The first round of the World Baseball Classic gets underway tonight at 10:30 Chicago time as Australia takes on Chinese Tapei in the Taichung regional. This is the second my four previews of the Classic. I'll be covering the Asian pools on Saturday through Wednesday, and then I'll be back on Thursday with previews of the Puerto Rico and Phoenix pools that start later that evening.
All games in this pool will be played at Taichung Intercontinental Stadium in Taichung, Taiwan. From the photos there and elsewhere on line, it looks like a gorgeous place to play baseball. I can also say that from the preliminary rounds, the host country gets very enthusiastic crowds for their Chinese Taipei National team. I was impressed with the fans and the venue in the preliminary rounds, and this stadium looks even better.
To get anyone caught up who hasn't yet read my preview of the Fukuoka group:
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 is a very well-balanced group and is really the only one of the four pools in which all four teams have a reasonable chance to advance. South Korea is clearly the cream of this crop and is expected to move on to the second round, but the next three teams are fairly evenly-matched as they vie for the second ticket to the next round.
Feel free to use this as a game thread for the Australia/Chinese Taipei game tonight. I'll be here, if you're interested.
Korea finished third in the first WBC tournament in 2006 and second in 2009. Can they win the whole thing this time? It won't be easy. Korea is relying on a veteran lineup with only one major league veteran this time, as Reds outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and newly-signed Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu are getting acclimated to their new teammates. Most of the Korean team plays in the domestic Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), with a few players competing in Japan's NPB.
Two of those players with NPB experience are first baseman Seung-Yuop Lee and infielder Dae-Ho Lee. (There are four Lees on the Korean team and three Kims) Seung-Yuop Lee is known as the "Lion King" from his days as a star player for the Samsung Lions in KBO. He's also played for Chiba Lotte and Yomiuri in NPB. Lee is a 36 year old slugging first baseman who holds the KBO single-season HR record with 56. He's come up big in international play when he homered against Japan in the 2008 Olympics to send Korea to the gold medal game and then homered again against Cuba when Korea won the gold medal. He also played in the 2006 WBC. He had interest from the Yankees and Dodgers earlier in his career, but never came to a contract agreement and stayed in Asia.
Dae-Ho Lee just finished his first season in NPB after eleven seasons with KBO's Lotte Giants. In his first season with the Orix Buffalo in 2012, he won the Central League RBI title with 91 along with 24 home runs. Two other players, infielder Tae-Kyun Kim and outfielder "Machine" Hyun-Soo Kim, are back from 2009, when both were named to the all-tournament team.
Korea should have little trouble making it out of this group, but will have a big challenge advancing to the final four if they're facing Japan and Cuba in the second round, as expected.
The host country is taking this tournament seriously after they felt they were embarrassed in 2009 when they went home without winning a game. They're taking it so seriously, in fact, that they were caught spying on the Korean team with scouts disguised as umpires. It's Chinese Taipei's mission to make it into the second round this time. They've got a good chance, but it won't be easy.
Easily the most famous name playing for Chinese Taipei is pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, most famously of the Yankees but who played last two seasons for the Nationals. Also joining Wang is former all-star Dodgers pitcher Hong-Chih Kuo. Wang and Kuo are the ones with major league experience, but they may not even be the best pitchers on their own staff. Eighteen year-old fireballer Jen-Ho Tseng reportedly can hit 95 mph on the radar gun and has major league front offices very interested. He's expected to sign with a major league organization sometime soon. The WBC could be his debutante ball.
One more pitcher of interest to everyone here is the Cubs own Yao-Lin Wang, who had a pretty successful season as a reliever for the Peoria Chiefs in 2012.
One other player with major league experience is 23-year old Astros outfielder Che-Hsuan Lin, who played nine games with the Red Sox last season. He's a strong defensive center fielder with a cannon arm, but there are some real questions as to how well he'll hit in the majors, which is why Boston let him go. Joining Lin in the outfield is Dai-Kang Yang of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. I don't have anything to say about that other than I wanted to say Nippon Ham Fighters.
The biggest moment of the 2009 tournament was the Netherlands 3-2 upset of the Dominican Republic. (And if you read the boxscore, the "Jansen" listed as the catcher is indeed Dodgers relief ace Kenley Jansen.) They then followed it up three days later with another victory over the Dominicans, 2-1 in 11 innings. That game was scoreless until the eleventh when Jose Reyes scored on a Gene Kingsdale error. The Netherlands roared back in the bottom of the inning when (gulp) Carlos Marmol blew the save and took the loss. (In fairness to Marmol, the winning run did score on a Willy Aybar error.) The other big moment for the Netherlands came in 2006, when Shairon Martis threw the only no-hitter in WBC history over Panama.
This Netherlands team is as young as the Koreans are experienced. The team lacks many major league stars, but it has some of the best young players in the minors, even without Jurickson Profar, who finally decided not to play. The Red Sox top prospect, shortstop Xander Bogaerts, is here, although he may get shunted over to third base because the Dutch also have the Braves sophomore shortstop, Andrelton Simmons. Add in the Orioles number-three prospect Jonathan Schoop at second base, and the Netherlands has an impressive young infield. Brewers Triple-A shortstop Hainley Statia isn't the prospect that he used to be anymore, but at 26 he's still pretty young and gives the Orange even more infield depth.
The most famous player for the Dutch is three-time WBC participant Andruw Jones, who is signed to play with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in NPB this season after a long major league career. Joining him in the outfield is the Nationals Roger Bernadina, who really had a pretty good season as a fourth outfielder last year. The outfield is rounded out with former Mariner Wladimir Balentien, and Randolph Oduber, who played in High-A for the Nats last year.
The pitching isn't as good as the hitting, but there is some talent there for pitching coach Bert Blyleven to work with. Shairon Martis is back. Tom Stuifbergen pitched in High-A for the Twins. The biggest pitcher is easily Loek Van Mil. but I mean that literally since at 7'1", Van Mil is the tallest player in organized baseball history. He pitched for the Angels Triple-A team is Salt Lake last year.
The Dutch don't have many "passport" players, but there's one name on the pitching staff you might recognize: former Cubs first round pick Mark Pawelek.
Australia is the long-shot in this pool, but this team does have some talent and could surprise. The Aussies strength is their pitching, although it would be even stronger if Athletics relievers Grant Balfour and Travis Blackley along with Dodgers reliever Peter Moylan hadn't pulled out. Balfour is coming off an injury and neither Blackley nor Moylan are guaranteed a major league roster spot, so their absences are understandable.
But they do have former Mariners starter Ryan Rowland-Smith, who you know pitched for the Iowa Cubs last season, or you would know if you were reading the Minor League Wraps. Rowland-Smith signed with Boston this off-season. Joining him is another star of the Cubs Minor League Wraps, Ryan Searle, who pitched for Daytona, Tennessee and Iowa last season. He's probably ticketed for Tennesee or Iowa this season. Veteran Chris Oxspring had twelve innings with the Padres back in 2005. Andrew Russell threw for the Braves Triple-A Gwinnett team last year and had a 1.75 ERA, although at 28, he's not really a prospect. Warwick Saupold had a successful season pitching out of the pen for the Tigers Low and High A teams.
On offense, the Australians have two former major leaguers with former Twins infielder Luke Hughes and former Mariner outfielder Chris Snelling. Catcher Matt Kennelly played for Double-A Mississippi last year. Third baseman Stefan Welch was in Double-A Altoona for the Pirates. Padres outfielder Corey Adamson struggled in the Midwest League last year, but he was only twenty years old and still has a future. Second baseman James Beresford was in Double-A for the Twins.