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Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - I know I am in the minority, but I am looking forward to the upcoming World Baseball Classic. I am sure it's because I'll take any kind of baseball fix that I can get right about now, but either way, I am into it.
In case any of you had forgotten since the event was last played three years ago, the WBC is a 16-team tournament that will feature some of the best baseball players in all of the world competing for their countries and/or territories for the right to lay claim to true world baseball supremacy.
In the inaugural event, Japan, led by a virtually unknown left-hander named Daisuke Matsuzaka, steamrolled its way to a championship, upending international baseball powerhouse Cuba in the final at Petco Park in San Diego.
Matsuzaka became a household name at the 2006 event, as he won all three of his starts while pitching to a 1.38 earned run average on his way to MVP honors. Of course, Dice K's performance led to a monster six-year contract with the Boston Red Sox nine months later.
Like in 2006, the teams have been divided into four pools of four teams. Pool A will consist of Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei and China, while South Africa, Mexico, Cuba and Australia comprise Pool B. The United States, Venezuela, Italy and Canada make up Pool C. Pool D, meanwhile, will feature the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Netherlands and Panama.
The tournament's format is a bit different this year than it was three years ago. Rather than the Round-Robin format employed in 2006, Round 1 will be double-elimination - the first two teams to lose twice will be eliminated.
From there, the pool winners and runners-up will advance to the second round of the tournament. Round 2 will also be double elimination. The first two teams to lose twice will be eliminated, and the remaining teams advance to the semifinal round in Los Angeles.
The championship game will be played on March 23 at Dodger Stadium.
For the most part, fans in the United States did not embrace the event the first time around. The team did not help the cause any either, as they failed to get out of the second round.
I again expect the fanfare to come from the international crowds, specifically in Japan and Puerto Rico, where Hiram Bithorn Stadium will be rocking. Hopefully that enthusiasm follows to Chavez Ravine on that final weekend.
Maybe I am crazy, but to me it seems like a win-win situation for baseball. Especially since this is now the only true world baseball competition, as the sport will not be contested at the Olympics for the foreseeable future.
Then again, this is always going to be viewed as glorified spring training over here. There really is no solution to that, as major league teams are not going to allow their players - especially pitchers - to go full bore.
No matter when these games are played - before the season, after the season, during the All-Star break - that is something that is just not going to change.
The Korean government rewarded the team's performance in 2006 by releasing each player from the country's mandatory military service requirement. Those players may have been playing for their lives three years ago. How much sleep do you think Derek Jeter is going to lose if the U.S. goes out early?
I'd say that goes for a lot of baseball fans over here. And that too, is a big reason why this probably won't catch on here anytime soon.
Whatever, I am just glad we are going to have some actual baseball to talk about the next few weeks.
Now let's take a look at the participating countries and their chances:
FAVORITESUNITED STATES: I loved the United States when I saw the roster, but injuries have taken their toll over the past couple of days, as relievers Brian Fuentes, B.J. Ryan and Joe Nathan have all pulled out of the event along with outfielder Grady Sizemore. New manager Davey Johnson should still have the best lineup of any team competing, and should still have plenty of depth with former MVPs Jimmy Rollins and Chipper Jones coming off the bench. This time around, the U.S. will also have the luxury of playing three exhibition games before the tournament begins. The United States only played one game together before the Classic started in 2006. Some people felt that part of the team's problem three years ago was that manager Buck Martinez continuously shuffled his lineup with mid-game substitutions, like you normally would see in an All-Star Game. Johnson has already said he does not intend to do that. The pitching staff is not as deep as it was a few days ago, but anything less than the semifinals should be looked at as a major disappointment.
JAPAN: The defending champs are arguably the team to beat once again. In addition to Dice-K, Seattle outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, Chicago Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome and Tampa Bay infielder Akinori Iwamura will all participate. One player to keep an eye on for Japan will be 22-year-old right-hander Yu Darvish, who is the country's best pitcher now that Matsuzaka is in the United States. Darvish has electric stuff and most think this will be his international stage coming-out party, similar to Dice-K's in '06. The legendary Sadaharu Oh managed this team three years ago, but is sitting out this year due to health concerns. Instead, Tatsunori Hara will guide the team.
KOREA: Korea was the surprise of the 2006 WBC, as it went a perfect 3-0 in Pool play before bowing out to eventual champion Japan in the semifinals. The Koreans carried their strong effort into the 2008 Olympics, where they captured the Gold Medal, beating Cuba in the championship game. Leading the charge for Korea will once again be In-Sik Kim, who served as manager the first go-round. Korea's most prominent major leaguer will be Cleveland Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, who was one of the final cuts on the 2006 roster. However, right-hander Chan Ho Park, who threw 10 scoreless innings and recorded three saves for Korea in the 2006 Classic, will sit out this time, as will slugging first baseman Seung Yeop Lee, who tied Ken Griffey Jr. for the 2006 Classic lead in RBI with 10.
CUBA: Always a threat in the world of baseball. Cuba has competed in five Olympics, winning three gold medals and two silvers, while winning the International Baseball Federation World Cup 25 times since its inception in 1938. However, the baseball powerhouse has come up short in big games of late. Cuba fell to Japan in the 2006 WBC championship game, then dropped the Gold Medal game at the 2008 Beijing Games to Korea. Plus, a big part of the 2006 team will not be on hand for manager Higino Velez in this year's event. Pitcher Yadel Marti has reportedly been kicked off Cuba's top league team after he was caught trying to defect to the United States. Marti earned all- Classic honors in '06 after going 1-0 with two saves and a 0.00 ERA in 12 2/3 innings during four games. With Marti apparently not in the mix, Pedro Lazo and Ormani Romero will carry the load on the mound. Offensively, Cuba will be led by outfielder Yoandy Garlobo, who hit .480 in 2006, the fourth-best average of any tournament participant and the second-highest among players with at least 20 at-bats, trailing only Griffey's .524 mark in 21 at- bats for the USA.
CONTENDERSDOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Just when I thought I was done talking about Alex Rodriguez for awhile, he goes and becomes the story just as the WBC is ready to kick off. In case you missed it, A-Rod has a cyst on his right hip that will be evaluated by specialists in Colorado. MLB has said that Rodriguez will still play, but you have to think the Yankees are going to do everything in their power to put a stop to that. The Dominicans have as strong a lineup as anyone in the tournament with Rodriguez, but without him, it is ordinary. Not to mention the pitching staff is horrendous. They should still get out of their pool with or without him, but going any further than that is probably going to be a problem. Keep an eye on Pedro Martinez, as he will use this tourney as an audition to land a major league job.
VENEZUELA: If you are a fan of the Detroit Tigers, you are going to love the Venezuelan team. Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen are all playing for Luis Sojo's club. I would have loved their chances to win the whole thing had Johan Santana and Carlos Zambrano elected to play, but even without the big aces, Venezuela's pitching is as good as anyone's in the tournament. I would not be shocked if this team finds itself at Dodger Stadium on the final weekend.
PUERTO RICO: The one team that could spoil the Dominican Republic's Pool D party is host Puerto Rico, which will be managed by Jose Oquendo and features a roster chock full of big-league stars such as Alex Rios, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and the reigning NL Rookie of the Year, Geovany Soto. Puerto Rico had a strong showing in the inaugural Classic, finishing 4-2 and advancing to Round 2 where it lost to Cuba in the deciding game. Oquendo's club is not as deep this time around and could be in trouble from a pitching standpoint. It will be interesting to see how veterans Bernie Williams and Ivan Rodriguez perform, as both try to rejuvenate big league careers. Either way, Puerto Rico should be a lock to advance out of this pool with the DR.
SLEEPERSCANADA: Canada is loaded with major league talent, but its biggest problem is that it is in a pool with two powerhouses, the U.S. and Venezuela. However, should they steal a game from one of them, things could get interesting. The Canucks' chances, though, could have been much better had pitchers such as Seattle's Erik Bedard and the Chicago Cubs' Rich Harden and Ryan Dempster elected to participate. Still, the Canadians will be led by Boston's Jason Bay, the Dodgers' Russell Martin and Minnesota's Justin Morneau. Canada, which should have a huge home-field advantage at Rogers Centre, finished 2-1 in pool play in '06, but one of those wins came against the U.S.
MEXICO: Mexico had a strong showing at the 2006 WBC, as it went 3-3 overall and eliminated the United States. However, it did not get past the second round. One of its top hitters from three years ago, Vinny Castilla, will manage the team, which could consist of nine players born in the United States, including San Diego Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez. Other big league players who are being counted on to appear include Jorge Cantu, Matt Garza, Yovani Gallardo, Oliver Perez and Joakim Soria - the Mexicutioner. Mexico, which will have a decided home-field advantage at Mexico City's Foro del Sol, has a real shot here. At the worst, they should advance out of their pool to Round 2.
NO SHOT AT ALLNETHERLANDS: It's pretty sad when Andruw Jones cannot even make this roster. Sidney Ponson is probably the biggest name on the team, but unfortunately for the Netherlands, this is a baseball competition and not a beer pong tournament.
PANAMA: No Mariano Rivera, no chance.
AUSTRALIA: Australia is hoping for a better showing this year than it had in 2006 when it dropped all three games in pool play, while scoring a total of four runs and hitting a paltry .113 as a team.
CHINESE TAIPEI: This is the World Baseball Classic and not the Little League World Series.
ITALY: You know your team might be in trouble when your hitting coach is the most recognizable person - and probably the best player - in your dugout. Mike Piazza, who played for Italy in 2006, will serve as Marco Mazzieri's, batting coach this time around.
CHINA: Still a neophyte in the baseball world, China lost all three of its WBC games by a combined score of 40-6. After opening the event with Japan, China will likely be fighting elimination in game two against Chinese Tapei, the only team it was able to beat at the past Olympics.
SOUTH AFRICA: Probably the worst of all the 16 teams in the tournament. After nearly upsetting Canada in its first game in '06, South Africa lost its next two games by a combined 27-4 count to the United States and Mexico. Things won't get any easier this time around, as there is not one player on South Africa's roster who has reached the major league level.
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