World Baseball Classic Preview: The Jupiter Qualifying Round

J. Meric

A look at the four teams in the Jupiter Qualifier for the World Baseball Classic: Israel, Spain, South Africa and France.

Starting tomorrow, four national baseball teams representing Israel, South Africa, Spain and France will take the field at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida for a double-elimination tournament. The winning team of the qualifier will earn the right to compete in the first round the tournament in March.

The look at the following rosters only applies to the preliminary round, as teams will be able to change their rosters if they qualify for the tournament in March.

Israel: Without question, Israel is going to be the favorite in this region, although their victory is by no means assured. Players are eligible to play for any nation for which they are eligible for citizenship, whether or not they are actually citizens. That means almost all Jewish-American players are eligible to play for Israel and the Israeli Association of Baseball is trying to use as many of them as they can. Although the big names for the team in Jupiter are both retired ballplayers, the Israeli Association has contacted Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, Kevin Youkilis, Jason Marquis and Ike Davis. So far, Youkilis has said he'll "definitely play" for Israel if he's healthy. The others haven't made any commitment yet, but none of them have said "no" either.

They will be managed by former major league catcher Brad Ausmus, but the big names are a pair of retired outfielders, former Dodger Shawn Green and former Ranger Gabe Kapler. It will be interesting to see how they do: Only one other player on any other team in this qualifier has any major league experience, but Kapler hasn't played since 2010 and Green hasn't played since 2007. The Israeli team does have one other player with major league experience, Josh Satin, who has had 26 major league at-bats (one this season) and spent the season in Triple-A Buffalo.

Israel is coached by former Houston Astros catcher Brad Ausmus, although he won't be playing. He has asked Green and Kapler to serve as "Player/Coaches." Former Cub Andrew Lorraine will be the pitching coach.

Other than the big names, Israel has fourteen players who played in either Double-A or Triple-A in 2012. With Kapler and Green shaking off rust, Dodgers farmhand Joc Pederson might be their best outfielder. Pederson hit 18 home runs for Rancho Cucamonga this past season and was Baseball America's #9 prospect in the Dodger system this past off-season.

Israel has a pair of good first basemen in Cody Decker and Nate Friedman. Actually, they have several first basemen who are going to play other positions. But Decker and Friedman were actually teammates for San Diego's Double-A San Antonio Missions team this past year. Both have good power as Decker hit 25 home runs and Friedman 24.

Jake Lemmerman played shortstop for Chattanooga this season and was the Dodgers #27 prospect according to Baseball America this past off-season. They'll need his glove as Satin, normally a first baseman, will be playing second base and Casey Haether, who played first base for the Angels Double-A franchise in Arkansas this year, will be manning third.

If Israel has a weakness, it's their pitching. They're led by Diamondbacks farmhand Brett Lorin, who is a big 6'7" left-hander who was Arizona's #28 prospect coming into the system. Despite his size, Lorin doesn't throw hard and relies on finesse. He also had a rough season in Double-A Mobile, going 3-10 with a 6.40 ERA. (Both Junior Lake and Rubi Silva homered off Lorin the one time he pitched against the Smokies. Lorin didn't make it out of the third inning in that game.) Indians lefty Eric Berger's days as a prospect are long-over, but he at least has Triple-A experience with the Columbus Clippers.

Spain: Like Israel, Spain is counting on a lot of players from the Western Hemisphere. The biggest name is Rangers outfielder Engel Beltre, who was a top prospect back in 2010 but hasn't made it out of Double-A since then. Beltre hit .261 with 13 home runs and 36 steals with Frisco this season.

Spain also boasts a couple of solid pitchers in Reds lefty Chris Manno and Cardinals right-hander Richard Castillo. Manno is from Brooklyn was very effective out of the bullpen in Double-A Pensacola with a 3.78 ERA over 50 innings. He struck out more than a batter an inning. The Venezuelan Castillo was a solid prospect a few years ago, but then he spent five years in the Florida State League. But he made it to Double-A this season and he's still only 22 years old. For Springfield, he made 19 starts and had a 3.76 ERA over 110 innings. Between Manno and Castillo, Spain might have the best pitching staff in this qualifier.

Dodgers shortstop Gabe Sanchez is from Denver and played in Rancho Cucamonga last season, hitting .261. The 27 year-old has been around awhile though: he was originally drafted by the Expos. Cuban catcher Adrian Nieto played for the Nationals low-A affiliate in Hagerstown this past season.

Spain also has two veterans of the Cuban National League: first baseman Barbaro Canizares and third baseman Yunesky Sanchez. Canizares had 21 at-bats with the Braves in 2009 and is currently playing for Oaxaca in the Mexican League. Sanchez made it as high as Triple-A Reno for the Diamondbacks before being released. He played in independent ball this past season.

Spain has seven other players from the independent leagues and one player who is actually from Spain: Eric Gonzalez, who pitches for Erie in the independent Frontier League.

South Africa: South Africa has a mostly home-grown team with only a couple American players. But South Africa is a growing area of baseball talent, and six of their players are in organized baseball.

Before I get into the roster, it appears that Cubs pitcher Tayler Scott is not on the final South African World Baseball Classic team, despite being announced as being on it early last week and still being listed on the team with on South Africa's official baseball website. However, that list has 29 names on it and he was not listed as being on the 28-man roster that Baseball America published. I have no idea why he's not on the team. It's certainly not because of his talent. One would guess either he or the Cubs thought it wasn't a good idea after he went twice in the Northwest League Playoffs.

The biggest name on the South African team is Pirates shortstop Gift Ngoepe, who was voted the best defensive shortstop in the Florida State League theis past season. He's not much with the bat, however. The Indians took right-handed pitcher Kieran Lovegrove in the third round out of Mission Viejo HS (CA) this past draft. Twins left-hander Hein Robb pitched well in the Appalachian League this year with a 3.73 ERA in 41 innings. Dylan De Meyer pitched in rookie ball for the Mariners this year and Robert Lewis-Walker pitched in the same league for the Reds.

The rest of the South African team plays for different teams in South Africa with the exception of Wade Mackey, who's been a workhorse pitcher in the independent American Association the past two seasons.

Former Cub (OK, mostly former Padre) Craig Lefferts will be the pitching coach.

France: Two players on the French team play independent ball in Quebec. One plays in Texas in the independent North American Baseball League. One plays at a junior college in Arizona. The rest of them are all playing for club teams in France or are free agents looking for a club. The French League is a weekend league made up of local amateurs and a few American imports who just can't stop playing. You can read a bit about baseball in France in this article in the New York Times last month.

The only name that any of you have heard of on the French team is their pitching coach, Eric Gagné. Unless you've memorized the names of all the scouts for the Cincinnati Reds, you've probably never heard of their manager Jim Stoeckel, who probably got the job because his son manages one of those French League teams. Stoeckel said in Baseball America that the player to watch is shortstop Max LeFevre, who's the one who played for Cochise JC in Arizona.

France is the longest of long-shots to make it out of this qualifier, let alone the whole tournament. Winning a game would be a major accomplishment. For the French team, it's truly a matter of being allowed to compete being more important than winning the game.

Tomorrow I'll be back with a look at the Regensberg Qualifier with Canada, Germany, Great Britain and the Czech Republic. I'll let you guess which country is the favorite there.

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