Wang, with the Brewers.
Prediction: 3rd Place
The CPBL boycott is a huge blow to the hopes of Chinese Taipei, costing them a number of talented players, including their fledgling superstar Wang Po-Jung. It would have been a tough row to hoe for Taipei to knock off South Korea or the Netherlands with their full squad at their disposal, and given the roster limitations it’s hard to see them having enough offense in particular to pull off the upset. But if the Koreans or the Dutch should hit a stumbling block, Taipei may still have enough hands on deck to take advantage.
While soccer may be the major sport in the mainland European Netherlands, baseball is second to none on the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten. And in the 2013 Classic, the Dutch showed that they weren’t content to keep playing second fiddle in the Caribbean, fielding a young but talented roster which eliminated international baseball powers South Korea and Cuba on its way to a cinderella run to the tournament semi-finals.
Following their remarkable showing in the 2013 tournament, the Dutch continued to show the improved quality of their baseball. The Oranje placed second in the 2013 World Port Tournament, finishing with a 4-3 record behind Cuba’s 5-2, took gold in the 2014 European Baseball Championship 6-3 over Italy, took silver again in the 2015 World Port Tournament losing 5-3 to Cuba, and defended their European Championship in 2016, beating Spain 3-2 in a 10 inning thriller. Coming into the 2017 Classic, the Dutch have again entrusted their squad to San Francisco Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens, who guided the Dutch in both the 2009 and 2013 iterations of the tournament, and has overseen impressive victories over the Dominican Republic, South Korea, and Cuba.
The 2017 Netherlands team would appear to be even stronger than the one that took the 2013 tournament by storm, with many of the young players who lead that squad now established as full fledged stars in the major leagues. The likely strength of the team resides on the infield, where Hensely Meulens will have to find playing time for the talented quintet of Xander Bogaerts, Andrelton Simmons, Jurickson Profar, Didi Gregorius, and Jonathan Schoop. One envies Meulens’ wealth of options, with Bogaerts coming off a .294/.356/.446 season at short for the Red Sox, Simmons posting a .281/.324/.366 line to go along with his all world defense, Gregorius bursting onto the scene for the Yankees with a 20 HR season and Schoop countering with a 25 HR season for Orioles. Even Profar, who has not yet lived up to his billing as a top prospect, remains a talented if inconsistent and enigmatic player. While Meulens may consider platooning to get more playing time for this bunch, look for Simmons get the bulk of the time at SS, due to his top-notch defensive play and strong throwing arm, with Bogaerts perhaps at third, a position he has played with the Red Sox in the past. Second base may likely feature a rotation of the remaining players, at least during the opening round, as Meulens tries to find a hot hand who can take over the position for the bulk of the tournament.
- Xander Bogaerts, Andrelton Simmons, Jurickson Profar, Didi Gregorius, and Jonathan Schoop will make for an outstanding Dutch infield Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
- Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
- Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images
- Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images
- Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Joining the crew in the middle of the Netherlands lineup will also be former Mariners and Reds outfielder Wladimir Balentien. Balentien was once considered a hot prospect when he signed with the Mariners as a 16-year-old out of Curaçao in 2000. Despite being named to the All-Star Futures game in 2007, Balentien struggled in the big leagues, ultimately flaming out after 3 years with a .221/.281/.374 line. But Balentien has found new life with the Yakult Swallows of Nippon Professional Baseball. Since joining the league in 2011, Balentien has been a star, mashing the ball at a .277/.386/.516 clip, and cracking 185 total HR, an average of 30 (47 pro-rated) per season. He even set the single season homerun record in the 2013 season, blasting 60 round trippers to eclipse the mark held by the legendary Japanese batsman Sadaharu Oh (though, as we later learned, a juiced ball may have played a part in the feat). While Balentien is a regular starter in left-field for Yakult, he may find himself as the DH on this Dutch team in order to get better range into the outfield, but regardless of where he finds himself in the field, he is certain to find himself at the heart of the Dutch batting order.
While the star players and top to bottom lineup of the Netherlands will be second to none in Pool A, the pitching will likely be the biggest Achilles heel for the team. Former MLB hurlers Jair Jurrjens, Shairon Martis, and Rick VandenHurk headline the big league names on the rotation, while long-time national team veterans Diegomar Markwell, Juan Carlos Subaran, and Rob Cordemans round out a Dutch pitching staff that is long on the poise and moxie that come with years of international experience, but light on velocity and movement. One bright spot for the Dutch on the mound is that former national team catcher and current All-Star closer has opted to participate in the WBC. Although we likely can’t expect to the multi-inning hero-sized saves we saw from him in this year’s post-season, he will nevertheless provide a huge boost to an otherwise thin Dutch bullpen. A hot hand from one of their starters and a reliever or two beyond Jansen would likely be enough to carry a strong Dutch lineup far. But who will be the moundsman to do it?
- Jair Jurrjens, Rick VandenHurk, and Shairon Martis will have to carry the load for a Dutch rotation with precious few bullets. Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images
- Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images
- How much can the Netherlands squeeze out of Kenley Jansen at the back end of their bullpen? Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
Prediction: 2nd Place
The Netherlands has more high-end star power than any team in the group, and if their talented infield gets on a hot streak, don’t be shocked if they manage to win the pool. Overall, however, the weakness of their outfield, and, critically, their pitching staff relative to Korea makes it look like the Dutch team will have to settle for a second place finish. Since it comes with a ticket to the knockout stage of the tournament, the Oranje will gladly take it.
Israel is not a nation which springs to mind when one thinks of international baseball, or high-level baseball at all. Indeed, there is at present no professional (or even high-level amateur, as in Cuba) baseball league in operation in Israel, and only a single Israeli player, Dean Kremer, has ever been selected in the MLB draft. How then did Israel qualify for the tournament? Well, put on your reading glasses folks, because this is about to get a little technical. Unlike most IBAF sanctioned events, player eligibility rules for the WBC do not require that a player must be either a citizen or a permanent resident of the nation for which he plays, but also allows players who are eligible for the citizenship of a given nation, even if they do not hold citizenship. Now let’s take a trip back to 1950, when the Israeli Knesset passed the Law of Return (חֹוק הַשְׁבוּת) which extended to any individual who could demonstrate Jewish ethnicity the right to immigrate to Israel and to hold Israeli citizenship. These two facts combined mean that any citizen of any nation, so long as he is demonstrably Jewish, is eligible to play for Israel under WBC eligibility rules.
And the Israel Association of Baseball has taken full advantage of the fact, stocking the roster for the 2016 qualifying tournament with solid-if-unspectacular American major and minor leaguers of Jewish ancestry. That team, led by player such as Ryan Lavarnway, Ike Davis, Jason Marquis, and Josh Zeid, swept through the field in the qualifiers in Brooklyn, riding excellent pitching to victories over Great Britain (5-2), Brazil (1-0), and dominating the final, a 9-1 rout in a rematch against the Brits.
And more help would appear to be on the way for team Israel, with the roster that aced the qualifying stages being supplemented by additional players from the North American professional leagues. Big leaguers Ty Kelly of the Mets and Danny Valencia (by way of Jewish-Cuban parentage) look to be sure locks as regular players on the team, while a host of current minor leaguers, such as Ike Davis (Dodgers), Ryan Lavarnway (Athletics), and Jake Kalish (Royals), will bolster the squad.
The biggest story for team Israel is likely those players who were not on the roster. Current Jewish major leaguers such as Joc Pederson, Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, and Kevin Pillar all opted to sit out the classic, or were asked to do so by their clubs. Top Astros prospect Alex Bregman, who is Jewish, is participating in the classic, but instead accepted an invitation from the loaded United States team, a decision for which he can hardly be blamed. These players would have given Israel a real fighting chance to take down one of the favorites of the pool and possibly advance even further beyond. But as is, they’ll likely require a few career performances from their players in order make it past Korea and Netherlands.
Prediction: 4th Place
Ultimately, the Israeli team likely doesn’t have enough pop in its bats or life in its arms to make it past the opening round. Their roster of MLB and MiLB caliber players gives them a puncher’s chance of taking down any team in the pool on a given day, but is likely not enough to consistently hang with the likes of Korea, Netherlands, or possibly even Taipei. If you love an underdog story, Israel is your team to watch in Pool A.