It’s World Baseball Classic time! The international baseball tournament is back for the first time since 2017 and features some of baseball’s most stacked lineups maybe … ever.
In its fifth edition, the World Baseball Classic will start on March 8, with pool play spanning Japan, Taiwan, Florida and Arizona and featuring 20 teams. Two will advance out of each pool to compete in the quarterfinals in Tokyo and Miami. From then on, games will be played in Miami, with the semifinals on March 19 and 20 and the championship game on March 21 to conclude the tournament.
Which of the top teams will prevail?
Will Mike Trout help the United States defend its 2017 title? Can Japan win its third championship with Shohei Ohtani at the helm? Or will a stacked Dominican Republic team headlined by Manny Machado and Juan Soto secure a second title?
We ranked all 20 competitors — from those with the best chance at winning to those that are just happy to be there. ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez, David Schoenfield and Bradford Doolittle explain the rankings, identify a player to know for every team and give us an MLB equivalent for each of the top squads.
Let’s dive in.
Best chance to win
1. Dominican Republic
Why it could win it all: I mean, just look at that lineup. Even with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. withdrawing because of a knee injury, the position-player portion of the Dominican roster boasts 32 trips to the All-Star Game, 19 Silver Sluggers and five Gold Gloves. The likes of Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano, now in the late stages of their respective careers, absorbed a sizable chunk of those accolades. But this team is decorated with numerous superstars in the thick of their prime — Machado, Soto, Rafael Devers, Julio Rodriguez, Wander Franco, Jeremy Pena. It’s exhausting.
The only question here is how Dominican manager Rodney Linares will divvy up playing time, especially at second base, third base and shortstop, all of which are incredibly crowded. The pitching staff is almost as lethal, led by reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara and featuring a plethora of legitimate, late-inning bullpen arms (Rafael Montero, Gregory Soto and Camilo Doval, just to name a few).
Player to know: Cristian Javier burst onto the scene in Game 4 of the World Series, throwing the first six innings of a combined no-hitter. It was the lasting image to what had already been a brilliant season for the 25-year-old right-hander with a devastating fastball. Javier, originally obtained for $10,000, has since signed a five-year, $64 million extension with the Houston Astros and is poised to take the next step as one of the most dominant arms in the sport during the 2023 regular season. First, he’ll serve as a key member of the Dominican Republic’s starting rotation, which also includes Johnny Cueto and Roansy Contreras. It’s still March, so Alcantara can’t carry this staff the way he did the Miami Marlins last season. If the Dominican Republic is going to live up to lofty expectations, Javier will probably have to dominate too.
MLB team it reminds us of: The 2023 New York Mets — if they had signed Carlos Correa. The presence of Correa would have given the Mets a ridiculous — and borderline unfair — amount of talent throughout their lineup, to go along with a devastating top of the rotation and an intimidating back end of the bullpen. That’s this year’s Dominican Republic squad. It’s loaded with premium defenders, dangerous base stealers, prodigious sluggers and some of the best pure hitters in the world, all backed by a deep cast of proven power arms. There’s a reason the DR is the prohibitive favorite.
2. United States
Why it could win it all: The U.S. is the defending champ and rolls out a lineup that is the strongest it has ever assembled in the World Baseball Classic and includes Trout for the first time. Indeed, while social media has initiated a love affair with the Dominican team and the Dominicans rank No. 1 here, based on 2022 numbers, the U.S. lineup is stronger. Using wRC+, the U.S. team features the No. 3 hitter from 2022 (Paul Goldschmidt), No. 4 (Trout), No. 8 (Nolan Arenado), No. 12 (Mookie Betts), No. 14 (Pete Alonso) and No. 16 (Jeff McNeil). Oh, plus it has the best catcher in the game in J.T. Realmuto, NL home run leader Kyle Schwarber and two of the best all-around players in Trea Turner and Kyle Tucker. This lineup is absolutely stacked and has to rank as one of the best in the sport’s history, whether in the WBC or even All-Star competition.
Player to know: Brady Singer. There is no clear ace on the U.S. team, and manager Mark DeRosa might rely on St. Louis Cardinals veterans Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas in the biggest games, but keep an eye on Singer. He arguably had the best 2022 of any of the U.S. starters — it just came with the Kansas City Royals, so nobody noticed. The U.S. has a deep bullpen led by Devin Williams, Ryan Pressly, Jason Adam, Daniel Bard and Adam Ottavino, but the starters will need to deliver as well.
MLB team it reminds us of: The 2022 Los Angeles Dodgers, who led the majors in both runs scored and fewest runs allowed. Other teams can match or top the U.S. in starting pitching, but no team has the overall pitching depth of the U.S. from one through 15. Of course, we all know what happened to the Dodgers in the postseason.
Why it could win it all: Japan has won the World Baseball Classic twice already and returns with what might be its best, most balanced roster yet, featuring a compelling blend of proven major league talent, young NPB stars and veteran Japanese players who know what it’s like to navigate tournaments like these. We know the likes of Ohtani, Yu Darvish and Lars Nootbaar. But Masataka Yoshida signed a five-year, $90 million contract with the Boston Red Sox this offseason and is a great pure hitter. Munetaka Murakami has won back-to-back Central League MVPs and is still only 23 years old. Yoshinobu Yamamoto is considered the best pitcher in Japan, coming off back-to-back Sawamura Awards (the NPB equivalent of a Cy Young). And Roki Sasaki might be even better.
Player to know: Major league scouts and executives are already salivating at the prospect of someday getting their arms around Sasaki, a 21-year-old right-hander who throws his fastball in the triple digits and nearly threw back-to-back perfect games last season. Sasaki finished the year with a 2.02 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 129⅓ innings. Murakami, meanwhile, posted a .318/.458/.711 slash line and accumulated a record 56 home runs. Late last season, while talking about the prospect of facing one another in the WBC, Ohtani told Trout he probably wasn’t the best pitcher nor the best hitter on Team Japan. Trout didn’t believe him. Soon, after getting an up-close look at Sasaki and Murakami, he just might.
MLB team it reminds us of: The 2001 Seattle Mariners. Led by a Japanese rookie named Ichiro Suzuki, those Mariners didn’t boast the sexiest of rosters, but they did everything well. They slugged, hit for average, stole bases, played sound defense and pitched extraordinarily well. By the end of the season, they won a whopping 116 games, establishing themselves as one of the most dominant teams in recent memory. That could be Samurai Japan.
Why it could win it all: Venezuela probably has the third-best lineup in the tournament and is especially loaded in the middle infield with Jose Altuve, Andres Gimenez, Luis Arraez and Gleyber Torres. If it wants to get all those bats in the lineup, it can slide Gimenez to shortstop, Arraez to first and let Altuve DH (with Eugenio Suarez or Eduardo Escobar at third base). Ronald Acuna Jr., Salvador Perez and Anthony Santander add power. Venezuela has had talented teams in the past but has reached the semifinals just once in four WBCs (back in 2009). The team has never had this kind of starting pitching depth, however, with the likes of Martin Perez, Pablo Lopez, Jesus Luzardo, Eduardo Rodriguez, Luis Garcia and Ranger Suarez — deep enough that some of that group can be used in relief.
Player to know: Acuna’s power was down last season as he returned from ACL surgery in 2021. This will be an opportunity to show everyone he’s back at full strength and still one of the best players in the game — and he certainly has the firepower to carry the offense if he gets hot.
MLB team it reminds us of: The 2017 Houston Astros, who had a deep and balanced lineup, including a stellar middle infield duo of Altuve and Correa. When the bullpen faltered early in the playoffs, they still had so much starting pitching depth that manager A.J. Hinch was able to use them out of the bullpen as the Astros won the World Series. Let’s just hope Venezuela leaves the garbage can out of this comparison.
5. Puerto Rico
Why it could win it all: After finishing second in the past WBC, Puerto Rico will try to channel some of the swagger of the 2021 Mets, with a flashy middle infield of Javy Baez and Francisco Lindor, as well as Edwin Diaz lurking at the back of the bullpen. Speaking of swagger: Manager Yadier Molina will channel his unique mix of bravado and intensity in a new role. While a number of key hitters for Puerto Rico are coming off subpar performances — Baez, Eddie Rosario, Kike Hernandez — that also means they have a lot to prove. And Molina has a filthy bullpen to work with in Diaz, his brother Alexis, Jorge Lopez, Alex Claudio and Emilio Pagan.
Player to know: MJ Melendez is looking to build on his solid MLB debut from last season, and he can mash. While he isn’t likely to see a ton of time behind the plate on a roster that includes Martin Maldonado and Christian Vazquez and is overseen by Molina — one of the great defensive backstops in history — Melendez should figure into the corner outfield/DH mix as one of the few lefty swingers on the Puerto Rico roster.
MLB team it reminds us of: The 2015 Royals. Lots of aggressive hitters, flashy defense and athleticism and a bullpen that can close things out if you get a lead into the middle innings. And, also, a group of starters — led by Jose Berrios and Marcus Stroman — that you just hope can get the ball to that bullpen with the game on the line.
They’ll be competitive
How it stays competitive with the top teams: Like Japan, Korea has the advantage of being placed in Pool B, where it figures to outclass Australia, China and the Czech Republic to advance out of pool play. Once in the quarterfinals, Korea can attack opposing staffs with a contact-heavy lineup that has surprising pop. Tommy Edman and Ha-Seong Kim will be among the key table-setters, and if Korea can get runners on base, we’ll all see how dynamic this overlooked lineup is when Jung Hoo Lee, Baek-ho Kang and Jeong Choi get their hacks.
Player to know: Lee is the reigning KBO MVP. He’s similar to Wade Boggs, having hit .342 so far in his career as a lefty with ridiculous bat control and contact skills. And his power has been developing as well. Rumors are we could see him in MLB before too long, so get to know him now.
Style of play: A lot of Americans were exposed to the KBO in 2020, when MLB was shut down during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. What we saw was a circuit where home runs matter, of course, but there was also a premium on getting the ball into play and moving baserunners. If Korea goes on a deep run, we should see that firsthand.
How it stays competitive with the top teams: Mexico doesn’t feature a lineup as deep as the favorites in the WBC, but there is plenty of punch in a group led by outfielders Randy Arozarena, Alek Thomas, Alex Verdugo and Jarren Duran. There is also the potential for one of the top rotations in the WBC with Julio Urias, Patrick Sandoval, Jose Urquidy and Taijuan Walker. However, with strict usage limits on WBC starters, Mexico might have to hang on for dear life with an uncertain bullpen, especially once it hits the quarterfinals. Getting sizable early leads will be key.
Player to know: Thomas has been one of the better outfield prospects in the game for a couple of years, and in 2022, he got his first taste of big league ball with 113 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks. An agile, pure hitter in the minors, Thomas will have a chance to boost his confidence level heading into his sophomore campaign.
Style of play: Maybe it’s because of Fernando Valenzuela, but the first thing that springs to mind is starting pitching, and that will certainly be key to this year’s run for Mexico in the WBC. But is it also too reductive to say that the baseball itself is just … fun? Last week, according to MLB.com, Red Sox teammates Duran and Verdugo were asked to give a presentation about Mexican baseball at Boston’s spring camp. They brought in a mariachi band for the occasion. You gotta love it.
How it stays competitive with the top teams: It’s very simple for Team Cuba: Its stars — Luis Robert, Yoan Moncada and Yoenis Cespedes, the latter of whom has not played in the major leagues since 2020 — will have to get hot and carry the team. Cuba was once among the global standards for baseball excellence, but an exodus of top-shelf talent over the past decade or so — coupled with economic hardships throughout the island and an insular governance that often shelters Cuba from the rest of the world — has brought with it a massive drop-off in the overall quality of play. Cuba, though, will be helped by playing in a pool that also includes Italy, the Netherlands, Chinese Taipei and Panama. Cuba should survive that part of the tournament. After that, it’ll get really difficult.
Player to know: Robert isn’t just the best player on Team Cuba; by the end of the year, we might be wondering if he’s one of the best players in the world. Robert — like Cespedes a dozen years ago — is strong and agile in ways few baseball players ever are. And now, his age-25 season, could be the time when he taps into his true potential. Chicago White Sox manager Pedro Grifol lent his voice to that earlier in spring training, saying: “This guy has an opportunity to win an MVP, in my opinion. If he puts it all together, it’s special.” The World Baseball Classic might be our first glimpse at that.
MLB team it reminds us of: This might seem random, but it’s the 2018 Oakland Athletics, who slugged only .286 against pitches 95 mph and above, one of the worst marks since the new millennium. And if there’s one major weakness for Team Cuba, it could be that; the decrease in baseball talent on the island has meant its hitters are simply not used to seeing much velocity. That A’s team, however, was fundamentally sound, ranking among the best defensive teams in the sport that year. The Cuban players won’t hurt themselves. There’s still a lot of good coaching instruction on the island.
How it stays competitive with the top teams: If the tournament is moved to Saskatchewan and played on ice? OK, there are a few familiar names here, including Freddie Freeman and Tyler O’Neill — and a team of mostly Canadian minor leaguers did beat the United States in a memorable contest back in 2006 — but simply advancing out of pool play and into the quarterfinals would be a huge accomplishment. Cal Quantrill, coming off an excellent season with Cleveland, is the staff ace, but Nick Pivetta had to withdraw, a severe blow to the pitching staff. There are some interesting prospects in catcher Bo Naylor (Cleveland Guardians), infielder Edouard Julien (Minnesota Twins) and outfielder Owen Caissie (Chicago Cubs). Adam Loewen, then a top prospect with the Baltimore Orioles, was the winning pitcher in that 2006 victory over the U.S., and he’s back at age 38, having last played professionally in 2018.
Player to know: Julien came in at No. 100 on Kiley McDaniel’s top 100 prospects. He’s a left-handed batter who played at Auburn and hit .300 with 98 walks and 17 home runs at Double-A. His defense at second base is a question, but his bat will get him to the majors.
MLB team it reminds us of: The 1982 Toronto Blue Jays. Canada has never advanced out of the first round and was outscored 21-3 in three games in 2017. Freeman and O’Neill will have to carry the offense, but the lineup is a little better with prospects and fringe major leaguers like Abraham Toro and Otto Lopez. As much as I’d like to compare Canada to the 1993 Blue Jays, it’s probably more like the ’82 team — interesting but not yet good enough.
How it stays competitive with the top teams: Teams that eke out low-scoring, close games have often gone far in the WBC. That feels like the formula that the Netherlands will need to stick to if it is going to once again reach the semifinals. There doesn’t figure to be a ton of strikeouts on this pitching staff, but if the team can collectively limit hard contact and keep the ball on the ground, an infield stocked with big names — Didi Gregorius, Jonathan Schoop, Andrelton Simmons and the newly enriched Xander Bogaerts — can take care of matters.
Player to know: Brothers! We all know about Jurickson Profar, but what about his brother, Juremi? They’re both on the Netherlands roster. Likewise, Jonathan Schoop is a well-established big leaguer, but have you watched his brother, Sharlon? You can see them together for the Netherlands in the WBC. Finally, the Palacios brothers — Josh and Richie — are both on the squad.
Style of play: We’ll see, but if the squad takes on the traits of its coaching staff, we’ll be in for a treat. Manager Hensley Meulens has Bert Blyleven and Andruw Jones on his staff. So maybe we can expect plenty of unhittable curveballs and off-the-charts defense in center field.
You never know …
11. Chinese Taipei
What needs to go right: Long known for its success in the Little League World Series, Chinese Taipei has its own professional league that was established in 1989 and has had success in other international tournaments, including a win in the 2019 Asia Baseball Championship. Chinese Taipei has the added benefit of hosting Pool A, which includes Cuba, the Netherlands, Italy and Panama. It’s the most wide open (and weakest) group, so home-field advantage could help Chinese Taipei advance out of the first round for the second time. And if that happens … who knows.
Player to know: Infielder Yu Chang — now with the Red Sox after playing with the Guardians, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays last season — is the only current major leaguer from Taiwan, but watch out for third baseman Li Lin, the 2022 Chinese Professional Baseball League MVP who won the Triple Crown. He led the league with a .335 average and 83 RBIs and tied with catcher Kungkuan Giljegiljaw for the lead with 14 home runs. Giljegiljaw reached Triple-A with Cleveland in 2018.
Fun fact: The CPBL plays a 120-game season — divided into two halves. Food for thought if MLB wants to perhaps make the second half of its season more interesting, reduce tanking and rethink a new playoff structure.
What needs to go right: Colombia will need to take care of business against Canada and Great Britain during pool play and hope it gets an outstanding start when it takes on Mexico to open up WBC play on March 11. The top candidate to do that is probably Jose Quintana, but keep an eye on Julio Teheran, who is looking to reestablish himself after some injury woes.
Player to watch: Tayron Guerrero, still a 6-foot-8 hard thrower, is now 32 years old, though he has never been quite able to stick in the majors. That’s probably because he has seldom looked like he has much idea where his pitches are going. He’s in Cincinnati Reds camp this spring, and while things haven’t been great over his first couple of appearances, the WBC might be a chance for him to show that the intimidating reliever he once seemed to be may yet emerge.
Fun fact: Colombia is a little over a year removed from winning its first Caribbean Series, when Caimanes de Barranquilla knocked off Gigantes del Cibao of the Dominican Republic in the final. The star of that win was righty Elkin Alcala, who is on Colombia’s WBC roster.
What needs to go right: The offense will probably have to carry Team Italy in this tournament. Outside of Matt Harvey, who spent all of last year in the minor leagues and posted a 6.83 ERA from 2019 to 2021, the pitching staff is composed largely of journeymen. That offense, though, could be solid, with Vinnie Pasquantino, David Fletcher and Nicky Lopez providing established major league talent on the infield. Outfielder Sal Frelick, meanwhile, was ESPN’s 45th-ranked prospect heading into the season.
Player to know: Pasquantino, the Royals first baseman, might already be one of the sport’s best hitters, showcasing an elite combination of power and bat-to-ball skills. In 72 games as a rookie last season, Pasquantino batted .295/.383/.450 with 10 home runs and more walks than strikeouts.
Fun fact: Team Italy will feature two brothers in David and Dominic Fletcher. David, an infielder for the Los Angeles Angels, and Dominic, an outfielder in the Diamondbacks system, were born in Southern California but picked up Italian from their mother. They visited Italy for the first time this offseason.
What needs to go right: Joc Pederson is the headliner of this roster, but he’ll need some help. Specifically, he’ll need some of the young, relatively unproven hitters to step up. The ones who stick out are Matt Mervis, a 24-year-old first baseman who OPS’d .984 in the Cubs system last year, and Zack Gelof, a 23-year-old second baseman who batted .270/.352/.463 in the upper levels of the A’s system.
Player to know: Dean Kremer is the first big league pitcher with Israeli citizenship. He’s also the unquestioned ace on this staff, after establishing himself with the Orioles last season. Kremer, 27, accumulated 125⅓ innings in 2022 and posted a 3.23 ERA in 2022. Team Israel will need some big outings from him in this tournament.
Fun fact: You might not remember, but Team Israel created quite the stir in 2017, winning four consecutive games to advance into the second round before being eliminated by Japan. And this year, Team Israel has more current major league talent on its roster than ever.
Just happy to be here
Player to know: The roster features several major leaguers, albeit no big stars. Pitcher Jaime Barria had a 2.63 ERA as a reliever with the Angels last year but might have to start in this tournament, and Colorado Rockies reliever Justin Lawrence will play a key role. Catchers Christian Bethancourt and Ivan Herrera will have to step up and Dodgers outfielder Jose Ramos hit 25 home runs last year in High-A.
Fun fact: Panama is Central America’s strongest team and has produced two Hall of Famers in Mariano Rivera and Rod Carew but returns to the WBC for the first time since 2009. It went 0-2 that year while failing to score a run and went 0-3 in 2006.
Player to know: Aaron Whitefield, a 26-year-old outfielder, got a brief call-up to the major leagues last year and can flat-out run, accumulating 179 stolen bases over his six full minor league seasons. Tim Atherton, a 33-year-old right-hander, is among the veterans of the staff and posted a 3.27 ERA in nine starts for the Australian Baseball League last season.
Fun fact: There’s having the flexibility to use your best pitchers in the highest-leverage situations, and then there’s Team Australia’s approach going into the World Baseball Classic. “Everybody needs to be ready to pitch in the first inning of the first game against Korea,” Australia’s pitching coach, Jim Bennett, said recently. “Literally.” Team Australia will roster 20 pitchers, and Bennett said he’ll use them all in Game 1 if he has to.
Player to know: Jonathan Loaisiga has been a staple out of the New York Yankees’ bullpen over the past three years and could evolve into their closer if he’s right. Loaisiga was dominant for much of 2021, posting a 2.17 ERA in 57 appearances. He got off to a bad start in 2022 but bounced back down the stretch and into the postseason. His calling card is a devastating sinker that reaches triple digits and helps him induce a lot of soft contact.
Fun fact: Nicaragua is in an incredibly tough pool it probably won’t survive, headlined by the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. But just getting there was a triumph. Nicaragua failed to qualify for the previous two World Baseball Classics, going a combined 2-4 in 2013 and 2017. This year, though, Team Nicaragua won three of four qualifying games, beating Pakistan, Argentina and Brazil.
18. Great Britain
Player to know: After falling into a career as a big league/Triple-A journeyman, Trayce Thompson broke out as a key performer for the powerful Dodgers in 2022. Before starring for the Minnesota Golden Gophers alongside Kevin McHale, teaming with Magic Johnson on the Showtime L.A. Lakers and becoming the father of Trayce and NBA sharpshooter Klay, Mychal Thompson grew up in the Bahamas. That makes Trayce eligible to represent King Charles III in the WBC.
Fun fact: According to Wikipedia, the British team won the first Baseball World Cup in 1938. That club was managed by Chummy McNeil, a Canadian-born athlete who also played hockey, as one does. Now you know.
Player to know: Shortstop Ray Chang, a Chinese American from Kansas City, had a 12-year minor league career and is returning for his fourth World Baseball Classic at age 39. He hit .324 in his previous three tournaments.
Fun fact: China has been outscored 102-18 in its WBC history, but it does have two victories, beating Chinese Taipei in 2009 and Brazil in 2013.
20. Czech Republic
Player to know: Former major leaguer Eric Sogard is the guy you will recognize, but most of the team is actually Czech-born and amateur in status — holding down day jobs like high school geography teacher and firefighter. Team manager Pavel Chadim is a neurologist.
Fun fact: The Czechs beat Spain 3-1 in the qualifying tournament to get here, defeating a Spanish team that included several former major leaguers and top-100 prospect Noelvi Marte of the Reds. Martin Schneider pitched 6⅓ innings to get the win — after Spain had posted 21 runs against the Czechs earlier in the qualifier. In its second game of pool play, the Czech Republic gets to face Japan. Imagine jumping from your local amateur league to playing against Ohtani.
(With Inputs from ESPN)
#World #Baseball #Classic #Power #Rankings #Whos