A preview of the World Baseball Classic qualifying round in Regensburg, Germany between Canada, Germany, Great Britain and the Czech Republic.
The big news coming out of the World Baseball Classic is that they announced on their twitter feed that all the games would be available for streaming over the internet at worldbaseballclassic.com and that the final game of all four qualifying tournaments will be televised on the MLB Network. Now I have no idea what the details will be and there is nothing about live video currently on the website. But we'll see what happens when they take the field in Jupiter later today.
Today's preview is on the four teams playing a qualifying round in Regensburg, Germany: Canada, Germany, Great Britain and the Czech Republic. They'll start play on Thursday. There are two more qualifiers to come in Panama and Taiwan, but both of those will take place in November and so I'll leave their preview until then.
Canada: Canada was forced into this pool when they were upset by Italy, 6-2 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto back in 2009, meaning Canada didn't win a game in the last tournament and was forced into the qualifying rounds. Even without all the Canadian major leaguers such as Joey Votto, Ryan Dempster, Brett Lawrie and John Axford, the long tradition of Canadian baseball gives them a large pool of talented players with experience in Triple-A or the majors.
The biggest names on Team Canada are pitcher Shawn Hill and outfielder Adam Loewen. You may remember Loewen when he was a pitcher for the Orioles, but he gave up pitching in 2009 after repeated injuries. He got 37 at-bats as an outfielder with the Blue Jays in 2011, but spent almost all of 2012 in the Mets system with Triple-A Buffalo.
Hill is still a pitcher, but he's coming back from Tommy John Surgery that cost him all of 2011. He started the season in independent ball, but he finished the year with the Blue Jays Triple-A team in Las Vegas. He went 9-2 withe a 4.52 ERA there. While that ERA sounds bad, that's actually not bad for Las Vegas. Hill will take the mound for the opening game against Great Britain.
In addition to Hill, Canada's pitching staff includes Twins lefty Andrew Albers, who has excellent control. Albers had a 3.75 ERA and only walked 12 batters in 98.1 innings with Double-A New Britain. Also of note is Brewers lefty Philippe Valiquette, who missed all of 2011 with an injury and struggled in his comeback in Double-A this year. Before he got hurt, however, Valiquette threw 97-98 mph and could touch 100. He's never made the majors because his control wasn't good and his secondary stuff was awful. Left-hander R.J. Swindle has 11 major league innings to his credit.
Sheldon McDonald, who pitched brilliantly out of the bullpen for the Cubs' Peoria Chiefs this past season, will try to do the same for team Canada.
A couple of catchers are of interest, including former Iowa Cub Chris Robinson, who spent this past season in Baltimore's Triple-A franchise in Norfolk, and Kellin Deglan, who was a Baseball America Top 30 prospect in the Rangers system this past off-season. He played in low-A Hickory this year.
First baseman Jimmy Van Ostrand may not be a prospect anymore at 27 and in Double-A Harrisburg, but he did hit .310 with ten home runs in eighty games. Outfielder Tim Smith played for the Braves Double-A franchise in Mississippi and Marlins third baseman Shawn Bowman is a defensive specialist who played in Double-A Jacksonville and Triple-A New Orleans in 2012.
I should mention first baseman Jordan Lennerton, who was a teammate of Darwin Barney with Oregon State's 2007 NCAA Championship team. He hit twenty-one home runs for the Tigers Double-A affiliate in Erie this season.
Finally, in yet another sign that everything in Canada revolves around hockey, most of the players on Team Canada are growing "Playoff Beards" for the tournament.
Germany: Germany will have home-field advantage and is fielding a team with mostly German players with only a few "Passport Players" tossed in. The biggest name is 19 year-old outfielder Max Kepler, who was a BA top 20 Twins prospect this past off-season and will probably rise after a strong season in rookie ball. The other interesting prospect on the German team is Reds first baseman Donald Lutz, who was born in New York but lived in Berlin since he was a year old. Lutz has solid power with 22 home runs this past season between High-A and Double-A.
Left-hander Alex Burgos was BA's number eight prospect in the Tigers system this past off-season and will probably be Germany's ace. He struggled with control for Lakeland in the Florida State League this year. RIght-handed pitcher Daniel Thieben is only 18 and struggled in rookie ball, but the Mariners gave him $100,000 bonus a year ago.
These pitchers will throw to catcher Kai Gronauer, who played for the Mets High-A and Double-A teams this past season. He didn't hit much, but he's considered a strong defender.
There are a couple of imported players on the German team including one player very familiar to Cubs fans: reliever Will Ohman, who pitched 26 innings for the White Sox this season. Another familiar name, if not a familiar player, is former Twins utility player Toby Gardenhire, Ron's son. He finished 2011 in Triple-A, but he did not play in 2012.
Great Britain: Great Britain is relying on some top-flight pitching prospects, the Dodgers Chris Reed and the Angels Michael Roth. Reed was the Dodgers first round pick in 2011 and was born in London although he grew up in California. He pitched for very well for High-A Rancho Cucamonga this year. He struggled a bit in Double-A Chattanooga, but he's likely a Top 100 prospect this off-season. Roth was the pitching ace of South Carolina's College World Series Champion in 2011 and runner-up team in 2012. He only pitched 22 innings in rookie ball because of the Angels desire to limit his innings, but they are going to let him make one 65 pitch appearance.
Team Great Britain has three more pitchers in organized baseball, all relievers. Jake Esch was effective for Low-A Greensboro in the Marlins system this past year and lefty Hamilton Bennett was excellent in relief for the Mets High-A team in St. Lucie. Estevenson Encarnacion pitched for the Indians rookie ball club.
There's less to choose from among the British batters, but the one name, if not the player, that's familiar is Orioles farmhand Steve Bumbry, son of Orioles great Al Bumbry. Steve's mother is from Wales. He hit .249 for High-A Frederick this past season, but he did steal 12 bases in 14 attempts in only 64 games after a demotion from Double-A.
The big controversy on the Great Britain team is the presence of two Bahamanian players, outfielder Antoan Richardson and infielder Albert Cartwright. There's no question that they are eligible: both of their parents were born in the Bahamas when it was still a British colony. The controversy is that there is no team from the Bahamas, primarily because of bureaucracy and infighting between competing Bahamanian baseball groups.
Czech Republic: The Czech Republic is going with mostly a home-grown lineup and has only five players who play in America. The best player is third baseman Mike Cervenak, who had 13 at bats with the Phillies in 2008. He had a huge season for Triple-A New Orleans this season, posting a .340 batting average with 13 home runs and a .408 OBP. He is, however, thirty-six years old. Alex Sogard was a decent reliever for the Astros Double-A team in Corpus Christi this season. The other three players are still in rookie ball.
The rest of the Czech Republic team is made up of local players, six of which came out of MLB's European Academy. The Czech Republic is about as long a shot as France is in the Jupiter qualifier, although they apparently did beat the Netherlands in the European Championships this year, so they're hoping that anything can happen.
At worst though, the players will show up on the field with a great cap.