World Baseball Classic Preview: The Taiwan and Panama Qualifiers

Carlos Lee is the biggest name playing for Panama in the World Baseball Classic - Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Eight teams will vie for two spots in the WBC in March, including some countries where you didn't even know they played baseball. At least one qualifier is wide open.

If you watched the first two qualifiers in the World Baseball Classic, you saw a lot of exciting, although sloppy, baseball. If you missed it, you get another chance to watch starting tonight at 9:30 Chicago time as Thailand takes on the Philippines in the opener of the Taipei City qualifier. Then Thursday night at 7:00, Brazil will take on Panama in the first game of the Panama City qualifier. With the home countries favored to win both brackets, we can expect to see a lot of enthusiasm both on and off the field.

In case you missed it or you've just forgotten, various baseball federations from around the world asked to be included in any future World Baseball Classic tournaments after the second tournament in 2009. The World Baseball Classic is now officially considered the World Championship for national teams and those countries, mostly in nations with a small but emerging baseball culture, wanted to have something to play for and aspire to. So twelve countries were added to the pool and the four teams that competed in 2009 but did not win a game were required to play in these modified double-elimination qualifiers. In Regensberg, Germany, Canada easily qualified in one bracket and Spain upset Israel (both countries made extensive use of North American "passport players") in a thrilling finale to take the other spot.

The previews for these two qualifiers will be shorter and sketchier than the previous two. For one,there are just very few "passport players" in either of these brackets and therefore, a lot fewer players that you and I might have heard of. Some of these countries also have very few native players in either the US minors or majors. But I do expect to see more exciting if sloppy baseball this time around as well, and there are a few old names that would be familiar to all of you.

All games can be watched at worldbaseballclassic.com for free. The finals of both tournaments will air on the MLB Network as well.

New Taipei City, Taiwan Regional:

Chinese Taipei: The host nation, Taiwan, has to compete under the name Chinese Taipei because of the delicate political relationship between that island country and the People's Republic of China. But no matter what name they play under, they're going to be the heavy favorite in this region. For one, they are the only nation of the four that has their own professional league, and most of the players on this team play in that domestic league. Taiwan has also sent eight players to the major leagues although the three current players are all skipping this round of the tournament.

Taiwan does have players with experience in the US minor leagues and in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). Most importantly as far as this blog is concerned, Taiwan has two Cubs farm hands on its pitching staff: Hung-Wen Chen and Yao-Lin Wang. Chen last pitched for the Iowa Cubs back in 2011 and made 21 appearances for the I-Cubs between 2010 and 2011.

Wang was one the the real bright spots for the Peoria Chiefs last season. He started the season in relief and eventually won the closer's job, collecting twelve saves. The Cubs then moved him into the rotation in mid-July and he made nine starts the rest of the way. Wang finished the season with a 4-5 record and a 3.92 ERA. He struck out more than a batter an inning.

The other big pitcher for Taiwan is Yao-Hsun Yang, who pitches for the Fukuoda SoftBank Hawks in NPB. Their star hitter is Chih-Shen Lin, who hit 24 home runs in Taiwan's domestic league.

Thailand: Thailand is all about one player: Johnny Damon. In case you didn't know, Damon's mother was born and grew up in Thailand, so he's dedicating this tournament to her. Damon was released by Cleveland in August and while he still hopes to play in the majors in 2013, no team has come to him with an offer, so this tournament may very well be Damon's farewell.

Brothers John and Jose Daru have amateur experience in the US and Nathan Lorenz is an American who has played some amateur baseball in Japan. The rest of the team are local Thais who will be playing on a big stage for the very first time.

Philippines: The Philippine chances took a major blow when Tim Lincecum declined to pitch for them, but they did get one player with major league experience as Geno Espineli, who pitched 15 games in relief for San Francisco in 2008, agreed to play. If anyone has a chance to upset Chinese Taipei it would be the Philippines, who have several players with experience in the US, playing either in the minors or in the NCAA. They also have Ryuya Ogawa, who pitched one game for the Chunichi Dragons this past season after spending most of the season on their farm team.

First baseman Leighton Pangilinan played for the White Sox's Kannapolis low-A team this past season and second baseman Ryan Pineda played for the Athletics High-A franchise in Stockton.

New Zealand: Baseball is not a common sport in New Zealand, but they do have a few players who learned the game in Australia and a couple of American "passport players." But they do have the absolutely best nickname of any team in the tournament as they are calling themselves the "Diamondblacks," which is a riff on their famous national rugby team, the All-Blacks, a baseball diamond and that team in Arizona. They are also expected to do that Haka War Dance that all their national teams do, so they should be entertaining if anything.

The Diamondblacks do have some players with minor league experience, including Moko and Boss Moanaroa, both of whom played in the Red Sox system. Boss played first base for Greenville this past season and hit .262 with five home runs and 77 walks. John Holdzkom is a kind of real-life Nuke LaLoosh, who can throw 100 mph but often doesn't hit the plate. Over 134 innings in the minors, he's struck out 153 and walked 107. He pitched for Bakersfield in the Reds system this past year.

New Zealand is coached by San Jose Giants manager Andy Skeels, but he's getting help from former major league all-stars Jay Bell and Darrell Evans.

Panama City Qualifier:

Panama: Panama is the favorite in this group with star power and home field advantage, but in truth this group is more even than the other three. Panama has several major leaguers going for them, however, such as Carlos Lee, Carlos Ruiz and Ruben Tejada. Obviously their chances would be better if Mariano Rivera was able to pitch for Panama, but that wasn't to be. Manny Acosta will be pitching for Panama as well as his brother Alberto, who played a couple seasons in the minors in the late nineties. Paolo Espino pitched in Double-A for the Indians this past year.

Panama also has several players with major league experience in the past, such as Ruben Rivera, who has played in the Mexican League the past six seasons. Former Yankees and Red Sox pitcher Ramiro Mendoza will also play for Panama.

Colombia: The team most likely to give Panama a run for their money is Colombia, who is lead by shortstop Edgar Renteria and former Indians and Dodger utility player Jolbert Cabrera, who has played in the Mexican League these past three seasons. Colombia has fifteen players currently playing in the minor leagues. Catcher is a strong position for Colombia as Jhonatan Solano made it to majors this past season with Washington and Luis Martinez caught ten games for the Rangers in 2012.

Colombia's downfall may be their pitching, and they are going to have to rely a lot on Sugar Ray Marimon, who pitched in High-A and Double-A for the Royals this past season. He's the only Colombian pitcher with any experience above A ball.

Nicaragua: Nicaragua is managed by national legend Dennis Martinez, who was so popular in Nicaragua during his playing days he was nicknamed El Presidente. They have two major league players in Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera and Mariners rookie pitcher Erasmo Ramirez. Their pitching staff might have been formidable if Vincente Padilla had agreed to play and if the Astros didn't deny permission for Wilton Lopez. They do have Phillies Triple-A pitcher J.C. Ramirez, however.

Cheslor Cuthbert is a third baseman who hit .240 for the Royals High-A team this past season. Infielder Ofilio Castro made it as high as Triple-A Columbus in the Nationals organization, but he played in independent ball this past season.

Brazil: Brazil is the long-shot in this group, as the baseball community in that huge nation is just getting underway, in contrast to the long history of the sport in the other three nations. Barry Larkin is managing Brazil and they have exactly one major leaguer, Blue Jays utility player Yan Gomes, who is the only Brazilian to ever play in the major leagues. They have a couple of other players who have reached Triple-A. Right-handed pitcher Andre Rienzo is a top twenty pitching prospect in the White Sox system and pitched one game for Charlotte in Triple-A this past season after a very successful year in Birmingham. Outfielder Paulo Orlando played 58 games for Omaha in 2011 in the Royals system, but he was back down in Double-A for 2012. Pitcher Murilo Gouvea is a promising right-handed pitcher who pitched for the Astros High-A affiliate in Lexington this past summer, striking out over ten batters per nine innings in 77 innings of relief.

The rest of the Brazilian team consists of prospects who are still in rookie ball or unsigned national players.

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