Rounding out my previews of the four WBC regional pools is a look at the Phoenix Pool. Two of the games, Italy versus Mexico this afternoon and Canada versus Italy on Friday afternoon are scheduled to be played at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick and the rest will be played at Chase Field.
All eyes will be on the United States team in this pool, as the US failure to ever reach the final of the WBC has been cited as a reason the tournament hasn't been bigger in the US market. Despite all the moaning about players who aren't playing, the US still has the talent to get there.
The first game of this pool is this afternoon at 2 p.m. Central as Mexico takes on Italy.
Let's not focus on who isn't playing in this tournament and instead pay attention to who is. Without question, the US has the best starting rotation in the tournament with R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Vogelsong, Ross Detwiler and Derek Holland. Could there be bigger names there? Sure. But I can't think of anyone I'd rather have pitch against Japan or Cuba in the final four than Dickey, as they've never seen a pitch like his knuckleball before. Gonzalez won 21 games last season and US manager Joe Torre should be setting those two to pitch in the final four. The US also has the best closer on the planet these days in Craig Kimbrel, along with several top set-up men like David Hernandez, Jeremy Affeldt, Steve Cishek and Vinnie Pestano, among others. Pitching depth is not going to be a problem for the US.
The US also boast the best outfield in the tournament and it would be hard for anyone to put together a better outfield trio than Ryan Braun, Adam Jones and Giancarlo Stanton. (Yes, you could have replaced Jones with that Mike Trout kid, but Jones is a pretty great player too.) Shane Victorino serves as the fourth outfielder.
Joe Mauer leads the catching crew, although he'll likely DH and play first base some, giving playing time to Jonathan Lucroy and J.P. Arencibia. The infield, going around the horn, is David Wright, Jimmy Rollins, Brandon Phillips and Eric Hosmer. Ben Zobrist is the greatest utility player on the planet and while Willie Bloomquist isn't anyone's idea of an all-star, he is really, really versatile and can fill in anywhere there's a need.
Despite all the complaining about who isn't here, the US is still the best team on paper in this tournament. Of course, you could have said that about the 2006 and 2009 teams and neither one took home the golden ball.
Canada was embarrassed in 2009 when they failed to win a game and were forced to go through qualifying this past September. Even without any of their major leaguers, Canada destroyed the Regensberg regional, easily qualifying over Germany, Great Britain and the Czech Republic.
This time, Canada is going to have major league players, none more important than first baseman Joey Votto. Unfortunately, their second best-hitter is probably first baseman Justin Morneau, but that's why they use the DH rule, right? Brett Lawrie makes Canada strong at the corners. Unfortunately, Pete Orr and Cale Iorg are the middle infielders, which is why it made so much sense for Russell Martin to play shortstop before the Pirates put the kibosh on that. Former Iowa Cubs catcher Chris Robinson will catch, along with John Suomi, who is expected to play for the Royals Triple-A Omaha team this year.
In the outfield, Canada will be without Jason Bay for the first time in the WBC, but maybe that's not a bad thing the way Bay has played lately. The only major leaguer there is the Mariners' Michael Saunders. Outfielder Adam Loewen returns to Team Canada from the 2006 WBC, although he was a pitcher back then. He won't be pitching this time.
Pitching is going to be a real problem for Canada as their Opening Game starter is going to be Shawn Hill and Chris Leroux is scheduled to go in game two. Perhaps Canadian manager Ernie Whitt might want to consider starting top Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon before Canada is eliminated. At least they have John Axford in the back of the bullpen.
Canada has a lot of talent, but in a group with the United States, Mexico and Italy (with all their "Passport Players"), it won't be easy for them to get to the second round.
Mexico has advanced to the second round of both of the previous WBCs, and if they do so this time, it will be on the strength of their pitching, which is surpassed only by the United States. Candidates for Mexico's starting rotation are Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada, Luis Mendoza, Rodrigo Lopez and Oliver Perez. The bullpen is stacked with Sergio Romo, Alfredo Aceves, Fernando Salas and Oscar Villarreal.
On offense, the Mexicans are paced by first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. They've also got. . .well, let's see. Adrian's big brother Edgar Gonzalez. Jorge Cantu is there. I guess he's still playing in the Mexican League. Are the Hairstons still playing for Mexico? No? Oh, I see Karim Garcia is there. Who knew Karim Garcia was still playing? Since leaving MLB in 2004, he's been in NPB, KBO and the Mexican League. He hit .334 with 22 home runs for Monterrey last season.
As you can see, hitting is going to be a problem for the Mexicans. But big tournament games are won with pitching, so if the Mexican staff can shut down either Canada or Italy, then a third straight trip to the second round is possible.
Italy isn't completely made up of "Passport Players." In fact, there are seven native Italians on Team Italy, led by the Mariners' Alex Liddi and former Cubs farmhand Alex Maestri, who now pitches for Orix in NPB. But most of the attention is going to be on the Italian-Americans, such as the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo. Other well-known players are Nick Punto, Chris Denorfia and Drew Butera. The pitching staff has Jason Grilli, Dan Serafini (again, who knew he was still active in the Mexican League?) and famous ambidextrous pitcher Pat Venditte, although he'll only pitch left-handed in the WBC after having right labrum surgery last year.
Italy has managed to win a game in both of the last two WBC tournaments, and there will be a lot of pressure for them to do so again. The European rivalry they have with the Netherlands probably just got a little more intense with the Dutch advancing to the second round over Korea. Advancing out of this region isn't impossible, but it would be a real long-shot. The Italians goal will be to upset either Mexico or Canada to keep their winning streak alive and to avoid having to go through qualifiers for the 2017 WBC.