Can Japan be beat? Previewing the World Baseball Classic

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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.

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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.

2017 Preview: Minnesota Twins

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Minnesota Twins.

Which iteration of the Twins will we get in 2017? The second-place contenders of 2015, blazing their way through the standings with 83 wins and a handful of hot prospects? The burnouts of 2016, flopping to the bottom of the division with 103 losses and a lineup held in place by Brian Dozier and, well, Brian Dozier? Or something in between?

Finishing dead last has its perks, namely a first-round draft pick and the feeling that things can’t be quite as bad as they were the year before. Unfortunately for the Twins, the only major preparation they made for the 2017 season came in the form of a front office shakeup. Derek Falvey assumed control of the club in October, bringing GM Thad Levine into the fold in November as the club assumed a more analytics-friendly approach toward the rebuilding movement.

When it came to roster revisions, however, there wasn’t much moving or shaking this winter. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe, catcher Kurt Suzuki and left-handers Tommy Milone and Pat Dean vacated their spots on the roster. Falvey avoided some of the bigger bats and bullpen arms in free agency and opted to sign backstop Jason Castro and journeyman reliever Ryan Vogelsong instead.

By and large, the core of the Twins’ roster remained the same. Center fielder Byron Buxton, infielder/outfielder Michael Sano and right-hander Jose Berrios still form the nucleus of the club’s top prospects. Middle infielder Brian Dozier will also return in 2017, though he appears to be on borrowed time with the Twins after putting up monster numbers in the second half of 2016. Ervin Santana will head the rotation again, accompanied by fellow veterans Hector Santiago, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes, while right-handed relievers Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Pressly and Matt Belisle and rehabbing lefty Glen Perkins attempt to prevent another bullpen collapse in 2017.

Without any major additions to the team (and, excepting the departure of Trevor Plouffe, any major subtractions), the Twins will look to their existing cadre of players for significant improvements in 2017. Miguel Sano is expected to take over third base in Plouffe’s absence, which will bring a welcome end to his short-lived and wholly unsuccessful experiment in right field. Brian Dozier, Jorge Polanco and Joe Mauer should round out the infield, with Byung Ho Park and Kennys Vargas currently vying for a spot as the team’s designated hitter.

The lineup is still four or five or six sluggers shy of formidable, but if Dozier can be counted on to repeat his 42-homer, 5.9 fWAR performance from 2016, there will be at least one Twin worth intentionally walking in 2017. Neither Miguel Sano nor Byron Buxton have quite found their footing against big league pitching yet, and another year spent struggling in the majors could mean another year of sub-optimal run production for the team as well. Jason Castro, who grades as an above-average defender behind the plate, is unlikely to provide any additional pop for the Twins at the plate after slashing just .210/.307/.377 through 376 PA with the Astros in 2016.

The pitching department also leaves a little to be desired in light of the league-worst 5.09 ERA they amassed last season. A veteran-heavy rotation could get a boost from the addition of fifth-starter candidate Jose Berrios, who is thought to be the favorite after fellow rotation candidate Trevor May underwent Tommy John surgery earlier this week. Right-hander Tyler Duffey and 23-year-old southpaw Adalberto Mejia are also waiting in the wings. Both have made convincing cases for their inclusion on the pitching staff this spring, but Duffey is coming off of a 6.43 ERA in 2016 and Mejia lacks some of the polish that Berrios offers. Still, stockpiling young pitching depth isn’t a bad thing, and could give the Twins a cushion in the event of injury or collapse down the stretch.

The bullpen outperformed the rotation in 2016, which is saying… something, though maybe not a lot. They still finished the year with a cumulative 4.63 ERA, good for last place among their American League rivals, and delivered just 2.1 fWAR while taking on the fourth-most innings in the league. The standout performer was 28-year-old righty Ryan Pressly, who worked a 3.70 ERA, 2.7 BB/9 and 8.0 SO/9 in 75 1/3 innings last year. In light of Ryan Vogelsong’s recent departure from the club, the Twins will round out their bullpen with left-hander Craig Breslow, who turned in a 4.50 ERA with the Marlins in 2016 and is looking for a bounce-back season of his own after reworking his delivery at age 36.

For now, it looks like Falvey and the Twins’ front office are taking a wait-and-see approach to the coming season, which bodes well for their long-term vision (assuming most of their young prospects pan out) and not so well for their chances of moving up in the division in the next year or so. That could change by the trade deadline if they can secure a worthwhile return for Dozier, though given the rumors of their understandably high asking price, it could take more than a few months to get a deal in place.

Even assuming that all the chips fall in the Twins’ favor in 2017 — prospects start hitting consistently, the rotation solidifies, and Falvey loosens the purse strings enough to net more established contenders — it’s difficult to imagine anything more than a fourth-place finish for the club as they continue to rebuild and regroup. Barring any major improvements on the inconsistent, if occasionally productive, lineup of 2016, another last-place finish feels imminent.

Prediction: Fifth place, AL Central.

Video: Angels use eight pitchers in spring training no-hitter

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Who says no-hitters can’t be just as fun when they happen during spring training?

Angels’ right-hander Bud Norris delivered two perfect innings on Friday night, paving the way for an eight-pitcher no-hitter against the Mariners at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Jose Alvarez, Cam Bedrosian, Andrew Bailey, Austin Adams, Drew Gagnon and Justin Anderson each filed a hitless inning of their own, leaving right-hander Abel De Los Santos to close out the ninth inning with just three pitches — and three game-saving plays by the defense.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Angels were facing a bevy of Mariners’ backups, rather than their starting lineup. In fact, Seattle’s lineup featured just two starting players — outfielder Leonys Martin and shortstop Jean Segura — while the majority of their everyday position players took on the Royals in a 4-3 win elsewhere in the Cactus League. The Mariners managed to reach base twice, first on catcher interference in the fourth inning, then on a four-pitch walk in the sixth, spoiling the Angels’ chances of turning their combined no-hitter into a combined perfect game.

Still, whether it’s executed in spring training or the regular season, against an All-Star lineup or one comprised of minor leaguers, a no-hitter is a no-hitter. The team’s eight-pitcher effort marked the first spring training no-no the Angels had completed since 1996, when they took on the Giants in a 15-0 showdown. Unfortunately for the 1996 squad, their regular season ended with a 70-91 record, good for last place in the AL West. Perhaps this no-hitter will prove a better omen for the coming season.