Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If you have a deep seeded urge to get your patriotic juices flowing, you might be in luck because the World Baseball Classic is about to begin.
Unfortunately, this is being written here in America, where the event will be treated with far less fanfare than it receives in other countries. And that's too bad because this time around the United States may just have the best team from top to bottom in the tournament.
Despite being heavy favorites in the first two WBCs, the United States has never reached the final, losing in the second round in 2006 and in the semifinals at Dodger Stadium in '09.
This time, though, it's championship or bust for Team USA, as first-time manager Joe Torre again has an All-Star caliber player at almost every position with what seems like a terrific mix of seasoned veterans and young, up-and-coming stars.
But unlike the "Dream Team" in each of the first two tournaments, Torre focused more on his bench and will have a pair of backup catchers as well as a few utility players on this year's roster. He also selected his bullpen wisely, rather than just picking eight closers.
The knock on the United States through the first two events was that maybe it didn't take it seriously enough. Well, not as serious as some of the other countries, like Japan, for instance, which has won each of the first two tournaments.
Torre seems to have put a real team together rather than just a superstar group. More importantly, it appears as if he has players who want to be there and want to win, and it should pay off.
The format for this year's tournament is about the same.
Again, the teams have been divided into four pools of four teams. Pool A will feature Japan, China, Cuba and Brazil. Korea, the Netherlands, Australia and Chinese Taipei comprise Pool B, while the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Spain and Puerto Rico make up Pool C. Team USA will play in Pool D along with Canada, Mexico and Italy.
This time around in Round 1, though, each team will play the other three teams in their pool once. Teams will be ranked by winning percentage in Round 1, with the top two teams in each pool advancing to Round 2, where the teams from Pools A and B (in Pool 1) and the teams from Pools C and D (in Pool 2) will compete in a double-elimination format.
The top two teams in each pool of Round 2 will enter a four-team single- elimination semifinals. The four qualifying teams will cross over for the semifinals, with the winner of each pool playing against the runner-up from the other pool.
The winners will then square off in the championship game on March 19 at AT&T Park.
Now the only way this event is going to catch on here in the United States is if Torre's club is playing in San Francisco. And barring an absolute nightmare, they should.
Of course, if the U.S. squad wins, it's not exactly going to be 1980 men's hockey team thrilling, but it's not a bad way to drum up some interest in a major league season. Especially, when it's been another winter chock full of performance-enhancing drug accusations.
Now let's take a look at the other participating countries and their chances:
UNITED STATES: The United States invented the game of baseball. It's almost embarrassing that it hasn't appeared in a WBC final. Maybe it's been a lack of motivation in the past, but anything less than a second-place finish would be a disaster. In fact, even that should be a disappointment. Torre will have just four players back from the 2009 team: shortstop Jimmy Rollins, right fielder Shane Victorino, left fielder Ryan Braun and third baseman David Wright. Also on the team will be first baseman Mark Teixeira, second baseman Brandon Phillips, catcher Joe Mauer, center fielder Adam Jones and right fielder Giancarlo Stanton. NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey highlights a starting staff that also includes Gio Gonzalez, Derek Holland and Ryan Vogelsong. Closer Craig Kimbrel anchors the bullpen which will also feature Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Luke Gregerson, Heath Bell, Glen Perkins, Steve Cishek, Jeremy Affeldt, Tim Collins and Mitchell Boggs. The bench will include Victorino, plus Ben Zobrist and Willie Bloomquist in the infield. The backup catchers are Jonathan Lucroy and J.P. Arencibia, who has been working with Dickey to learn how to catch his knuckleball since the two will be teammates in Toronto this season. Like they've been saying, it's championship or bust.
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: If there's any team in this year's World Baseball Classic that has something to prove, it's the Dominican Republic. The Dominicans entered the 2009 tournament as heavy favorites thanks to a ton of major league talent. However, after a fourth-place finish in the inaugural event in 2006, the Dominicans were ousted in Round 1 thanks to a pair of losses to the Netherlands. Again armed with a roster chock full of major league stars, the Dominicans are once again one of the favorites in this event. The Dominican Republic fields over a hundred players in Major League Baseball, along with countless minor league prospects. The argument can be made that the most talented players in the sport reside in the Dominican. Some of their best stars will be on display for manager Tony Pena, who will have Robinson Cano, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Bautista and David Ortiz among others at his disposal with a pitching staff that is anchored by Edinson Volquez and Wandy Rodriguez, and has Fernando Rodney closing out games. Anything less than a trip to San Francisco for the semifinals would be an upset.
VENEZUELA: Like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela has a terrific roster and may possess the best lineup in the tournament. On any given night manager Luis Sojo can pencil in sluggers Miguel Cabrera, Pablo Sandoval, Elvis Andrus, Carlos Gonzalez, Miguel Montero, Asdrubal Cabrera and a few other talented position players. That with a pitching staff of Felix Hernandez, Anibal Sanchez and Carlos Zambrano, and this team is poised for a deep WBC run. One player who won't be there, however, is Johan Santana, who was not given permission by the New York Mets to play. Venezuela finished in third place and lost only twice in the entire tournament in '09, once to the United States and once to Korea. The Venezuelans will play in the same pool as the Dominican Republic, meaning the March 7 meeting between the two will be the first must- watch game of the tourney.
JAPAN: The two-time defending champion of this event can't be counted out, but Japan lacks the star power it had in the first two events. Daisuke Matsuzaka, the MVP in each of the first two WBCs, Yu Darvish and Ichiro Suzuki have all decided to skip the tournament, meaning infielder Kaz Matsui is the only one on the roster with any major league experience. Still, Japan remains a favorite in this tournament and will field a strong, fundamentally sound team. If you are looking for a breakout star, keep an eye on infielder Hayato Sakamoto, who could be the next Japanese star in the United States.
KOREA: Following a second-place finish at the previous Classic, Korea again enters this tourney as a favorite. Those hopes, though, may be misdirected, as the Blue and White enter this event with their least talented team in some time. Lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu will not be with the team this time around, nor will Bum Ho Lee, who hit .400 with three home runs and seven RBI in 2009. Still, Korea has posted a 12-4 mark in WBC play and outscored its opponents by 21 runs. Only Japan has as many wins, but no team enters this tournament with a better winning percentage in WBC competition than Korea.
CUBA: There is no team in the World Baseball Classic more decorated on the international stage than Cuba. However, the baseball powerhouse has come up short in big games of late. Cuba fell to Japan in the 2006 WBC championship game, then dropped the gold medal game at the 2008 Beijing Games to Korea. At the 2009 WBC, Cuba failed to get out of the second round, falling to eventual champion Japan twice. It marked the lowest finish ever in international competition for Cuba. Mass defections, of course, have taken their toll on the Cuban roster. Instead of Aroldis Chapman or Yoenis Cespedes leading the way, the Cubans are paced by infielder Yulieski Gourriel and first baseman Jose Abreu, whose power has drawn comparisons to both Ryan Howard and Barry Bonds.
PUERTO RICO: In any other pool, Puerto Rico would be a favorite. Unfortunately, for manager Edwin Rodriguez, his group is in the loaded Pool C with powerhouses Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Despite a roster that is littered with major league talent, it's probably a longshot that Puerto Rico even gets out of the first round. Among those playing include Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan and Alex Rios. Also, Yadier Molina and his brother Jose are on the roster.
CANADA: Team Canada's hopes took a step in the right direction when 2010 National League MVP Joey Votto was named on the final roster. Ernie Whitt's club has some solid talent, including Justin Morneau, Brett Lawrie and John Axford. Pittsburgh Pirates fans may want to pay special attention to this club, as one of their top pitching prospects, Jameson Taillon, is expected to be one of Canada's top arms in this tournament. The team has failed to get out of the first round in the first two tournaments, but Canadian baseball is on the uptick, however, considering the team finished third in the 2011 World Cup and won gold at the 2011 Pan Am Games.
MEXICO: If you are looking for a real sleeper in this tournament, look no further than Mexico. The Mexican team has gotten out of pool play in each of the first two World Baseball Classics and could do so again. Manager Rick Renteria's lineup is built around first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, while Yovani Gallardo holds it down on the mound. And for good measure, Sergio Romo will be closing games. The team took a bit of a hit, though, when infielder Danny Espinosa announced he would be skipping the event. Depth is a problem, but Mexico could still come out of their pool.
NETHERLANDS: The Netherlands advanced past the first round in 2009 with a pair of shocking wins over the Dominican Republic. Playing in a light, but competitive pool, the Netherlands will be out to show that '09 wasn't a fluke. But without a top-flight pitcher on the mound, like a Jair Jurrjens, the Netherlands likely won't repeat what happened four years ago.
NO SHOT AT ALL
CHINESE TAIPEI: Long one of Asia's preeminent baseball powers, Chinese Taipei enters this tournament as a heavy underdog. After failing to make it out of the Asian bracket at the 2006 WBC, Chinese Taipei then finished 2-5 at the Beijing Olympics, where it was the only team to lose to upstart China. It wasn't any better at the '09 WBC, where Chinese Taipei lost both of its games. It was forced to qualify for this year's tournament and did so by winning three games by a combined 35-0 margin.
AUSTRALIA: After dropping all three games in pool play at the '06 WBC, Australia defeated Mexico, 17-7, in its first game in '09 and set a new tournament record for hits in a game with 22, including four home runs. It was a far cry from their overall showing at the inaugural event which saw the Aussies score a total of four runs and hit a paltry .113 as a team. Still, the team has never advanced past Round 1 and likely won't again this time with a roster containing just one major league-caliber player in Ryan-Rowland Smith.
CHINA: Still a neophyte in the baseball world, China is steadily improving after an awful showing at the first WBC in 2006 which saw it get outscored, 40-6. China again struggled at the '09 WBC, but eliminated Chinese Taipei with its first and only victory in the tournament. China is a feisty bunch, but it is way overmatched.
ITALY: Marco Mazzieri's club does have some major league talent, highlighted by Anthony Rizzo and Alex Liddi, who played for Team Italy in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. The team has won one game in each of the first two events and it likely won't get more than that in this one.
BRAZIL: Brazil will be making its first-ever appearance in the WBC. Winning a game would be a major achievement, especially without the services of major leaguer catcher Yan Gomes, who has opted to skip the event. Really, the only thing you need to know about this team is that Hall of Famer Barry Larkin is managing it for some reason.
SPAIN: As overmatched as Brazil may be on this stage, Spain is probably even worse.