2017 WBC Preview: Pool B

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When the World Baseball Classic was first created it was assumed that the Americans were going to easily win.

The other battle was going to be to see who could come second among all of the other teams that scrounged together teams with a few MLB players.

The Japanese changed that thought quickly though as they seemingly came out of nowhere and took home the first ever title.

Then they repeated in the second year of the tournament and all of a sudden the USA was no longer the power people were trying to beat.

Japan became the target and they became the team to beat in international baseball which then made them the place to look for new talent.

The MLB is a league where teams are consistently looking for ways to get ahead and finding a new talent pool to pick from is a good way to get ahead.

Teams began looking to Japan and Nippon Professional Baseball to find the new stars and that was exactly what they got.

After the WBC in 2006 MLB teams found their way to Japan and out of that came Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kosuke Fukudome, Koji Uehara, and Yu Darvish.

There were players in the league before 2006 but a bigger influx came when MLB teams got to take a look at players like Matsuzaka and Darvish and see just how good they were.

The dominance of the Japanese through the first two tournaments launched a new era in the league and a new understanding of the game beyond North America.

Japan wasn’t necessarily the only country that got attention though as a new wave of players from Cuba began to defect to the USA after the 2006 tournament.

Much like the Japanese, the Cubans had plenty of history in seeing their top stars play for the MLB despite the issues in moving from Cuba to the USA.

They have long been a place where massive amounts of talent reside but after 2006 it seemed like Cuba became more of a destination for scouts.

Since that time Cuba has turned into a country that constantly brings a bidding war for their top prospects.

Cubans have had to defect for years but despite that massive hurdle teams began to offer big paydays to some of the most promising young players.

In the years following the first tournament players like Alexei Ramirez, Jose Fernandez, and Aroldis Chapman made their way to the USA.baseball-sidebar

Despite their long history as a baseball power, they have yet to take home a WBC title, although the tight rules about defecting have hurt them in the past.

Both of these teams head into another tournament looking like the two teams to beat in the pool as they easily have the most talent.

Despite their talent, there are two more teams looking to make an impact and possibly get a little of the momentum that both Japan and Cuba enjoyed after 2006.

Australia may not be a baseball power but their amateur sports structure is simply the greatest in the world.

When it comes to any sport they can be contenders and they may not have taken over baseball but they aren’t without their MLB stars.

Meanwhile, China is the one place that everyone is looking to no matter the sport or the league.

There is a lot of untapped talent from the country and as the league expands they look to a new region to find talent.

This is a chance for the Chinese to show just how good they can be while the world, and the MLB is watching.

With a great performance, they might be the next country that becomes a destination for MLB scouts.

All four of these teams will look to prove that they can be the next power in international baseball.

It is not going to be easy as there is talent throughout the pool and as they travel to the Tokyo Dome in front of a raucous crowd they will look to emerge as a favourite.

Only two will make it out though as Pool B is made up of teams from countries that are either major pipelines or hope to become major pipelines.

After all, this tournament may be for a title that every team wants but it is also a way to showcase the talent from around the world.

australia

Australia is a country that has become widely known for their ability and willingness to produce great amateur athletes. They are considered a country with one of the best amateur sports structures in the world and that is seen every four years at the Summer Olympics. Australia is a constant contender in the games and that included the Olympic Baseball tournament. They were never the most successful team winning silver only once but they were always in the fight every four years. That development in baseball continued beyond the Olympic tournament as they found their way to the World Baseball Classic. They have remained in the WBC every year and are always a team with some interesting potential although they have reached that potential in any of the tournaments. They hope to change that this year as the Aussies are trying to get at least one win this time around and with some emerging MLB talent they have a chance. They are led by their pitching staff, which includes their biggest concentration of MLB talent. The leader will be Liam Hendriks who has solidified himself as a reliever in the MLB. He will be relied upon out of the bullpen alongside another major leaguer Peter Moylan. Much of the rest of their pitching staff will look to minor leaguers and former MLB starters like Ryan Rowland-Smith to help them improve on their 2013 performance. It will need to be as the pitchers have been the issue for Australia in past tournaments and they need to be better to have any success. The offence hasn’t been much of a hurdle though despite their lack of MLB talent as international veterans like Stefan Welch and newcomers like Aaron Whitefield are likely to keep their good offence going. The biggest challenge for this team, though, will be their pool with two international powers and a rising country to deal with. They won’t make it out of the pool but they could get a win and that chance comes against China with the results determining if they qualify for the next tournament. That should be the goal for the Aussies this time around as they won’t be able to get by Cuba or Japan but qualifying for the next tournament is an accomplishment and an improvement on 2013. If they can get that one win this tournament will be a success although they aren’t going to be walk-overs with every team needing to focus or an upset could be pulled off.

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china

In a pool of teams that have either established their baseball history or their sports history, China is the outlier. That is only because China has become the target for every league in terms of expansion and scouting. Every major league in every sport wants to travel to China to hold big games and want to find the next Chinese superstar. It is a massive untapped market and everyone is staring at it hoping it can take them to the next level. The MLB is no different but their work has been done far before and the fruits of that labour are beginning to show. China continues to develop in every sport and baseball is no different as the game continues to grow. As the game grows more players are getting more attention and it seems like China is right on the cusp of a change. Much like Japan was before the first WBC but there is still some work to do before China becomes the next pipeline. A lot of that work will be done this year in the tournament as they hope to prove that they have the talent to be the next pipeline. The young talent won’t be the leaders though as China will have come veteran presence. That will be evident in their pitching staff where Bruce Chen, who was born in Panama but will play for China to honour his parents, leads the rotation. The 17-season MLB veteran will be the unquestioned leader while other MLB players like Vance Worley and Austin Brice create a solid rotation for the Chinese. Where their talent will be seen is in their offence as they will need to shine through id this team wants to move past pool play this time around. Kolton Wong will be their most experienced player as he comes in with a few years of MLB experience. They will also look to their brightest young star in Xu Guiyuan who is a part of the Baltimore organisation. The Chinese will benefit from some transplants finding their way to the Chinese team, especially in the rotation, but the difference for this team will be in their Chinese talent. These are the players that will need to step up and help this team move past the pool stage. Without that type of performance, it is going to be hard for China to move on as there are some strong teams in this pool and a win could be tough to get.

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cuba

The MLB has seen a massive influx of Caribbean players into the league over the last decade and all are making a big impact. The start of this could be pointed to one island where baseball is easily the most popular sport throughout the country. The MLB is full of Cuban stars and some count among the best in the game but there is one big problem with the pipeline from Cuba to the MLB. That is that for years the Cubans had to defect from the communist Cuba to the USA in order to achieve their dreams. This has also affected the national team as the government has put into place a rule that states that any player defecting to the USA is not eligible to play for Cuba. That leaves the Cuban national team without their best players as players like Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Aroldis Chapman. Instead, they go with players in the Cuban national league which has become a favourite place for MLB scouts. The Cuban league is a good one but the biggest question they get heading into any tournament is what would this team be like if they were allowed to have all of their players? A team like that is full of all-stars and could make a serious run at the title while one without has a lot more questions surrounding them. Cuba is a great producer of talent and they will test that in the Classic starting with their offence. Without some of the best power hitters on their team, they will need to find runs from other places. One of those places could be Yoelkis Cespedes, brother of Yoenis, who is looking like a potential MLB player in the future. Meanwhile, international veterans like Frank Morejon and Alfredo Despaigne will need to carry part of the load to produce runs. On the mound, the Cubans won’t miss a lot of arms although having Chapman would certainly help. They will rely on Vladimir Garcia who was one of the best pitchers in the Cuban League and returns for another Classic as a sure leader for the rotation. The Cubans are still full of talent and many playing this year could be in the MLB at some point which will help them get through the pool stage. Beyond that, the inexperience and lack of their best talent leave questions about a run for the title.

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japan

There may have only been three World Baseball Classics but there is already a dominant team in the tournament. That team is Japan who has taken two of the three titles and started this experiment off with surprise that not many saw coming. They proved that they were the real baseball power and it started a new focus on the world outside of the USA. Japan became the biggest and best place to find new talent especially when it came to pitchers. There were players that became legends and then found their way to the MLB where they became some of the best players in the world. Every year it seems like there is another player like this and the bidding wars only seem to get bigger. That constant talent production has made them one of the best pipelines for the MLB and no matter how many MLB players they bring to these tournaments they always have the talent to compete. They will prove that once again this year as they put together a team with one MLB player and a number of great players from the Nippon league. That won’t hold them back though as they do not rely on MLB players to win championships and this year their team without MLB talent still seems like one of the best. The pitching is once again their strength as Tomoyuki Sugano will lead the pitching staff with his seven pitches. They will hurt from the loss of Shohei Ohtani who was seen as the best player, not in the MLB but Sugano is a more than capable leader although in their exhibition games, even with Ohtani, they were lit up leaving some doubt about their dominance. Their offence will have plenty of power to help their pitching though as a number of starters have hit more than 20 home runs last season. Players like Seiya Suzuki and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo should provide power while lone MLB player Nori Aoki should provide his share of offence as well. The Japanese are still one of the best teams in the tournament and they should make it out of the pool stage. Where they go from there is a big question though as their pitching did look suspect in their exhibition games and they are without their best player. They should be able to make a run at another title but they will likely fall just short of their third title.

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Prediction:
Pool B is a group full of teams that have either proved to be pipelines for the MLB or that could become pipelines for the MLB. All have sent some teams to the major leagues while two of them are regular visits for scouts. The two potential pipelines aren’t there yet and so they will be interesting to watch but neither have the talent to compete and win the pool. China is developing but won’t be able to beat the Aussies who will take third. Meanwhile, the two big names will come through with Japan’s pitching staff coming out on top. Cuba is good but they are inexperienced and their lack of MLB talent will make them fall to second place.

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