The fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic will take place in the spring of 2017, but the qualifying tournaments get underway this week as four teams take the field in Australia in an attempt to qualify for the final 16.
Under the rules of the WBC, the four teams that did not win a game in pool play are placed in a qualifying round with 12 more teams hoping to make the final 16. They play in four modified double-elimination tournaments of four teams for the final four spots in pool play. The first of these four qualifiers is in Sydney, Australia this week. There will be two more qualifiers in Mexicali, Mexico and Panama City, Panama in March. The final qualifying tournament will be this September in Brooklyn.
I know that many of you have a "who cares?" attitude towards the World Baseball Classic and the event has not taken off in the US as MLB organizers would have hoped. But there is little doubt that in much of the world, this event is the biggest baseball event on the calendar. TV ratings in Asia and the Caribbean when their national teams play set records for the sport. For other struggling baseball federations throughout the world, this is the one time that they can get coverage in their local sports media. It also attracts attention from young players thinking of taking up the sport from throughout the world. Bud Selig may be gone, but his idea for a world baseball tournament of nations is around to stay.
In any case, more baseball is never bad, right?
The four teams competing the Australian qualifier are:
Australia is the far and away favorite in this group. Not only are they the home team, but their roster includes several players that you've heard of such as Travis Blackley, Peter Moylan, Luke Hughes and Trent Oeltjen. Two former Cubs farmhands, Ryan Rowland-Smith (who also played several years in the majors for the Mariners) and Ryan Searle are also on the team. There are also nine players on the team currently on affiliated minor league teams. Australia is managed for the fourth time in the WBC by Jon Deeble, who has managed in the Marlins and Red Sox farm systems.
New Zealand has only three players currently in organized ball, but they are sure to put on a great show with their traditional Haka Dance before the games.
New Zealand is managed by Chris Woodward, whom you likely remember from his 12-year career as a utility infielder in the majors.
South Africa is an emerging baseball power in Africa, although it would take a big upset for them to get past Australia. (And let's hope that in 2021, Uganda joins South Africa as a participant in these qualifying rounds.) There are four South Africans on the roster that are currently on minor league teams.. The South Africans will be led by Pirates shortstop Gift Ngoepe, who played for their Triple-A affiliate last season and Dylan Unsworth, who pitched for Seattle's Double-A affiliate last season.
The Philippines are the longest of longshots in this tournament. They have one name you might recognize, former Cubs pitcher Clay Rapada. (He retired Raul Ibañez on a line out to right field in 2007. That was the only batter he faced for the Cubs before they traded him to the Tigers for Craig Monroe.) The Philippines are managed by former White Sox outfielder Tim Hulett and have two current minor leaguers on their roster including Angelo Songco, who played for Double-A Chattanooga the past two seasons.
All games will available for free viewing on worldbaseballclassic.com. EDIT: A better link is at mlb.com. Additionally, several games will be televised overnight on the MLB Network, starting with Australia taking on the Philippines at 2:30 am Chicago time Thursday morning. Then Australia's next game will be televised at the same time Friday morning. Finally, the MLB Network will televise the semifinal game at 1:30 am Central on Saturday morning and the final will be broadcast at a viewing-friendly time of 9 pm Central on Sunday.