World Baseball Classic Preview: The Fukuoka Pool

Koji Watanabe

Defending champion Japan quest to make it three WBC titles in a row starts here by taking on Cinderella team Brazil. Cuba and China will also be looking to advance from this group.

The World Baseball Classic gets underway tonight when Australia takes on Chinese Tapei at 10:30 p.m. Chicago time. Once again, I'll be providing as much coverage as I can of the Classic, starting today with previews of the Fukuoka and Taichung Pools.

All games of the World Baseball Classic can be seen on the MLB Network or on-line, for free, at worldbaseballclassic.com. Additionally, today MLBAM released a World Baseball Classic app for the iPad and iPhone. You'll be able to follow all the games on that and even watch them on the app, but unfortunately only if you subscribe to DirecTV, Time Warner Cable or Bright House Cable. Still, the app is essentially a version of the MLB At Bat app for the WBC.

This pool starts play early tomorrow morning as Brazil takes on Japan, at 4 a.m. Chicago time Saturday. You'll probably be more likely to watch the next game between Brazil and Cuba Saturday at 9:30 p.m. CT. Unless you have a newborn, in which case the first game will be a godsend for you.

The games in Japan will be played at the Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome in Fukuoka on the northern shore of the southern Island of Kyushu. It was Japan's first retractable-roof dome and is the home of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

JAPAN

The Japanese are the two-time defending champions, which is probably a product of quality players, taking the competition seriously and the Japanese tradition of starting spring training in early January. This time, Japan is competing without any current major leaguers, although veteran major league infielder Kazuo Matsui will play for the host country.

in the past, the WBC has served as a kind of "coming-out party" for future MLB players like Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kosuke Fukudome. This year is expected to be no different and like always, Japan's strength appears to be their pitching. The big name, and the one with the best future MLB prospects, is 24-year -old righthander Masahiro Tanaka, who throws in the mid-90s with a nasty slider. He also has a splitter and a change-up in his arsenal, both of major-league quality. Tanaka was the 2011 Sawamura Award winner (NPB's equivalent of the Cy Young Award) when he 19-5 with a 1.27 ERA. He also throws strikes with a K/BB ratio of almost 9:1. Tanaka is likely to be posted by Rakuten in the next year or two, so watch him now before he pitches in the majors.

Other pitchers to watch are Kenta Maeda of Hiroshima and Yomiuri's Tetsuya Utsumi. Perhaps the most fun Japanese pitcher to watch is their left-handed reliever Kazuhisa Makita, a submariner who throws from so far down under that he's eligible to pitch for Australia. (That's just a joke, folks.)

The position players for Japan aren't quite as strong, but one player who could play in the majors one day would be 24 year-old shortstop Hayato Sakamoto, a good glove who had a breakout season at the plate for Yomiuri this past year, hitting .311/.356/.456. Catcher Shinnosuke Abe is a NPB and WBC veteran, and he just missed winning the Central League Triple crown this past year.

The names may not be as familiar to US fans as in years past, but Japan once again puts a very good team on the field. It will be an upset if they don't make the final four and it would surprise no one if they won it all again.

Cuba

Five members of the 2009 Cuban WBC team are now playing in the United States, including Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes, so it's safe to say that Cuba is still producing a lot of baseball talent. While defections have clearly hurt the Cuban national team, they are still heavily favored to make it out of this group and have a good chance to make the final four in San Francisco.

Their biggest player, both figuratively and literally, is 26 year-old first baseman Jose Abreu, who is known as the "Cuban Barry Bonds" for his home run power. Abreu is listed at 6'3", 240 pounds, but most observers think he's even bigger than that. Jonah Keri over at Grantland wrote an in-depth article on Abreu and the difficulties in scouting Cuban players. In it, Athletics assistant GM David Forst said that while the comparisons to Barry Bonds are overblown, "[t]here are legitimate comparisons to Ryan Howard." Abreu would command a Cespedes-like contract or even more if he were made an international free agent. (The new international bonus cap does not apply to Cubans older than 23.)

The Cubans strength is in their outfield, and probably only the United States and Venezuela have three better starters in the outfield. One player who could end up in the majors someday is 26 year old slugger Alfredo Despaigne, who at 5'9" could take Jimmy Wynn's nickname of "The Toy Cannon." Despite his size, he's got a ton of power as Stephen Strasburg could attest to, as Depsaigne took him deep in the 2008 Olympics.

Frederich Cepeda went 14 for 28 in the 2009 WBC after hitting "only" .385 (with a .500 OBP) in the 2006 tourney. Rounding out the outfield is Alexi Bell. Bell, who is also 5'9", had the Cuban Serie Nacional home run record before Abreu broke it in 2011 (and then Despaigne broke it again in 2012). He also terrorized the US Olympic team in 2008.

Shortstop Erisbel Arruebarruena is a spectacular fielder who would have Gold Glove potential in the majors. At only 22 years old, he'd be a top prospect if he were in the minors.

Pitching the weak point for the Cuban National Team and they sure could use Aroldis Chapman or even Livan Hernandez. Odrisamer Despaigne is a Serie Nacional veteran who could take the mound for the must-win games. But Cuba will have to win by outslugging their opponents. In Fukuoka, that isn't likely to be a problem.

China

China is being managed by former Mariners manager John McLaren, while former Athletics manager Phillip Seymour Hoffman Art Howe will serve as the hitting coach. Those are certainly the biggest names on the Chinese team. China received a blow when Bruce Chen pulled out of pitching for China after initially agreeing to pitch for them after his native Panama was eliminated in the preliminary round. As they wrote over at Yahoo!'s Big League Stew, "When Bruce Chen not playing for your team is a big deal, how much trouble are you in?"

The best player for China is probably minor-league veteran Ray Chang, who is a 29 year-old infielder from Kansas City that played for the Twins Triple-A team in Rochester last season. China's best pitchers are Xia Lou and Tao Bu. I don't know anything about them other than their names.

China is going to have to pull off a miracle to defeat either Japan or Cuba and advance to the second round. At least they have some of the nicest looking caps in the tournament. The red cap with the gold Old English C looks pretty sharp to me.

Brazil

Brazil qualifying for the first round of the World Baseball Classic was the best story in baseball this off-season and their Cinderella victory over Panama in Panama City was a thrilling baseball game that was the best advertisement the WBC could have asked for. But if manager Barry Larkin had his work cut out for him beating Panama, Nicaragua and Colombia, three teams with a much richer baseball history than Brazil, he faces what looks like an impossible task taking on Japan and Cuba.

They'll have to do so without Indians catcher Yan Gomes, who played for Brazil in Panama but is skipping this round to get acclimated to his new teammates in Cleveland. They will have White Sox right-handed pitcher Andre Rienzo, whom Baseball America recently ranked as the No. 7 prospect in the Sox system. Right-hander Murilo Gouvea is a promising pitcher in the Astros system and is ticketed for High-A this year. Infielder Daniel Matsumoto has played the last eleven seasons for Yakult in the NPB. Cuban-born outfielder JC Muniz reached Double-A in the Marlins system and has also played in NPB.

I previewed Brazil in the preliminary round back in November, where I called them the long-shot, and they are even more of a long-shot now. But back in November, Brazil proved that they very well could be the next great hotbed of baseball talent. The sport is big among Brazil's large ethnic Japanese population (and several of Brazil's players have Japanese heritage), and is gaining in the rest of the country.

I'm going to be pulling for Brazil because I was impressed with their team back in November and I know it would be huge for the sport if baseball were to take off as a major sport in Brazil. But they've really got no chance. Hopefully they'll get some media coverage back in São Paulo though.

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