Don’t look now, but the World Baseball Classic is just a day away! To commemorate the occasion, we’ll be provided coverage of the tournament here at PSA, starting with a preview series on the four pools that will make up the group stage. The top two teams in each group of five will advance from the group stage into to the quarterfinals. It’s sure to be a fun event, culminating with the final on March 21.
Let’s start with a look at Pool A. Note that each team in each pool for our previews will include links to the current roster, how they fared during the most recent WBC in 2017, and where Baseball America ranked them among the 20 competing teams.
Baseball America Ranking: 14
2017 Result: Eliminated in first round (0-3 overall)
Old friend Chien-Ming Wang joins Taiwan as bullpen coach for this year’s cup run, hoping to help them improve upon a 2017 performance that saw them faceplant to a winless finish after entering the tournament ranked fourth in the world. Having spent some time in the AL East, infielders Yu Chang and Tzu-Wei Lin may be the only bats immediately recognizable to stateside fans — Chang is their only player currently on a big league roster — but don’t let ignorance bring your guard down, because this is the top-seeded team in the pool for a reason. Look for sluggers like Li Lin, Chieh-Hsien Chen, and Po-Jung Wang to potentially hog the spotlight on their own turf, while pitchers like Chih-Wei Hu, Wei-Chung Wang, and C.C. Lee bring MLB experience to a young pitching staff that has arms scattered throughout affiliated baseball. Given the nature of their exit in 2017, this is a squad that ought to have a chip on their shoulder this time around.
Baseball America Ranking: 10
2017 Result: Eliminated in second round (2-4 overall)
Six years after a team bereft of MLB stardom reached the second round of the Classic only to be swept in three games, the Cuban national squad has some reinforcements this time around. They’ll be arriving in the form of White Sox cornerstones Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert Jr., neither of whom were in the majors at the time of the 2017 tournament, and Yoénis Cépedes, who still seems to have plenty of time for baseball when Brodie Van Wagenen isn’t involved. Tack on legendary slugger Alfredo Despaigne, who never made it to the States but has a highly successful NPB career under his belt, and cup-of-coffee MLB infielders Andy Ibañez (currently in camp with Detroit) and Erisbel Arruebarrena, who recently became one of the first players to return to the Serie Nacional after defecting to the USA, and you’ve got a lineup with plenty of name recognition to match its punch.
The Cubans are somewhat lacking in MLB pitching — Roenis Elías is their only staff member to have more than the lightest cup of coffee at that level — but as with Chinese Taipei, that shouldn’t fool you. With several pitchers good enough to ply their trade successfully in Japan and Mexico on top of the Serie Nacional, their staff is as deep as any in Pool A. Of particular interest to American observers may be a trio of relievers who have been positively electric in the second-best league in the world: Liván Moinelo (1.03 ERA in 52.2 IP for Fukuoka Softbank in 2022), Raidel Martinez (0.97 ERA, 55.2 IP, Chunichi), and Yariel Rodríguez (1.15 ERA, 54.2 IP, Chunichi) will have a big say in how far their side goes in this tournament.
Baseball America Ranking: 12
2017 Result: Eliminated in first round (1-3 overall)
Notably, Italy is managed by Mike Piazza, whose rocky history in Italian soccer does not appear to have bled into the baseball side of his relationship with his mother country. Gli Azzuri enter this tournament with their lowest ever international ranking, and perhaps the most difficult pool assignment of the tournament: This is the only group in which they’d own the lowest rank. That’s what happens when you entrust your infield to the Kansas City Royals. I kid of course, though while first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino looks to be primed for a breakout 2023 as much as anybody else in the tournament, you’d have to try pretty hard to come up with a more punchless middle infield than the Nicky Lopez-David Fletcher combination they’re poised to go with this month.
Perhaps more notable than Piazza’s presence is that of Matt Harvey, who didn’t pitch in the big leagues in 2022 amid a suspension stemming from court testimony in the trial of Eric Kay. Harvey made 28 starts and threw 127.2 innings for Baltimore in 2021, his highest in several seasons, but was rocked for a 6.27 ERA along the way. Outside of Pasquantino, young Milwaukee outfielder Sal Frelick is the only other prospect of note on the Italians’ roster, which will need their help to reach the heights it did in earlier iterations of the WBC.
Kingdom of the Netherlands
Baseball America Ranking: 8
2017 Result: Lost in semifinals (4-3 overall)
The Dutch have a challenging road ahead of them if they want to see the WBC semifinals for the third time in a row, but they’ve got a roster built for it. MLB dugout veteran Hensley Meulens helms the Netherlands for the third straight tournament, and also for the third straight tournament, he’ll be joined by Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven as his pitching coach. Blyleven has his work cut out for him, as Kenley Jansen is the only pitcher he’ll have who’s currently slated to suit up for a big league team. But more than a decade removed from his last substantial MLB playing time, Jair Jurrjens is back in pitching shape, as is Pedro Strop, who pitched for the Dominican Republic the last time the WBC rolled around.
This team is still ranked seventh, though, because their lineup is as chock full of big leaguers. They’ll get to build their lineup around Xander Bogaerts for the second straight tournament, and we in the United States will get what will probably be our last good look at Wladimir Balentien, who remains Nippon Professional Baseball’s single-season home run king. Jonathan Schoop and Jurickson Profar can still hold their own more than enough with the bat, and Didi Gregorius and Andrelton Simmons may yet have some life left in theirs.
Baseball America Ranking: 15
2017 Result: N/A (last made WBC in 2009)
Panama makes its return to the WBC for the first time in 14 years, when they lost the only two games they played in a tournament format hardly resembling what we’re about to watch this year. It would be pretty awesome if the greatest Panamanian pitcher of them all felt like showing us if he’s still got it, but even without him, they’ve got a pretty solid collection of pitchers, dotted with major leaguers including Jaime Barría, Javy Guerra, Randall Delgado, and Justin Lawrence. Their lineup has a couple present-day big leaguers stocking the middle, and after Christian Bethancourt and Jonathan Araúz, they’ll have a few blasts from the pasts backing them up in Ruben Téjada and Allen Córdoba.
The 2023 World Baseball Classic kicks off (along with Group A action!) this Tuesday night when Chinese Taipei hosts Cuba at 10 PM ET. We’ll see you there!
PSA WBC previews