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WBC Preview: Pool B

Japan looks the favorite over depleted Cuba in a Pool B filled with teams in transition.

Pool B will kickoff March 7th from the spectacular Tokyo Dome, where the host nation of Japan finds itself as the heavy favorite, despite boasting a roster drawn exclusively from the domestic NPB league and missing the tournament’s single biggest show-stopper: the electric Shohei Otani. Meanwhile, Cuba finds itself staggered as departures from the island have weakened the once formidable Red Machine. Both Japan and Cuba will try to hold off a challenge from pool underdog Australia, while baseball neophyte China looks for a strong showing to help build the game back home.


Japan

“Samurai Japan” (侍ジャパン) enters the 2017 classic not just as heavy favorites in Pool B, but as legitimate contenders to take home the nation’s 3rd WBC title. Japan finished 3rd in the 2013 Classic, taking home the bronze medal following a 3-1 semifinal defeat at the hands of an underdog Puerto Rico. Since the 2013 tournament, Japan has continued its strong run, taking the bronze medals in the 2015 Asian Baseball Championship, the 2015 Premier 12, and winning a best-of-five series in 2014 against an MLB ensemble team 3-2.

Despite the strength of the team (and the IBAF world #1 ranking), Japan finds itself a very different squad than the one we last saw in 2013. And that change starts at the top. Following the retirement of legendary national team manager Sadaharu Oh in 2009, Japan has brought different managers to each of the last two tournaments, with Tatsunori Hara guiding the 2009 team, and Koji Yamamoto manning the dugout in 2013. This uncertainty may be over, as new skipper Hiroki Kokubo has led the team in team in all major events since taking over in 2013. A former player and Japan Series MVP as recently as 2011, Kokubo appears to have taken to his managerial role quite easily, and maybe he’ll finally be the one to fill the shoes of the legendary Oh.

Japan v Netherlands - International Friendly
Former MVP Hiroki Kokubo looks to provide stability at the top for Japan.
Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

The roster which placed 3rd in 2013 has also undergone tremendous turnover. Of the 28 players who donned the pinstripes for Japan in the last tournament, only 5 remain on the current roster; OF Seiichi Uchikawa, P Kazuhisa Makita, 2B/3B Nobuhiro Matsuda, 1B/OF Sho Nakata, and SS Hayato Sakamoto. Moreover, the Japanese team will be without the serviced of MLB standouts such as Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, Hisashi Iwakuma, or Koji Uehara. Indeed, only a single MLB player finds himself on the Japanese roster: new Houston Astros OF Norichika Aoki returns for his third go around with Samurai Japan after winning gold in both the 2006 and 2009 tournaments.

World Baseball Classic 2009 - Japan v Cuba
Norichika Aoki is the sole MLB representative on team Japan.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Even lacking its MLB stars, Japan was still poised to bring the single biggest showstopper of the entire tournament in the form of their 22 sensation Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani, the native of Iwate in Oshu prefecture, has been a revelation on the domestic baseball scene, authoring some of the most impressive individual accomplishments ever seen. Ohtani uncorked a 99 MPH pitch while still in high school, and eventually topped out in NPB throwing the hardest ever recorded pitch in that league at 102.5 MPH. Beyond simply throwing the ball through a brick wall, Ohtani has also shown that he is on the rise as a pitcher, lowering his ERA in each of his four professional seasons in NPB and likewise increasing his K/9. Last season, Ohtani established himself as the best pitcher in Japan, going 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA, 0.957 WHIP, and 174 strikeouts in an even 140 innings pitched. And that was just on the mound. In addition, Ohtani played regularly between starts as the DH for the Hokkaido fighters and posted an eye-popping .322/.416/.588 line and cracked 22 home runs (34 pro-rated for 162 games). He was named the Pacific League’s All-Star pitcher and DH. Sadly, for both Japan and the baseball loving world, Ohtani announced on February 3rd that an ankle injury he had suffered during during game 4 of the Nippon Series had not been healing as he had hoped, and that, as a result, we would not be able to participate in the Classic.

While the loss of Ohtani will bring a tear to the eye of baseball fans around the world, as well as a sigh of relief to fans in Sydney and Habana, Japan still boasts the most talented roster of any team in Pool B, and that strength begins in the rotation. The top two spots will likely be held down by the combination of Tomoyuki Sugano and Takhiro Norimoto. Sugano will take Ohtani’s place as the team ace, and while he may not replicate Shohei’s WOW factor or two-way impact, he will give Japan a fine pitcher at the top of their staff. Sugano has the kind of body North American fans expect from pitcher, standing at 6’0’’ and 190 pounds. He likewise has the stuff of a frontline starter. Sugano was a flamethrower in his youth, topping 98 MPH as a college player and regularly hitting 96 during his first few years with the Yomiuri Giants. Elbow damage in the 2014 season sapped some of that velocity, but he still regularly throws in the mid to low nineties and can still top 95 when he reaches back. Sugano couples that good heater with a bevy of secondary pitcher, including a cutter, slider, curveball, forkball, sinker, two-seamer, and has even begun working on a changeup. With Ohtani out of the way, the 27-year-old Sugano looks like a star ready to burst onto the international scene.

Norimoto is of slighter build than Sugano, but he has comparable velocity, topping out at 97 and regularly sitting in the mid-nineties. Norimoto, like many Japanese pitchers, throws a splitter as his big out pitch, as well as a curve, slider and change. After posting consecutive seasons with a 2.91 ERA, Norimoto is well established as one of the top starters in NPB, although there is some speculation that manager Kokubo might opt to use Norimoto primarily out of the bullpen as a long reliever as well as occasional spot starts. In an interview with Nikkan Sports, Kokubo further suggested that any remaining starts would be made by Chiba Lotte Marines righty Ayumu Ishikawa and Fukuoka Hawks youngster Shota Takeda.

While the Japanese lineup should see solid contributions from its big league outfielder Aoki, as well as from NPB stalwarts such as Sho Nakata and Seiichi Uchikawa, if the offense is going to put enough runs on the board to take Japan deep into the tournament, they're going to need a lot of production from one of their brightest young stars, Tetsuto Yamada. At just 24 years of age, Yamada is a relative newcomer for team Japan, but he has put together quite a resume in his first 5 seasons with the Yakult Swallows. A career .318 batting average, 109 career home runs, including 38 in each of the last two seasons, 30 stolen bases in each of those campaigns as well. And all of that from a second baseman! Yamada would slot nicely as the 2B for team Japan, but Hiroki Kokubo has hinted that he may opt for Yamada to play as the team’s DH in the absence of Ohtani and start Ryosuke Kikuchi, a superior defensive player, in the field at 2B.

Mexico v Japan - International Friendly
Testuto Yamada is arguably the brightest young non-MLB player in the Classic.
Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

Prediction: 1st Place

Japan brings a competitive team built on the back of one of the strongest pitching staffs in the whole tournament. They figure to be the favorite not only in group B, but a team on the short list of top WBC contenders, even without their crown jewel Ohtani or their other MLB stars. With Cuba already announcing they will hold top starter Lázaro Blanco out of the CUB-JAP game in favor of the match against Australia, Pool B looks like Japan’s to lose.


Australia

Australia does not have much of a reputation for baseball, at least to fans in the United States. But the cricket and rugby power has nevertheless managed to carve for itself a nice niche in the world of international baseball. In 2004, for instance, the upstart Australians went on a cinderella run to the silver medal at the Athens Olympics which saw them knock of a Japanese squad featuring 6 future big leaguers (including Hisashi Iwakuma, Hiroki Kuroda, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Koji Uehara), and push Cuba to the brink in the gold medal game before bowing out in a 6-2 loss that seemed to signal the arrival of Australia as a new player of import on the world stage.

Mens Medal Ceremony
Silver medalists at the 2004 games, Australia seemed poised to make a splash in world baseball.
Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

But the World Baseball Classic has been another matter for the Aussies. Competing now not only with high level players from Japan, Korea and Cuba, but also with the world’s best from the big leagues, the Australian team has competed solidly, but has been met with little success, going a combined 1-8 across the 3 tournaments, including an 0-3 showing and last place finish in Pool B at the 2013 tournament. That flat showing meant that Australia would have to qualify for the 2017 tournament, but in that regard, they had a leg up over their competition, because WBC Qualifying Round 1 would be held in Blacktown Baseball Stadium in Sydney, Australia.

Team Australia entered with a roster featuring the best of their domestic baseball scene from the Australian Baseball League, as well as a number of Australian players who had made their way stateside, including Royals reliever Peter Moylan, Tigers farmhand Warwick Saupold, and retired former big league outfielder Trent Oeltjen. Australia put on a strong showing in the double elimination qualifying tournament, routing an overmatched Philippine squad 11-1, scoring a solid 4-1 victory against South Africa, and following it up with another win against the same South African club in the final, this time by a considerably more comfortable 12-5 score.

World Baseball Classic - Australia Qualifier - Day 4
With a solid rebound from their 2013 tournament in the 2017 qualifiers, the Aussies are returning to the Classic.
Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

Australia will bring much the same roster to the Classic as it did to the qualifying round, although they will add Oakland Athletics right-hander Liam Hendriks into the fold. Although Hendriks has been used exclusively as a reliever over the previous two years in the big leagues, years which have seen him come into his own, manager John Deeble may opt to use Hendriks as a starter (supposing the A’s sign off on it). Hendriks has started in the past, and it would likely be in Australia’s best interest to get the most out of their most talented pitcher. If Hendriks is unable, unwilling, or blocked by his club from starting, look for longtime team Australia contributors Chris Oxspring, Dushan Ruzic, and Ryan-Rowland Smith to slot into the rotation.

Chicago Cubs v Oakland Athletics
A’s pitcher Liam Hendriks could provide a big boost to a thin Australian staff if he were willing to don his starter’s cap again.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

For the Australian offense, Trent Oeltjen will likely have to keep up his heavy hitting from the qualifying round to carry an offense that is quite light on solid bats. Oeltjen put up an overwhelming .556/.615/1.000 line during the qualifier, driving in 5 runs. Production like that will be an absolute must if Australia is going advance. Other offense will have to come from IF Tim Kennelly, who led the ABL in OPS, OF’s Mitch Dening, and Aaron Whitefield, who paced the circuit in batting average at .340 and .338 respectively.

World Baseball Classic - Australia Qualifier - Day 4
Trent Oeltjen will have to lead an Australian offense in need of contributions from a lot of unlikely heroes.
Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

Prediction: 3rd Place

Australia slots in solidly ahead of China, but it still remains a likely 3rd place finisher behind Japan and Cuba, lacking either the top end pitching or power hitting to break through against the top two clubs. That said, while taking down Japan likely remains beyond their reach, from Australia’s perspective, Cuba has never been more vulnerable, and may never be again, with the prospect of MLB reinforcements for future classics a serious possibility. The time has has never been more ripe for Australia.


China

China is newer to baseball than any other team in the WBC. Baseball was first introduced into China in the 19th century due to contact with American sailors, but, following the Chinese Civil War, baseball was banned in China in 1960 at the onset of the cultural revolution and declared a “bourgeois indulgence for the rich." Following the lifting of such restrictions in 1974, baseball never truly caught on in China, and remained a mostly forgotten game until 2001. In that year, the IOC announced that the 2008 Olympic games would be held in Beijing, China, and therefore, China would automatically qualify to compete in all sports, including baseball. There followed a rush to create a domestic league in China, and, in 2002, the Chinese Baseball League was founded.

It is not altogether unexpected, then, that the Chinese national team has struggled. They have finished no higher than 3rd (2005) at the Asian games, no higher than 10th (2005) at the Baseball World Cup, and no higher than 11th at the World Baseball Classic. The first WBC was a shock for a Chinese team accustomed to facing low level or amateur players in international competition. They were mauled by their rivals in Pool A, losing 18-2 to eventual gold medalist Japan, 10-1 to bronze medalist South Korea, and 12-3 to Chinese Taipei in a loss that couldn’t have been good for international morale. The 2009 tournament went a bit better. Despite another 14-0 walloping at the hands of South Korea, China played a much closer game in a 4-0 loss to Japan, and even managed to get some revenge on Chinese Taipei, springing a 4-1 upset against their international rivals. In 2013, we saw a similar outcome: a lopsided 12-0 loss to Cuba, but also a relatively competitive 5-2 loss to Japan, and even a 5-2 victory over a Brazil team featuring several MLB and MiLB players.

China v Brazil - World Baseball Classic First Round Group A
Team China celebrates their victory against Brazil in 2013.
Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

For China, more than for any other team in the tournament, a quality result is less about wins and losses, and more about competitive and exciting games which draw the interest of fans watching back home and can help to build up the game of baseball. While the Chinese Baseball League is still not strong enough to mount a serious threat to any of the teams in this group, China does have a few players at their disposal in their upset bid.

Chinese-American SS Ray Chang returns to team China for his 3rd WBC. The son of Chinese parents, Chang has embraced the opportunity to play for team China, and has served as the catalyst for some of China’s limited success in the Classic. In 2009, against Chinese Taipei, Chang went 3-4 with a homerun and 2 runs driven in to spark China’s upset. Chang was just as good in China’s victory over Brazil, posting another 3-4 day at the plate, and driving in two more runs on a double. While Chang is now 33 and currently not affiliated with an MLB club, he remains one of the more talented players on the Chinese roster, and they will need him to be in his prime WBC form if they’re going to score another upset (or more).

China v Brazil - World Baseball Classic First Round Group A
American born Ray Chang has given his all for his adoptive club in the WBC. They’ll need it again.
Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images

Joining Chang on the infield is Gui Yuan Xu. For China, Xu is exactly the kind of story they hope to see more of in the coming years. Xu was a phenomenon in the China National Youth Baseball League, winning the MVP award in 2012 (at 16) and 2014 (at 18). From there, he was signed by the Baltimore Orioles out of the MLB Development Center in China, the first player (hopefully of many) to sign with an MLB team from that program. Although his first year in the Orioles minor league system was rocky, seeing Xu finishing with a .247/.271/.284 line and struggling mightily in the organization’s abortive attempt to convert him into an outfielder, for baseball development in China, the story of Xu is already a success. Now China hopes he can top it all off with a solid showing in the Classic to demonstrate to fans back home how the domestic baseball development programs can produce not only players that MLB teams are interested in, but also who can contribute to the growth of the national team.

The weakness of its pitching staff has been one of the biggest issues for team China in every World Baseball Classic, with the team accumulating a ghastly 7.34 ERA across 76 WBC innings. It was, therefore, a great boost to the Chinese team’s hopes in 2017 when it was announced that former MLB pitcher Bruce Chen was coming out of retirement to pitch for China. The longtime MLB hurler was born in Panama to Chinese parents, and had hoped to pitch with China in the previous Classic before getting bogged down in the application process and being unable to play. This time, even in retirement, he will likely slot in as China’s top starter, and if he can muster up one last big league effort, he might give China the boost it needs to edge out one of the other teams in the group.

Cleveland Indians v Kansas City Royals
Longtime MLB hurler Bruce Chan will don the reds for China.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Prediction: 4th Place

China simply doesn’t have the talent to hang with the other Pool B teams, but they may well have enough talent to keep the games close, and with some luck, perhaps score the upset they’re looking for. While it would be the biggest upset in the group, a miracle against East Asian rival Japan would be the ideal scenario for China.


Cuba

The 4 years following the 2013 WBC have not been kind to domestic Cuban baseball. The trickle of players leaving the island which began in 1991 with the departure of René Arocha has become a torrent in recent years, with 2015 seeing over 150 ballplayers leave Cuba to establish residency elsewhere. This exodus has not passed over the members of the national team. The 2013 team WBC, already missing potential stars and contributors such as Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Céspedes, or Yasiel Puig, has been decimated by player departures. Of the 28 man roster for the tournament, a full 10 players are, as of present writing, no longer Cuban nationals, including the starting 1B (José Abreu), 2B (José Miguel Fernandez), SS (Erisbel Arruebarruena), 3B (Yulieski Gurriel), RF (Alexei Bell), CF (Guillermo Heredia), DH (Yasmany Tomás), and set-up man (Raisel Iglesias).

Cuba v Netherlands - World Baseball Classic Second Round Pool 1
Guillermo Heredia (17), Yulieski Gurriel (10), José M. Fernández (8), and José Abreu (79) are just of few of the talented players to leave their Cuban reds behind in the past few years.
Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

This drain of talent from the national team has left Los Nacionales as an intriguing, but inconsistent team, unable to boast the kind of depth and volume of talent which was once a given. Cuba captured gold at the 2013 World Port Tournament with a 5-2 record, as well as the 2015 World Port Tournament and 2015 Serie del Caribe, but finished a disappointing 6th in the Premier 12 Tournament and 3rd of 4 in the 2016 Serie del Caribe. That said, they are coming into the Classic off a solid 3-2 showing in the 2017 Serie del Caribe.

In assembling the roster for the 2017 Classic, one of the biggest topics of discussion was the possibility of a “Unified Cuban Team” including both domestic stars from the Serie Nacional as well as big league stars such as Abreu, Céspedes, or Chapman. There seemed to be support from many involved parties. Cuban baseball commissioner Heriberto Suárez said that “everything is on the table” regarding a unified team, with Antonio Castro chiming in “Don’t separate Cuban players. They’re all Cubans.” Many players seemed to agree, such as Yasiel Puig, who opined “That's my dream right now, to go back and play for the Cuban team.” Particularly eye opening were the words of longtime Sancti Spíritus and team Cuba star Frederich Cepeda, who told Cuban press:

“Baseball has lessened a bit in quality in our country because of the great exodus of players which we have had. If all [of them] had the opportunity to play for Cuba, we would have one of the strongest squads in Latin America. They grew up in Cuba. I think, in the future, these things [between the US and Cuba] can improve, and these athletes can play again for their country. I’m sure they want to very much.”

Such quotes reveal a groundswell of support for a unified Cuban team, but unfortunately for the 2017 squad, the creation of such a team requires a lot of soul searching on both the part of the US, as it pertains to the embargo and formal relations with Cuba, and the part of Cuba, as it pertains to the legal status of defectors and expatriates. While the hope of a rejuvenated and reunified Big Red Machine remains alive for the 2021 WBC, Cuba will, at present, have to make due with its domestic players.

While the loss of so many talented players to the North American professional leagues has hurt the overall quality of the Cuban team, there are still a number of talented players on the team, and none will be more important to Cuban fortunes than Granma and Fukuoka Hawks slugger Alfredo Despaigne. Despaigne is a veteran of two prior Classics in 2009 and 2013, accumulating a .314 average and cracking 4 home runs as Cuba’s LF, a role he will fill again the 2017 tournament. Despaigne is the record holder for home runs in a single Serie Nacional season with 36 (56 pro-rated), and was once one of the most fearsome sluggers in international baseball. The wear and tear of 12 years worth of Serie Nacional, WBC, Olympic, and countless other games have taken a bit of the thunder from Despaigne’s bat, but he remains a force in the center of the Cuban lineup. If Cuba hopes to advance beyond the first round, and to go further from there, they will need a vintage performance from Alfredo Despaigne.

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks v Cuba - WBC 2013 Friendly
Alfredo Despaigne will have to make up for a lot of lost power from the 2013 Cuban team.
Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

Despaigne will be joined by one other veteran of the Cuban lineup in Frederich Cepeda. Cepeda is, along with Carlos Beltrán of Puerto Rico, the only player to have competed in all 4 Classics dating back to 2006 and he has excelled in each. Coming into the 2017 tournament, Cepeda either leads or is tied, among qualified batters, in all time WBC home runs (6), hits (31), doubles (8), walks (15), total bases (46) RBIs (23), runs scored (17) and is second all time in OPB at .547. Like Despaigne, Cepeda is not the fearsome batsman he once was, but he remains a solid offensive player, and he will likely find himself right at the heart of the Cuban batting order.

Joining these veterans in the lineup will be a couple of Cuban greenhorns including 1B Guillermo Avilés and OF Victor Mesa Jr., but none will have more pressure nor more of a spotlight than the 19 year old from Granma Yoelkis Céspedes. Yoelkis, the younger half-brother of former team Cuba and current New York Mets star Yoenis Céspedes, is coming off an age 18~19 sophomore season with his native Granma where he opened a fair number of eyes and drew comparisons to his brother, batting .297/.361/.460 and displaying a number of the same physical tools. Take a look at the throwing arm from right to third.

As well as the flair for the dramatic in the outfield.

While the power of Yoelkis at the plate is not at this stage of his career comparable to Yoenis (Yoenis had 15 home runs in his age 18 season, compared to Yoelkis’ 6), the similarity of their builds and physical makeups means that it is not out of the question that Yoelkis may develop into a comparable, if not quite as powerful, hitter.

The Cuban pitching staff will likely be one of the stronger points of the team. Manager Carlos Martí has already announced that he will use Vladimir García, Vladimir Baños, and Lázaro Blanco as his 3 starters, and each is capable, though García and Blanco figure to get the bulk of the high leverage games. García is a long time member of the national team, and a veteran of 2 prior classics. One of the harder throwers remaining in Cuba, García in his youth could top out around 97 on the gun, especially as a reliever. Today he sitsin the mid to low 90’s, but can still fire a few off in the guts of the game.

Blanco, on the other hand, is a more convoluted story. Blanco came up with Granma as a long lanky righthander (he stands 6’4’’) with decent but not overwhelming velocity, a good slider, and not much else. And for much of the beginning of his career, he struggled, posting a dismal 6.37 ERA over the first 8 seasons in the Serie Nacional. Either he had reached rock bottom, or something must have finally clicked, because coming into the 2012 season, Blanco had scrapped his 4-seam fastball for a 2-seamer and dropped his arm angle significantly (to both left and right handers). All at once, he was a different pitcher, posting a 3.69 ERA in 197.2 innings. He followed it up with seasons of 2.77, 3.46, 3.47 ERAs, and last season, after scrapping his forkball in favor of a true changeup, he authored a Cuban season for the ages, offering up a miniscule 1.63 ERA and staking his claim as the best pitcher on the island. Team Cuba can only hope that Blanco’s transformation is for real, because they will need ace caliber pitching if they hope to take out Japan and the others who might await in round 2.

Prediction: 2nd Place

Cuba looks to be a day late and dollar short when it comes to taking down Japan at the top of Pool B. They nevertheless have the talent to hold down the 2nd spot and advance, though they will have to fend off a hard charging challenge from an Australian team which might smell a little blood in the water. A strong showing by Despaigne and Cepeda would go a long way towards solidifying Cuba as the Pool’s clear #2.