Last month I brought you the details of the first World Baseball Classic regional qualifier in Sydney, Australia, which was won by the host Australian "Southern Thunder" team. This week, two more regionals take place with four nations facing off in Mexico and four more in Panama.
Tomorrow I'll bring you a preview of the Panama City qualifier, but today brings us a look at the tournament in Mexicali, Baja California, just south of the border. The four teams that finished last in pool play in 2013 are forced to qualify again and Mexico finished last in Pool D, despite a stunning 5-2 victory over the United States. In fact, Mexico is the only team forced to qualify after winning a game. Mexico was stunned by Italy in pool play in 2013 when Anthony Rizzo hit a two-run double in the top of the ninth off of Sergio Romo to lose their first game 5-4 and then lost big to Canada 10-3 to seal their fate.
The other three teams competing with Mexico in this qualifier are Germany, Nicaragua and the Czech Republic.
The Mexicali qualifier is a modified double-elimination tournament. It starts on Thursday at 2:30 Central time when Germany takes on Nicaragua. Mexico will play the Czech Republic at 9:30 that evening. The tournament continues until Sunday. All games are available for free streaming at mlb.com and worldbaseballclassic.com and the finals on Sunday will be shown on MLB Network.
Mexico is the overwhelming favorite in this group. For one, they will have a huge home field advantage going for them. They also have the only true superstar competing in any of the qualifying tournaments in Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Unfortunately for Adrian, he's going to have to take directions from his older brother Edgar Gonzalez, who serves as the team's manager this time around after playing in the previous WBC tournaments.
Joining Adrian Gonzalez on the Team Mexico roster are 15 other players who currently play in major league organizations. The other major leaguers are longtime veteran left-handed pitcher Oliver Perez and first baseman Efren Navarro, who has played parts of the last four seasons with the Dodgers but is now in the Mariners organization.
Other notable players for Mexico include Reds outfield prospect Sebastian Elizalde, who is coming off a strong season in the Florida State League. Catching is also a strong point as Team Mexico has the Mets' Xorge Carrillo, who has played in Double-A the past two seasons as well as Sebastian Valle, who was a top five prospect in the Reds organization five years ago but is now trying to catch on with the Yankees. He's also still only 25 years old, so he still has a chance to make the majors.
The full roster of Team Mexico can be found here.
Although Mexico is the overwhelming favorite in this group, if any team has a chance to knock them off, it is probably Team Nicaragua. Nicaragua is managed by longtime Giants outfielder Marvin Benard. Benard will have 11 players currently playing in the minor leagues, including Rangers outfielder Jairo Beras, who is probably the best prospect on Team Nicaragua. Beras hit .291/.332/.440 as a 20 year-old in low-A last season.
Joining Beras is Alex Blandino, a shortstop in the Reds organization who was their first-round pick out of Stanford in 2014. Blandino hit .294/.370/.438 in High-A Daytona before struggling a bit after a promotion to Double-A. Right-hander Carlos Gonzalez is not the Rockies outfielder, but rather a pitcher in the Reds organization who also played for Double-A Pensacola last season.
Catcher Melvin Novoa is only 19 and had a successful first season in Rookie ball last year in the Rangers organization. He's one to watch going forward.
The full roster of Team Nicaragua can be found here.
Germany might have had more of a chance if promising Twins prospect Max Kepler wasn't in Florida trying to make their Opening Day roster. Most of Team Germany plays in the German Baseball-Bundesliga, although outfielder Donald Lutz has 62 major league games with the Reds under his belt, all coming in 2013 and 2014. He's still in the Reds organization. Former Cub Will Ohman played for Team Germany in qualifying in 2012 and he returns this time around as well.
Germany is managed by former Blue Jays third baseman Garth Iorg. Iorg can call on Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell, who has played in Double-A Midland last season, and outfielder Dominique Taylor, who played for the Royals High-A affiliate in Wilmington last summer.
Germany's best pitcher, however, is probably right-hander Markus Solbach, who was born in Germany but grew up in Michigan. Solbach had a 2.88 ERA in 121⅔ innings for Kane County in the Diamondbacks organization last season before a promotion to High-A Visalia.
The full roster of Team Germany can be found here.
Team Czech Republic
The Czech Republic is a rising power in European baseball and in four or eight years, they could be a threat to make some noise. This year, however, they are most likely to be sacrificial lambs. The Czech Republic only has one player currently playing in affiliated baseball, Indians catcher Martin Cervenka, who struggled at low-A Lake County last season.
The Czech Republic does have some former minor leaguers, however. Right-handed pitcher John Straka pitched one season in the Rangers organization. First baseman Jakub Hatjmar played the 2008 season in the Twins organization and outfielder Matej Hejma played three seasons for Minnesota, the last coming in 2011. There are also a few players who are currently playing college baseball in the US.
An interesting side note to Team Czech Republic is the overwhelming left-handedness of their starting lineup. As JP Morosi noted, it seems that the influence of hockey in that country, as well as Canada, produces a lot of left-handed hitters who throw right-handed.
The Czech Republic is managed by Mike Griffin.
The full roster of Team Czech Republic can be found here.
Tomorrow: The Panama City qualifier.