Underdogs who deserve respect in World Baseball Classic


Outfielder Seiya Suzuki #51 of Japan high fives with his team mates after hitting a three-run homer in the top of the second inning during the World Baseball Classic Warm-Up Game between Japan and Orix Buffaloes at Kyocera Dome Osaka on March 5, 2017 in Osaka, Japan.  Masterpress - Samurai Japan/SAMURAI JAPAN via Getty Images

The World Baseball Classic is set to get underway on Monday in Seoul, when Pool A play begins. And while the 16 team tournament has so far only been won by two countries in the previous entries – the Dominican Republic and Japan (twice) – there are a handful of countries this year that could be prepared to make a run this year.

The level of talent across the board in the upcoming fourth entry in the WBC is at arguably an all-time high. And while much attention will be paid to the star-studded Team USA entry and how its collective effort plays out, there are plenty of other nations that are bringing their best shot at reigning supreme on the worldwide baseball scene by month’s end.

The oddsmakers in Las Vegas say the United States has as much of a shot at bucking their penchant for underachieving as the defending champion Dominicans have for repeating. But there are some very viable teams with a chance to crash the party themselves. Some have experience on their side (Japan), while others have clear and present talent surpluses (Venezuela, Puerto Rico). Others plain could find the right pitch, at the right time and change the entire direction of the event at a moment’s notice.

Here’s a look at the non-favorites that have a shot to shake things up in the upcoming WBC.

Cuba 

On talent alone, Cuba should be one of the most talented teams in the entire tournament. However, they made a rule that players who defected to the Major Leagues at any point would not be allowed to participate for the nation this year, a decision that effectively dooms their championship potential. With the likes of Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Jorge Soler, Kendrys Morales and Yoan Moncada on their side, Cuba could have been a real threat, but without them their baseball offering is underwhelming.

Of the players likely to compete, Alfredo Despaigne could be a stand out. The 30-year-old outfielder competes in Japan’s Nappon league, thus is eligible to complete.

Dominican Republic 

It should come as no surprise that the defending champion Dominican team is neck and neck as favorites to win it all. Because no team has as strong of representative collection of their nation’s very best talents as the DR is bringing, yet again. On an everyday basis, opposing pitchers will have to face a lineup that features Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre, Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz, Starling Marte and 2013 WBC MVP Robinson Cano in some order on a daily basis. Young Cardinals’ ace Carlos Martinez leads the pitching staff, while while the backend of the bullpen could be air tight, with a trio of top flight late inning options in Dellin Betances, Jeurys Familia and Alex Colome. The Dominican Republic will be well represented, and viewers will be able to get an early showdown between the two favorites, as they will face Team USA on March 11 as a part of Pool C’s round robin session.

Japan 

Champions in 2006 and 2009, the Japanese team is experienced and are one of the few countries that boasts an entire roster that plays in one of the highest levels of professional baseball. Only one member of Team Japan is currently on an MLB roster (Nori Aoki), but the entirety of the rest of the team competes in the Nippon Professonal Baseball league, which is arguably the second best pro league in the world. The everyday lineup has six different batters that hit over 20 home runs in the NPB league last year, making it one of the most dangerous collectives in the entire tournament.

While former WBC greats Hisashi Iwakuma, Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka will not participate this time around, he everyday lineup has six different batters that hit over 20 home runs in the NPB league last year, making it one of the most dangerous collectives in the entire tournament. That group was led by the 44 dingers that Yoshitomo Tsutsugo connected for followed by 38 from Tetsuto Yamada.

Netherlands 

The Dutch boast a surprisingly deep stockpile of talent, especially throughout the infield. The ability to pull from the Netherlands proper, as well as the ranks of the islands of Curacao and Aruba has provided Xander Bogaerts, Didi Gregorius, Jonathan Schoop and Andrelton Simmons to be deployed a variety of fashions. While they are shallow on the pitching side somewhat (their best Major League arm, Kenley Jansen, is not on the active roster currently), the Netherlands has gone on some surprisingly strong runs in the past and should be considered a favorite in Pool A.

Puerto Rico 

Armed with strong veteran core led by Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran, the Puerto Rican team will receive a jolt of life in the form of some of baseball fastest rising stars this year. Carlos Correa, Javier Baez and Francisco Lindor will give Puerto Rico one of the best infields in the entire tournament, as well as an athletic core that can change the game in multiple fashions at once.

Pitching could stand to be what limits their full potential, even with the masterful Molina calling the shots behind the dish. They play in one of the toughest pools of all, paired with Mexico, Venezuela and Italy. An early upset shouldn’t happen, but is not outside the realm of possibility.

South Korea 

While the South Korean squad doesn't have a lot of names American baseball fans are familiar with, it doesn't mean it's a team of amateurs as their roster is chock full of KBO pros plus a couple of players who have have spent time in playing in the United States. Cardinals closer Seung-hwan Oh is the only current Major Leaguer on the team, but Dae-ho Lee spent time with the Mariners recently. Joining them is the reigning KBO batting and RBI champ, outfielder Hyung-woo Choi. It remains to be seen if their pitching can hang with the higher octane lineups that await down the road, but they stand a fair chance of advancing to the second round.

Venezuela 

No team has more regularly underachieved, while still sending the best of its best than Venezuela. They have only advanced past the second round once, despite sending a team armed with the best hitter (Miguel Cabrera) and at times best pitcher (Felix Hernandez). Both Cabrera and King Felix will be back, and will be joined by Jose Altuve, Victor Martinez, Roughed Odor, Carlos Gonzalez, Salavador Perez as well, each whom checks in among the very best in the game at his respective spot. Maybe the most important part of the Venezuelan front is manager Omar Vizquel, who has all the tools at his disposal, he just has to get the most out of them.

Matt Whitener is St. Louis-based writer, radio host and 12-6 curveball enthusiast. He has been covering Major League Baseball since 2010, and dabbles in WWE, NBA and other odd jobs as well. Follow Matt on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

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