Ryoji Aikawa, Koji Yamamoto, Osamu Higashio

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.

Jacob deGrom open to extension with Mets

New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom talks during media day for the Major League Baseball World Series against the Kansas City Royals Monday, Oct. 26, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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The Mets are currently enjoying the spoils of the best young rotation in the game, but the big question is whether this is just a brief window or the start of sustained success. Given the huge prices on the free agent market, it’s going to be next to impossible to keep the band together, but at least one member of the rotation is open to sticking around for the long-term.

While there haven’t been any talks yet, All-Star right-hander Jacob deGrom told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post that he could see himself discussing an extension with the Mets.

“I’m a little bit older, so I might be more willing to do something like that,’’ deGrom told The Post at Mets pre-camp. “You just have to look at what is fair so both sides get a decent deal. It’s something I’d have to look into and make sure I agree with it.’’

It makes sense from deGrom’s perspective. He broke into the majors later than most prospects, so he’ll be 28 this June. Depending on whether he qualifies as a Super Two, he’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time after either 2016 or 2017. Either way, he’s under team control through 2020, which means that he’s currently on track to hit free agency after his age-32 season. The market might not be kind to him even if he manages to stay healthy, so it could behoove him to get as much guaranteed money as possible right now. The Mets could always decide to play things year-to-year, but perhaps deGrom would be willing to settle for a discount in order to get them to buy out a free agent year or two. It’s a really interesting situation to think about, but odds are the two sides will wait on contract talks until he’s arbitration-eligible for the first time.

DeGrom owns a 2.61 ERA in 52 starts over his first two seasons in the majors. Among starters, only Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta, and Clayton Kershaw have a lower ERA since the start of 2014.

Royals, Mike Moustakas avoid arbitration with two-year deal

Kansas City Royals' Mike Moustakas celebrates after hitting an RBI single against the Toronto Blue Jays during the eighth inning in Game 2 of baseball's American League Championship Seriesagainst the Toronto Blue Jays  on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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The Royals and third baseman Mike Moustakas have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a two-year, $14.3 million deal, reports Jon Heyman of MLB Network.

The deal, which was initially discussed last month, buys out Moustakas’ final two years of arbitration. Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com reports that it’s believed he’ll make $5.6 million in 2016 and $8.7 million in 2017.

The 27-year-old Moustakas posted an underwhelming .668 OPS over his first four seasons in the majors, but he enjoyed a big postseason in 2014 before breaking out last season by batting .284/.348/.470 with 22 home runs and 82 RBI.

Report: Rays having “advanced talks” with free agent reliever Tommy Hunter

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Tommy Hunter throws to the Miami Marlins during the seventh inning of a baseball game in Miami, Friday, May 22, 2015. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
AP Photo/J Pat Carter
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ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reported this morning that free agent reliever Tommy Hunter required core muscle repair surgery earlier this offseason. Coming off a disappointing 2015, it’s understandable why he’s still on the market, but it sounds like he has at least one significant lead.

Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times hears that the Rays are having “advanced talks” with Hunter as they attempt to add an experienced arm to their bullpen. Nothing is considered close and Hunter is also talking to other clubs. Meanwhile, the Rays have been in touch with veteran reliever Ryan Webb while monitoring the trade market.

Hunter posted a 2.88 ERA as a late-inning arm from 2013-2014, but he compiled a mediocre 4.18 ERA over 58 appearances last season between the Orioles and Cubs. On the bright side, his velocity has held steady and his control is still very good. Despite the down year and core muscle surgery, Topkin writes that Hunter may be holding out for a multi-year deal.

Pirates sign left-hander Cory Luebke

Cory Luebke Getty
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Eric O'Flaherty wasn’t the only reclamation project added by the Pirates today, as the club also announced that they have signed left-hander Cory Luebke to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.

Luebke once looked like a solid rotation piece for the Padres, but he hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since April 27, 2012. He’s undergone a pair of Tommy John surgeries since. Now 30 years old, he logged seven innings in the minors last season before requiring a procedure to remove loose bodies around a nerve in his forearm. The Padres cut ties with him in November after declining a $7.5 million club option for 2016.

It’s hard to count on much from Luebke at this point, but he told Adam Berry of MLB.com that he feels healthy and hopes to compete for a bullpen job in the spring.