Gerardo Parra y Wilson Álvarez - @WilmerReina, via Twitter
The first two qualifying groups are done: advancing to the second phase are Japan, Cuba, Taipei and the Netherlands. The final two groups kick off on Thursday, here in Phoenix and in Puerto Rico. Let's take a look at the latter four teams.
Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Spain. One of these things is not like the other... I do wonder why, when organizing the groups, Brazil ended up playing in Japan. Seems more logical to have Brazil here, since Spain have to move to another continent regardless. Still, I guess we can call this the Spanish speaking group instead. You'll perhaps be glad to hear I'm not redoing the "cultural" thing; mostly because I don't think I've ever seen any movies from the three Latin American countries. So, instead, here's a fairly straightforward and traditional look at the four teams in Pool C.
Probably the favorites to qualify from the group, they finished third in the tournament last time out, reaching the semi-finals before falling to the South Koreans. MVP and Triple Crown winner (these two things may be related), Miguel Cabrera, anchors their offense which looks capable of scoring quite a lot of runs. Indeed, here's a potential starting eight for them - tell me this doesn't look scary?
- C. Miguel Montero
- 1B. Miguel Cabrera
- 2B. Omar Infante
- 3B. Pablo Sandoval
- SS. Elvis Andrus
- LF. Martin Prado
- CF. Carlos Gonzalez
- RF. Gerardo Parra
It's the pitching where the Venezuelans might struggle. It would have helped had Felix Hernandez been present, but he withdrew - reportedly because of pressure from the Mariners, who didn't want anything to happen to their new $175 million man. Which exemplifies the problem with the WBC: it's clearly secondary to the major-leagues, and when the clubs demonstrate that so obviously, the fans here in North American can't be blamed for following suit. That leaves Anibal Sanchez and Jhoulys Chacin to anchor the rotation, and it's pretty thin after that for Venezuela, in terms of starting pitching, with Carlos Zambrano a shadow of his former self.
This will, however, be the team of most interest to Diamondbacks' fans, with three members of our team on the roster, and all likely to see a good bit of playing time. Arizona has some concerns about where Prado might play, since they intend to use him at third in the regular season: he has promised to take ground-balls there each day to ensure he keeps his eye in, sensible considering he could be gone for two weeks if Venezuela reached the semis again. Montero wants to go even further: "We want to win it all. We don't believe in second place. For me, second place is the first loser, and I don't like losing."
Credit is due to the Puerto Ricans for doing a bang-up job of getting everyone out for the tournament - no-one born there who posted more than 0.5 bWAR last year is not part of the roster. They have finished fifth in both previous WBC events, qualifying from the initial pool stages without losing a game in 2006 and 2009. Last time out, they were edged by the United States 6-5 in an elimination game, just three days after crushing them by an 11-1 margin. But against Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, they might find it tougher to get through this time around. Here's a possible starting eight for them:
- C. Yadier Molina
- 1B. Martin Maldonaldo
- 2B. Irving Falu
- 3B. Andy Gonzalez
- SS. Mike Aviles
- LF. Alex Rios
- CF. Angel Pagan
- RF. Carlos Beltran
Much like the Venezuelans, the pitching looks a great deal weaker than the offense. Reliever Javier Cedeno is the only one who played in the majors in 2012 and put up a positive bWAR, so the approach here will likely be a cunning plan called "outscoring the opposition." Diamondback interest is comparatively light: Nelson Figueroa, who is with the team in spring training, and who pitched for the team in 2000, is the only member of the playing roster. However, Carlos Baerga, who appeared in 184 games for the team in 2003-04, will be one of the coaches for Puerto Rico. Wil Nieves was eligible - but since so were the Molinas, that unsurprisingly went nowhere.
Despite having more major leaguers than anyone else, the Dominican team were stunningly eliminated in the first round last time out, losing twice to the Dutch, both times in one-run games. They'll be keen not to go out so ignominiously this time, hoping for a performance more in line with the 2006 tournament, where they reached the semi-finals and finished fourth. But they'll have to do it without Pujols: having missed out four years ago, he was apparently ruled out due to a procedure on his knee in October. A procedure which hardly seem to be affecting him in spring training, but there you go... Still, they have plenty of talent, as can be seen by this potential set:
- C. Carlos Santana
- 1B. Edwin Encarnacion
- 2B. Robinson Cano
- 3B. Erick Aybar
- SS. Hanley Ramirez
- LF. Moises Sierra
- CF. Alejandro de Aja
- RF. Nelson Cruz
Stop me if you've heard this one before: the hitting looks rather better than the pitching, especially in the absence of Johnny Cueto, who did play in 2009, but was blocked by the Reds from appearing [It seems that, if the player ends the season with an injury, his team has a full right to veto their participation, even if they're now perfectly fine]. Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez will be their starting pitchers of note, and if nothing else their bullpen includes two of the best names in the World Baseball Classic, in Atahualpa Severino and Pedro Strop. No AZ players, but Junior Noboa, our Vice-President of Latin Operations, is a coach.
2012 major-leaguers born there: 0
Major-leaguers on roster: 0
Leading stars: Barbaro Canizares
And then there's the wild outsiders in the group, a county which last saw a major-league player born there in 1998, when Danny Rios pitched five games for the Kansas City Royals. Spain made it through a qualifying pool in Florida last September, edging out Israel 9-7 in extra innings, after having lost to them 4-2 two days previously. The pool also included South Africa and France. Spain finished only ninth in the 2010 European Championships, but has finished third in all the others since 2001, the Netherlands and Italy variably coming first and second.
I won't bother with a line-up because, let's face it, I'd be taking a wild stab in the dark. Even the official WBC site doesn't seem to have a clue, saying "Spain's most-prized talent, Alejandro Sanchez, signed a seven-year deal with the Atlanta Braves prior to the 2010 season." They apparently couldn't be bother to do some Googling, or they'd have discovered that Atlanta apparently didn't prize him all that much, because Sanchez was released by them after hitting .188 over 24 games in rookie ball. Canizares is a Cuban defector of Spanish origins, who played five games for the Braves in 2009, and Rhiner Cruz pitched three games for the Astros.
Spain adopted the Israeli approach of scouring for possible citizenship, in particular using a law called Ley de Memoria Historica, which lets anyone whose grandparents were exiled from Span to claim citizenship - and anyone who left between 1936 and 1955 is presumed exiled. But they didn't seem to have much luck - they weren't able to get Jon Jay and Raul Ibanez to commit, and have only eight players on the 28-man squad that are even affiliated with a major-league team. In a very tough group, not getting mercy-ruled or shutout three times will be a victory. But one of the great things about baseball is, you never know...