If we have to mention one thing that MLB has actually done well to promote baseball over the world, then it is the organisation of a world cup for baseball teams where teams actually have the possibility to play with the best players available to their country. Officially, the WBC isn’t a world cup, because world cups can only be organised by the WBSC, the World Baseball and Softball Confederation. However, the Classic is probably the best baseball has to offer on international level, and it is organised by the MLB in collaboration with MLBPA and sanctioned by the WBSC, who allows the winner to be named “world champion”.
The WBC was held for the first time in 2006 and now returns after a COVID-prolonged absence of 6 years. In the last edition a strong US team beat a strong Puerto Rican team to achieve their first WBC Championship. This year we will see 4 groups of 5 teams each. Each group plays its games in a specific city and country before the final round is played in the US.
Just like in 2017, the WBC will probably be an interesting and hard fought competition between the best teams, although the majority of American baseball fans might be just lukewarm about the tournament in general. What probably will stand out most is the possible “mercy rule” that is common in international baseball tournaments because of the huge difference between teams and will end a game if one team is either ahead 10 runs after 7 innings or 15 runs after 5.
In this series we will take a brief look at each group and what players we might expect on the different teams.
Group A will play its games in Taichung, Taiwan (Chinese Taipei) from March 8 to March 12. The group favourite is the host nation, who ranks 2nd on the World Baseball Ranking. The group is completed by outsider Kingdom of The Netherlands (7th), former superpower Cuba (8th), Panama (12th) and Italy (14th).
Former Diamondbacks involved in this group are: Hensley Meulens, Mike Harvey, Didi Gregorius (Kingdom of The Netherlands), Yoan Lopez (Cuba), Enrique Burgos, Randall Delgado and Humberto Mejía (Panama), Mitchell Stumpo, Dominic Fletcher and Ben DeLuzio (Italy).
Taiwan (Chinese Taipei)
Taiwan has never managed to achieve great success in the Classic, but is the incumbent Asian Baseball Champion after they surprisingly beat Japan in the 2019 final. It withdrew from the final Olympics qualifier and thus didn’t participate in the 2020 baseball Olympics and actually played their last official international game in 2019, making their high ranking on the World Baseball ranking somewhat artificial.
In their latest participation on the WBC they were knocked out in the first round, losing all games against Israel, Netherlands and South Korea. This year it remains to be seen if they will be able to do any better as their team will lack a real star player from the MLB, unlike several of their opponents in the group.
The WBC team from Taiwan is lead by Yu Chang (officially Chang Yu-cheng), who played for four different teams in the MLB in 2022 and reached a .222/.291/.333 in 168 ABs. He is currently a free agent.
Kai-Wei Teng and Tsung-Che Cheng are two other players active on the American continent, albeit in the minor leagues. Teng pitched to a 5.22 in AA for the Giants affiliate and Cheng achieved a .794 for the Pirates’ Class A affiliate.
The team is completed by 4 players playing in the NPB, 1 with experience in Australia and the rest coming from teams in the CPBL, the domestic baseball league.
Kingdom of The Netherlands
Nevertheless, the team to beat in Group A might be an experienced Dutch team that plays with players from the European continent, The Netherlands, as well as from the Dutch Caribbean islands as Curacao and Aruba.
That leaves the team with a lot of talent, although it is to be seen if all currently selected players will play on the WBC, due to their free agent status (Jurrickson Profar) or pitching limits (Kenley Jansen).
Just like in 2017 former Diamondback Hensley Meulens will manage the team and is supported by great former players like Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven (born in The Netherlands), who serves as the pitching coach, and Andruw Jones (father of current D-Back Drew Jones), who will be the bench coach. Former Diamondbacks pitching coach Mike Harvey (2014-15 in Arizona) has joined the Dutch team as well as bullpen coach.
Currently the roster is carried by veterans Andrelton Simmons and former Diamondback Didi Gregorius (both free agents), but also by “superstar” and Padre Xander Bogaerts. Tigers’ Jonathan Schoop and former Padre Jurrickson Profar complement an MLB-loaded roster, where Meulens will face the tough task of giving each infielder a spot in the lineup. Former Giant catcher Chadwick Tromp is on the roster as well, just like closer and now Red Sox’ Kenley Jansen. Other current MLB-players are Joshua and Richie Palacios and with Rafaela the Dutch will have one of the best prospects in the MLB with them. But a lot more big names will take part, such as former MLB-er Roger Bernardina, NPB homerun king Wladimier Balentien and former MLB-er Pedro Strop who pitched for the Dominican Republic not that long ago. Braves’ infielder Ozzie Albies, on the other hand, will miss the WBC due to rehab.
In the last two editions The Netherlands ended 4th.
Once a superpower, Cuba had lost its superstatus in the international field, proved by their failure to qualify for the baseball Olympics for the first time in history. Prediction for this WBC was that Cuba wouldn’t be able to beat Taiwan nor The Netherlands, but a recent announcement from MLB that it would allow current MLB players to play for Cuba generated some new hope.
However, Cuba itself announced that it wouldn’t allow players that defected while on the national team to represent the country. Some players would state that they didn’t want to represent Cuba. That has left Cuba without some big names as Raisel Iglesias, Yuli Gurriel and his brother and current Diamondback Lourdes Gurriel Jr..
Former Met Yoenis Cespedes is one of the bigger names on the roster, complemented by MLB-players as Andy Ibañez (now Tigers), Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert (both White Sox), pitchers Roland Bolaños (Royals), Roenis Elías (Cubs), but also NPB slugger Oliver Despaigne. Former Diamondback Yoan Lopez (now Yomiuri Giants) is one of many players either playing in Asia or with experience in Asia.
Cuba ended as runner-up in the first edition of the WBC in 2006, but after that stranded in the 2nd round of the following tournaments.
And in case you are wondering: no, Yasmany Tomas is not on Cuba’s roster.
Panama was the favourite in one of the final two qualifiers for the WBC and beat out Nicaragua (that also qualified in a lucky loser match against Brazil). That means the team will return to the WBC after it missed the 2017 edition after going down in a qualifier against Colombia. In the editions 2006 and 2009 edition it got knocked out in the first round.
Panama isn’t the favourite in this group, but has enough talent to give up a good fight. Unfortunately, as we publish there is no official roster announcement or preselection from Panama, but former major leaguer Ariel Jurado will probably be the headline of the roster, complemented by former Diamondbacks Enrique Burgos, Randall Delgado and Humberto Mejía.
Mike Piazza is probably the biggest name on Italy’s squad, albeit as the manager of the team. In the past the team had Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo and former Diamondback Daniel Descalso playing for the Azzurri, but this year Italy lacks a real big name.
Although their (temporary) roster hasn’t been announced either, team Italy did make announcements on several commitments from MLB-players like Blue Jays’ pitcher Jordan Romano, free agent Trey Mancini, Matt Festa (Mariners), David Fletcher (Angels), Nicky Lopez and Vinny Pasquantino (both Royals). Also interesting is the inclusion of Diamondbacks minor leaguers Dominic Fletcher and Mitchell Stumpo. Ben DeLuzio, former Diamondback, has also committed.
Italy reached the second round in 2013, but in all other editions it didn’t get out of the first one.