Qualifying for the 2017 World Baseball Classic continues this week as eight teams vie for two spots in the most prestigious international baseball tournament in the world. Yesterday I brought you a preview of the Mexicali qualifier and today I'm going to look at the four teams competing in the other qualifier in Panama City, Panama.
Whereas the Mexicali qualifier has a clear favorite (Team Mexico), the Panama City qualifier is much more balanced with three of the four teams are a threat to emerge as the winner. Team Colombia is probably the favorite as they have the most players currently in organized baseball. But Team Panama has home field advantage, several players from organized baseball as well and also the biggest-name major leaguer in this tournament in Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz. Spain's lineup doesn't match up as well with Panama and Colombia, but you could have said that about Team Spain four years ago and they emerged victorious in their WBC qualifying tournament. Then there is Team France, who is probably just along for the ride but you never know in a tournament like this.
The modified double-elimination Panama City qualifier gets underway tomorrow at noon Chicago time as Colombia takes on Spain and then at 7 p.m. Central, France will play the host Panamanians. The tournament will then continue with two games at the same time on Friday, one game on Saturday and the Championship Game on Sunday. Sunday's game will be televised on the MLB Network. The other games can be streamed for free on worldbaseballclassic.com or mlb.com.
The star of Team Colombia is Mets second baseman Dilson Herrera, who was ranked as the 4th-best prospect in the Mets system before exhausting his rookie eligibility in 2015. Herrera just turned 22 this month and is still considered the Mets second baseman of the future. Pirates outfielder Harold Ramirez hit .337/.399/.458 with 22 steals for High-A Bradenton last season at age 20. He's ranked 95th on Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list coming into this season.
Overall, 16 members of Team Colombia are currently playing in affiliated baseball. Left-handed reliever Greg Nappo had a 2.66 ERA for the Marlins Triple-A affiliate in New Orleans and could see time in the majors this season. Other pitchers in organized ball include three pitchers from rookie ball last season: Kevin Escorcia (White Sox), Jhonatan Escudero (Cardinals) and Nasbil Crismatt (Mets). Journeyman outfielder Reynaldo Rodriguez is in the Twins organization now, but he's played in Triple-A the past two seasons.
Team Colombia is managed by Luis Urueta, who has been a coach or coordinator in the Diamondbacks system since 2007.
The entire roster of Team Colombia can be found here.
The biggest threat to knock off Colombia are the host Panamanians, who are managed by Carlos Lee, who played for Panama for their previous WBC teams and would be in the Hall of Fame today if he could have played every game of his career against the Cubs.
Beyond the aforementioned Carlos Ruiz, Team Panama boasts Padres shortstop Javier Guerra, who hit .279/.329/.449 as a 19 year old at Low-A Greenville last season. The Padres got Guerra from Boston in the Craig Kimbrel deal this past winter and he's currently the number one prospect in the Friars' system. They also have former Cubs pitcher Manny Corpas on their roster.
Overall, there are ten players on Team Panama currently employed by major league organizations. Pitching is a strength for Panama as their roster includes Phillies righty Harold Arauz, Rangers righty Ariel Jurado and another right-hander in the Pirates Dario Agrazal. Cardinals shortstop Edmundo Sosa hit .300 as a 20-year-old in rookie ball last season.
The entire roster of Team Panama can be found here.
Spain, along with Brazil, was one of the surprises of qualifying pool play last time around as the Spaniards stunned a Team Israel, made up mostly of experienced Jewish-American players, 9-7 in ten innings to advance to pool play in the 2013 Classic. Team Spain relies heavily on players from the United States or Latin America with Spanish relatives. They have five players on their roster currently affiliated with major league teams, as well as former Astros pitcher Rhiner Cruz, who is currently pitching in Nippon Professional Baseball. They have other players with minor league experience who are currently looking for jobs, such as right-handed pitcher Richard Castillo.
Perhaps the best player on Team Spain is former Rangers major league outfielder Engel Beltre, who was one of the heroes for Team Spain back in 2012 and is currently looking for work after playing for the White Sox Triple-A team last year.
Another player to watch is Mets shortstop prospect Luis Guillorme, who was the MVP of the low-A South Atlantic League last season after hitting .318/.391/.354 with 18 steals.
Team Spain is also fortified by a pair of Cuban hurlers. Lazaro Leyva can hit 100 mph on the radar gun and signed with the Orioles in 2014 for a $750,000 bonus. Carlos Sierra is a Cuban pitcher who has yet to make his minor league debut, but he signed with the Astros this past winter after establishing residence in Spain. Right-hander Richard Castillo played eight seasons in the minors and is currently a free agent, hoping to impress a major league team with his performance.
Team Spain is managed by Cuban Yunesky Sanchez, who played for Spain in 2012 and had the game-winning hit in that victory over Israel.
The full roster of Team Spain can be found here.
France is managed by Eric Gagne. That's about all there is to get excited about Team France. They have one player on their roster in organized ball, Cuban catcher Andy Paz, who has caught for the Low-A Beloit Snappers the past two seasons. A few others have played in independent ball in Quebec. But mostly, this team is pretty outclassed. It would be a great story if they won.
The full roster of Team France can be found here.