The World Baseball Classic starts tonight in the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea. Technically, it starts tomorrow, but really early tomorrow our time as the host Korean team faces off against Israel at 3:30 a.m. Central time. That’s 6:30 p.m. Seoul time.
The four teams in Group A are Korea, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and Israel. Every game of the WBC will be televised on the MLB Network or available for streaming at MLBNetwork.com/watch. (You do have to be a pay TV subscriber) Or, if you are an MLB.TV premium subscriber, and I know many of you are, you can watch the games there as well. If you’d rather watch the games with Spanish commentary, you can watch all the games on ESPN Deportes or on the WatchESPN app.
The four pools of four teams each are a round-robin, with the top two teams from each pool advancing to the next round. For the first time in WBC history, there will be a tiebreaker game rather than a tiebreaker formula if there is a three-way tie in a pool. (For example, if three teams go 2-1 and one team goes 0-3.)
The schedule for Group A is:
WBC history: Korea finished third in the first WBC in 2006 and finished second in 2009. They were eliminated by arch-rival and eventual champion Japan both times. Last time, they finished tied in pool play with the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei and failed to advance on tiebreakers.
Who?: Korean baseball is a rising power in the world as the professional KBO league is gaining in size, popularity and quality over the past decade. Most of the players on this team are currently playing in KBO, although there are a handful of minor leaguers and first baseman Dae Ho Lee played for the Mariners last season, although he is signed to play in Korea in 2017. Cardinals closer Seung Hwan Oh is the one major leaguer on the team.
Two starting pitchers who you should keep an eye on are lefties Won Jun Chang and Hyeon Jong Yang. Both are aces in KBO. The Korean bullpen is filled with a lot of pitchers with funky deliveries, arm angles and maddening offspeed stuff.
Cubs connection: Former Cubs minor leaguer Dae-Eun Rhee is on the roster. He’s played the past two years for Chiba Lotte in Japan’s NPB. (EDIT: I totally forgot about the five innings that Chang-Yong Lim pitched for the Cubs in 2013. They were forgettable, in my defense.)
Prediction: Playing at home and with the deepest team in the pool, Korea should put 2013 behind them and advance to the next round.
WBC history: Last time, the Kingdom of the Netherlands made it all the way to the semifinals before getting overpowered by eventual champion the Dominican Republic. The Netherlands made it to the second round in 2009 when they shockingly upset the Dominicans twice and eliminated them in the first round. They didn’t make it out of pool play in 2006, going 1-2.
Who?: The Netherlands team is made up mostly of current or former major and minor leaguers from both the Netherlands itself and the country’s overseas possessions in the Caribbean. They are managed by Giants coach and former Yankee Hensley “Bam-Bam” Meulens, who was the first major leaguer from the island of Curacao.
There are a lot of names on the Netherlands that you likely recognize, including a terrific infield with Andrelton Simmons, Didi Gregorius, Jonathan Schoop and Xander Bogaerts. On top of that, Jurickson Profar is available and he’ll play the outfield. You might also remember former Mariners outfielder Wladimir Balentien, who set the single-season HR record for NPB when he hit 60 homers in 2013 for the Yakult Swallows.
On the mound, you probably remember former Braves pitcher Jair Jurrjens, who is struggling to come back from injuries. Rick van den Hurk pitched several years in the majors, mostly with the Marlins. Shairon Martis pitched a few years for the Nationals and threw a mercy-rule shortened no-hitter in the 2006 WBC.
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen is expected to join the team in the later rounds of the tournament, should the team advance.
Another name you might know is longtime minor league pitcher Loek van Mil, who at 7’1”, is the tallest man to ever play professional baseball.
Cubs connection: Infielder Dwayne Kemp played in the Cubs system in 2008 and 2009, rising as high as short-season Boise. Former Cubs first-round pick Mark Pawelek is available to pitch in the later rounds.
Prediction: The Netherlands should be the other team to advance out of this pool.
WBC history: This is the first time Israel has qualified for the WBC tournament.
Who?: As many of you have noticed, WBC rules allow any player who is eligible for citizenship to play for that country’s team. Therefore, Team Israel has one Israeli-born player and the rest of the team is made up of Jewish-American players. But there are a lot of names on this roster that you’d recognize, such as first baseman Ike Davis, catcher Ryan Lavarnway, outfielder Nate Freiman and infielder Ty Kelly, who played 39 games for the Mets last season. Pitchers with major league experience include Craig Breslow and Josh Zeid.
Team Israel is managed by Jerry Weinstein, who has been a player, a scout, executive, manager or coach in professional or college baseball continuously since 1966. He will manage the Hartford Yard Goats this upcoming summer, the Rockies Double-A affiliate.
Cubs connection: Jason Marquis is coming out of retirement to pitch for Team Israel and Scott Feldman is expected to join the team later if they advance out of Pool A. Sam Fuld will play the outfield for Israel in the WBC.
Prediction: If anyone has a chance to knock off Korea or the Netherlands, it’s Israel. They’re the underdog here, but they’ve got a puncher’s chance to pull of the upset.
Team Chinese Taipei:
WBC history: Chinese Taipei has participated in all four WBC tournaments and they had their most success last time, when they advanced out of pool play before getting eliminated by Japan and the Netherlands in the second round. They were 1-2 in 2006 and 0-3 in pool play in 2009 and failed to advance both times.
Who?: Just to be clear here, this is Taiwan, which we have to call Chinese Taipei for geopolitical reasons.
Chinese Taipei looked to be a rising power in baseball in 2013, but things look bleak this time. A dispute between the domestic Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) and Taiwan’s national baseball federation means that several Taiwan’s best best players are skipping the tournament. You can read about the dispute here if you are interested, but mostly it’s about two groups arguing about who should be in charge.
The big name you would recognize on the Chinese Taipei roster is former Yankees starter Chien-Ming Wang, but even he’s only among the group of pitchers who would join the team if they advanced past pool play, which seems unlikely. Infielder Chin-lung Hu played for the Dodgers from 2007 to 2010 and the Mets in 2011. (And was the source of many “Hu’s on first?” jokes.) Left-handed pitcher Fu-Te Ni pitched for the Tigers in 2009 and 2010.
Left-handed pitcher Wei-Chung Wang pitched for the Brewers in 2014 and is still in their system but again, he’s not expected to join the team unless they advance past the first round.
Cubs connection: Right-handed pitcher Hung-Wen Chen was in the Cubs organization from 2007 to 2011, rising as high as Triple-A Iowa.
Prediction: Chinese Taipei won’t embarrass themselves, but getting out of this group is a tall order.