World Baseball Classic Preview: The San Juan Pool

US PRESSWIRE

I'm calling this pool "The Group Of Death" because of three Caribbean baseball powers: Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. One of those three teams, along with Spain, will not advance to the second round.

So you've been wanting to get into international baseball, but your parents/spouse/employer make these unreasonable demands that you not sleep during the day, which made it difficult to watch the games from Asia in the middle of the night. The good news for you is that this afternoon, the World Baseball Classic comes to America, where you'll be able to watch the games at a reasonable hour.

These previews are going to be shorter than the ones I did for the Fukuoka and Taichung Pools. The biggest reason for this is that I hope that I don't have to explain to any of you who David Wright, Yadier Molina, Jose Reyes, Miguel Cabrera or Anthony Rizzo are.

San Juan, Puerto Rico Pool

This group is, to borrow a term from the FIFA World Cup, the Group of Death. It's also the all-Spanish speaking group as the four countries represented are the host Puerto Rico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Spain. It's certainly the Group of Death for Spain who, despite the extensive use of "Passport Players," is going to struggle to win a game.

The games will all be played at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, which should be familiar as the former part-time home of the Montreal Expos. The first game is tonight at 5:30 central, as the Dominican Republic takes on Venezuela in a game that promises to be the best so far of the tournament.

Puerto Rico

The host country doesn't have the major league pedigree in recent years that Venezuela and the Dominican Republic have, but in this tournament they have the advantage of playing at home and having had very few major leaguers turn them down. Top minor league prospects like Carlos Correa, Javier Baez and Francisco Lindor are not here, but they could make Puerto Rico a formidable team in the 2017 WBC.

The Puerto Rican outfield is their biggest strength, where they can put Carlos Beltran, Alex Rios and Angel Pagan on the field at the same time. Catching is also a positive with two of the Molina brothers, Yadier and Jose Molina, splitting duties behind the plate. They also have Brewers catcher Martin Maldonado, and I imagine that Puerto Rican manager Edwin Gonzalez will use one of them as a DH.

The infield isn't quite as strong, with Indians second baseman Mike Aviles being the biggest name. Royals infielder Irving Falu is here, as is Andy Gonzalez, from the Brewers Triple-A affiliate and who last played in the major leagues in 2007. Luis Figueroa rounds out the infield. He played in 18 major league games between 2001 and 2007 and was in the Mexican League last year.

Pitching is going to be a real problem for Puerto Rico, as Javier Vazquez pulled out of the tournament (and indeed, all of major league baseball for 2013), leaving Nelson Figueroa and JC Romero as the only recognizable names. The rest of the team consists of minor leaguers who have, at most, a cup of coffee or two in the majors.

Puerto Rico has never failed to get to the second round in the first two WBCs. They will have the hometown fans behind them and a potent offense. That might be enough to advance again.

Venezuela

Venezuela finished third in the 2009 WBC and made the second round in 2006. Venezuela could easily win it all this time.

I'll just give you a sample lineup card that manager Luis Sojo might turn in on the championship game in San Francisco, should they make it there.

1. Elvis Andrus SS

2. Martin Prado LF

3. Miguel Cabrera 1B

4. Carlos Gonzalez RF

5. Pablo Sandoval 3B

6. Asdrubal Cabrera DH

7. Miguel Montero C

8. Gerardo Parra CF

9. Marco Scutaro 2B

With Anibal Sanchez on the mound and Francisco Rodriguez as the closer.

Former Yankees infielder and current Tampa Yankees manager Luis Sojo is the Venezuelan skipper, and he says that while managing in the Venezuelan Winter League this off-season, all anyone wanted to talk to him about is the WBC.

If you're looking for weaknesses on the team, the pitching depth isn't great. Venezuela received a blow when Felix Hernandez withdrew from the tournament in January. After Sanchez, the rotation is Henderson Alvarez, Jhoulys Chacin and good old Carlos Zambrano.

Anything short of a championship will be a disappointment for Venezuela.

Dominican Republic

No team has been more disappointing in the first two WBCs than the Dominican Republic, and that's even counting the United States. While they did make the final four in 2006, losing to Cuba in the semi-finals, the Dominican Republic was bounced in the first round in 2009, losing twice to the Netherlands.

The Dominican Republic returns with a powerful lineup, but like the United States, they're missing a lot of quality major leaguers that skipped the tournament for one reason or another. Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista and Adrian Beltre are all missing, but they probably won't miss them as much as they'll miss Johnny Cueto and Ubaldo Jimenez, because the Dominican starting rotation is rather thin. The Dominican rotation will be "Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez and pray for something that rhymes with Volquez." The bullpen is solid though with Santiago Casilla, Octavio Dotel, Fernando Rodney and Jose Veras. That should be a big advantage in the early rounds with the low pitch counts.

The Dominican Republic has the best starting infield in the tournament with Hanley Ramirz, Jose Reyes, Robinson Cano and Edwin Encarnacion. It's so good that Erick Aybar and Miguel Tejada are backups. Carlos Santana is catching.

The outfield is a little thin, however. Nelson Cruz is the only big name there, although Alejandro De Aza is coming off a good season in 2012.

The Dominican Republic doesn't seem as formidable in 2013 as they did in 2006 and 2009. But there is certainly enough talent there to win the whole tournament if Dominican manager Tony Pena can manage the pitching staff properly.

Spain

I wrote an extensive preview of the Spanish team back in September when they played in the qualifying round. They advanced to the first round over France, South Africa and Israel. They beat Israel 9-7 in ten innings to win the qualifier. The Spanish team is made up entirely of "Passport Players" from the Americas. The biggest name on the team is Rangers Double-A Outfielder Engel Beltre, who is Dominican.

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