Ryoji Aikawa, Koji Yamamoto, Osamu Higashio

Can Japan be beat? Previewing the World Baseball Classic

26 Comments

While we’re still a week away from any World Baseball Classic play in North America, the tournament kicks off in Japan and Taiwan on Saturday (Friday night in the U.S.), with eight teams in two pools participating in round-robin play.

Pool A (Japan, March 2-6): Brazil, China, Cuba, Japan
Pool B: (Taiwan, March 2-5): Australia, Chinese Taipei, The Netherlands, South Korea
Pool C: (Puerto Rico, March 7-10): Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Spain, Venezuela
Pool D: (U.S., March 7-10): Canada, Italy, Mexico, United States

The top two teams in each pool advance into the second round. Pool A & B winners will play in Japan (March 8-12), while Pool C & D winners will play in Miami (March 12-16). Those will be modified double-elimination tournaments.  The single-elimination semifinals and finals will take place in San Francisco (March 17-19).

The Favorites

Japan

The two-time defending WBC champs will go it without a single MLB player this time, as talents such as Ichiro Suzuki, Yu Darvish and Hiroki Kuroda are remaining with their U.S. squads. Still, Japan does have one former major leaguer on the roster: infielder Kaz Matsui.

Strengths: A pitching staff full of guys with varied arsenals and deliveries that U.S., Cuban and Dominican hitters will be seeing for the first time. Also, Japan’s team has been training together and is closer to being regular-season ready than the teams comprised of MLB players.

Weaknesses: After two years of playing with a deadened ball in the Central and Pacific Leagues, how will Japanese players adjust to the standardized WBC baseball? Apart from catcher Shinnosuke Abe, Japan’s lineup probably won’t feature much power.

USA

The United States didn’t even reach the finals in either of the first two WBCs. This year’s squad is lacking a lot of top talent, particularly in the rotation with only R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Vogelsong, Derek Holland and Ross Detwiler available to start.

Strengths: The lineup will be very solid from top to bottom, and with Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton and David Wright in the middle, it should particularly feast on any left-handers opposing teams dare to throw. Also, the back end of the bullpen has Chris Perez, Glen Perkins, Vinnie Pestano and likely closer Craig Kimbrel to finish off any leads.

Weaknesses: The rotation is the great unknown, particularly since there’s going to be very little feel for how each pitcher is throwing this early in the spring. It’s imperative that manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Greg Maddux identify quickly who has it and who to bury.

Dominican Republic

Like the U.S., the Dominican Republic’s best WBC finish so far is fourth. But while Team USA’s showing isn’t going to get a whole lot of attention at home, the Dominican team is under plenty of pressure to do better this time. One big problem: Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista and David Ortiz are all coming off injuries and are unavailable to manager Tony Pena.

Strengths: Even without Pujols, the D.R. still has the tourney’s best infield, with Edwin Encarnacion at first, Robinson Cano at second, Hanley Ramirez at third and Jose Reyes at shortstop. Also, the catching situation, which has tended to be a weakness in the past, has been upgraded by Carlos Santana’s emergence.

Weaknesses: The rotation is led by Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez, with little depth beyond them. Also, Bautista is simply a huge loss for the outfield, which may start Ricardo Nanita or Moises Sierra in left alongside Alejandro De Aza in center and Nelson Cruz in right.

Venezuela

It’d hardly be a surprise if Venezuela ends up outlasting the U.S. and D.R. The well-balanced team has quality major leaguers filling every lineup spot and Anibal Sanchez to lead the rotation.

Strengths: One possible lineup: SS Elvis Andrus, LF Martin Prado, 3B Miguel Cabrera, RF Carlos Gonzalez, 1B Pablo Sandoval, C Miguel Montero, DH Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B Marco Scutaro, CF Gerardo Parra.

Weaknesses: The bullpen could largely hinge on Francisco Rodriguez closing out games, a scary proposition given the way he finished 2012. After Sanchez, there aren’t any sure things for rotation possibilities (Carlos Zambrano, Jhoulys Chacin, Henderson Alvarez).

Cuba

Cuba couldn’t have been thrilled to be put in Japan’s opening pool after being eliminated by the team in the 2006 Finals and in round 2 in 2009. A win over Japan in pool play might provide a huge shot of confidence this time around.

Strengths: The lineup duo of Yulieski Gourriel and Alfredo Despaigne is about as good as any other country’s top two. That there isn’t much in the way of scouting reports or video of many of the team’s hurlers figures to serve Cuba well. And then there’s the obvious plus: Cuba’s players are in prime shape after playing all winter.

Weaknesses: A lack of depth has sometimes been Cuba’s undoing in tournaments, as the top-shelf talent tends to drop off quickly. While Ismel Jimenez and Odrisamer Despaigne are pitchers to watch, the more veteran hurlers aren’t particularly imposing.

Korea

Korea finished third in the inaugural WBC and second in 2009, winning the 2008 Olympic tournament in between. Veterans of those teams like Seung Yeop Lee and Dae Ho Lee are back for another go. In fact, it’s veterans all around: 12 players on the squad are at least 30 and the youngest player on the roster turns 25 next month.

Strengths: Korea has managed to integrate Japan’s successful small-ball approach with more pop in international play, and this year’s roster will feature a bunch of quality arms, some with unusual deliveries. The infield should be terrific thanks to both Lees, Tae-Kyun Kim and Jung-Ho Kang.

Weaknesses: This roster may be a little past its prime. It’s going to miss Dodgers left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu and Reds outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, both of whom were with the team in 2009.

///

Going strictly by talent, Pools B and D will be pretty wide open for the second berths. My pick is Taiwan for second place in Pool B and Mexico for second place in Pool D.

While it’d be quite an upset if any of the six favorites failed to advance to the final eight, three-game round-robins don’t always end well for the most talented teams. It’s not at all difficult to imagine a scenario in which Team USA, Canada and Mexico all beat Italy and go 2-1 in Pool D, with a tiebreaker determining which two advance.

As for a prediction, I’m thinking the North American teams are in better shape this year that they have been in the past. The MLB talent drain has left Japan’s roster a bit light, and while I’m a big Korea booster, I suspect this isn’t as good of a roster as the team I fell for in the 2008 Olympics. Team USA has a shot, but that the players still aren’t in regular-season form is a big handicap. I’m picking Venezuela to beat Japan in the finals.

And That Happened: Sunday’s scores and highlights

ARLINGTON, TX - AUGUST 28: Derek Holland #45 of the Texas Rangers points out a pop fly against the Cleveland Indians in the first inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington on August 28, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images)
Getty Images
10 Comments

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Rangers 2, Indians 1: Derek Holland was solid, allowing one run over six innings and Ian Desmond and Jonathan Lucroy each had an RBI single. The Rangers take three of four in what could be an ALCS preview. Although, given that no teams have been eliminated yet, any game between AL teams could be an ALCS preview if you think about it hard enough. Open your mind, man.

Dodgers 1, Cubs 0: All goose eggs until the eighth when the Dodgers cobbled together a run out of a hit-by-pitch, a two-base throwing error by Trevor Cahill and a fielder’s choice. Then all goose eggs after that. Brock Stewart and four relievers combined on a four-hit shutout for the Dodgers. This could be an NLCS preview, by the way. I won’t finish the joke here. I already told it.

Orioles 5, Yankees 0: Kevin Gausman had no trouble with the somehow resurgent Yankees, shutting them out for seven innings and fanning nine. I rarely say “fanning” for striking out and I don’t hear at all that often anymore. Back in the 80s it seemed like there was a lot more “fanning” going on. Steve Pearce drove in three. Earlier this season, while he was still with the Rays, I mistakenly identified some Orioles player in a photo as Steve Pearce. I’m glad he’s back where he belongs.

Blue Jays 9, Twins 6: Josh Donaldson hit three homers, including the go-ahead dong, continuing a year that, by the numbers, is better than his MVP year last season, even if people aren’t talking about it as much. On his third homer Jays fans tossed hats out onto the field. Get it? Yeah. Anyway, Minnesota had a 5-2 lead in the middle of the game but blowing moderate leads with lots of time to go is one of the primary traits of teams that suck.

Angels 5, Tigers 0: Jefry Marte hit a two-run homer and drove in a third run on a sac fly. Marte’s performance would really serve as a great “bet you miss me NOW, huh?!” game for him if anyone remembered that he played for the Tigers last year.

Phillies 5, Mets 1: A.J. Ellis hit a two-run double to break a 1-1 tie in the seventh inning. Somewhere Clayton Kershaw shed a single tear, Iron Eyes Cody-style.

Padres 3, Marlins 1: Luis Perdomo tossed a complete game while allowing only one run and requiring only 99 pitches. Having six double plays get turned behind you certainly helps the old pitch count.

Rockies 5, Nationals 3: Nolan Arenado went 4-for-4 with a homer and a triple as the Rockies take two of three from the Nats. Lucas Giolito ran into trouble in the third when Arenado hit that dinger. Dusty Baker after the game: “It’s that one bad inning that does you in. That was the one bad inning.”

One Bad Day

So what I’m saying is, yes, Lucas Giolito is now either The Joker or Batman. That’s how this works.

White Sox 4, Mariners 1: Carlos Rodon allowed a run and five hits while pitching into the seventh. After a pretty disappointing season he’s turning things around lately, going 3-0 with a 1.47 ERA in his last five starts.

Pirates 3, Brewers 1: The Sweep. John JasoGregory Polanco and Starling Marte all homered. Ivan Nova pitched well but left with a wonky hamstring. Which, given that Gerrit Cole is hurt, does not bode well for a team that needs everything to go right for the next month and change if they don’t want to go home in a month and change.

Athletics 7, Cardinals 4: The A’s have won four of five. Khris Davis hit a two-run shot and Steven Vogt hit a three-run homer. A’s starter Andrew Triggs got his first win. He’s from Nashville and said that a bunch of his friends and family drove to St. Louis from there to see him pitch. Can’t think of a road trip I’d rather do less in the August heat than Nashville-to-St. Louis, but you crank up the AC and do it for your friends and family I suppose.

Rays 10, Astros 4: Chris Archer allowed three runs on four hits in seven innings and struck out ten. Astros pitchers allowed ten runs on 15 hits and only struck out four. The order of things matters, man. Corey Dickerson his a three-run homer.

Giants 13, Braves 4: Four homers from the Giants — two from Joe Panik — to back a less-than-perfectly-sharp-but-good-enough-against-a-team-like-the-Braves Madison Bumgarner. The Giants took two of three from Atlanta to remain two back of the Dodgers. It was only the second series they have won since the All-Star break.

Diamondbacks 11, Reds 2: A.J. Pollock went 3-for-5 and stole two bases, showing Diamondbacks fans what they missed with him gone all year. Welington Castillo drove in four in this laugher of a game.

Royals 10, Red Sox 4: Down 4-2 in the sixth and the Royals put up an 8-run inning. Raul Mondesi‘s bases-loaded triple and Eric Hosmer‘s two-run single were the big blows. The Royals have won 17 of 21 and have moved to 5.5 back in the AL Central and three back in the wild card. They’re tied with Houston and are a game back of Detroit in that race. Maybe the defending champs were only mostly dead.

Orioles signed Tommy Hunter to a major league contract

ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 12:  Pitcher Tommy Hunter #48 of the Cleveland Indians pitches in the ninth inning during the MLB game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on June 12, 2016 in Anaheim, California. The Indians defeated the Angels 8-3. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Orioles announced, prior to Sunday’s game against the Yankees, that the club signed pitcher Tommy Hunter to a major league contract. In related roster moves, the club recalled pitcher Oliver Drake from Triple-A Norfolk and designated pitcher T.J. McFarland and outfielder Julio Borbon for assignment.

The Indians released Hunter on Thursday after he struggled in a rehab assignment with Triple-A Columbus. Hunter was recovering from a non-displaced fracture in his lower back. The right-hander put up a respectable 3.74 ERA with a 17/5 K/BB ratio in 21 2/3 innings for the Indians.

This will be Hunter’s second stint with the Orioles. The O’s had acquired him along with first baseman Chris Davis at the trade deadline from the Rangers in 2011 in the Koji Uehara trade.

The Orioles are only responsible for paying Hunter the prorated major league minimum.