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World Baseball Classic Preview: Group B/Tokyo

The WBC continues in the Far East with traditional power Japan.

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The World Baseball Classic continues tomorrow morning in the Tokyo Dome as host country Japan takes on Cuba at 4 am Central time. So many of you will be able to watch the end of the game as you eat breakfast and/or get ready for work or school.

The four teams in Group B are Japan, Cuba, Australia and China. . 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.

Also, I’ll have a write-up late tonight of Israel’s big upset of Korea early this morning and a look at Israel’s game tonight with Chinese Taipei. Remember, Israel and CT will face off tonight at 9 p.m. Central time, so you can actually watch that one at a decent hour.

The complete schedule for Group B is:

Just a reminder, the this is a round-robin tournament and the top two teams advance to the second round, also in Tokyo.

Spoiler alert: Japan is going to advance.

Team Japan:

WBC history: Japan won the first two WBC tournaments in 2006 and 2009. They were eliminated by Puerto Rico in the semifinals last time.

Who?: There’s no Ichiro Suzuki this time and the one player we all wanted to see, pitcher/DH Shohei Ohtani, had to pull out with an ankle injury. The only major leaguer on Team Japan’s roster is Astros outfielder Nori Aoki. The rest of the team comes from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of talent. Second baseman Tetsuto Yamada has hit over .300 with at least 30 home runs and 30 steals in each of the past two seasons and he’s also only 24 years old. I expect that he will be playing in MLB in the near future.

In fact, many Americans got their first exposure to future MLB stars in the WBC, such as Yu Darvish or Kenta Maeda. Two more pitchers who may end up in MLB one day right-handed starters Takahiro Norimoto and Shintaro Fujinami. Norimoto is a short right-hander, but he’s got a major-league-quality fastball. Fujinami is big (6’5”) and young (22) with the potential to be a #2/#3 starter in the majors. He’s still a raw product and struggles with control, so he may be a few years away from crossing the ocean.

Outfielder/First baseman Sho Nakata and shortstop Hayato Sakamoto return from the 2013 WBC team. Japan will be counting on their offense if they want to win their third WBC title.

Cubs connection: None, as far as I’m aware, although some of these pitchers could end up as Cubs one day. Current Cubs Koji Uehara and Munenori Kawasaki have played for Japan in previous WBCs.

Prediction: Japan will advance out of this group. Guaranteed. It would be a shock if they even lost a game. Japan is certainly one of the leading contenders to win the entire tournament.

Team Cuba:

WBC history: Cuba lost the final game to Japan in the first WBC. The past two WBC tournaments they have advanced to the second round, but were stopped by Japan again in 2009 and the Netherlands in 2013.

Who?: When the World Baseball Classic started in 2006, Cuba was the premier international baseball team. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Defections over the past decade have devastated the talent level left on the island. If Cuba had put together a team of Cuban-born and Cuban-American players in MLB, they would have a real chance to win the whole tournament. As it is, they are not a sure thing to get out of pool play.

The star of this team is outfielder Alfredo Despaigne, who hit .280 with 24 home runs for Chiba Lotte in NPB last season. He hit .389/.522/.944 with three home runs in six games in the 2013 WBC. DH Frederich Cepeda is 36 and has played in all four WBC tournaments. Last time, he hit .474/.615/895, also in six games. He’s also played in NPB the past two years, although he has struggled there.

Outfielder Victor Mesa Jr. is considered the top major league prospect on the team. Only 20 years old, he’s a terrific athlete with blazing speed. He could be a major league leadoff hitter one day. But he’s also the son of the longtime coach of the Cuban National team so he isn’t likely to leave for America absent a change in the current relations between the two countries.

Outfielder Yoelkis Cespedes is Yoenis Cespedes’ younger half-brother.

Cubs connection: If you squint, the script “Cuba” on the front of their jerseys looks a lot like the script “Cubs” that the Cubs wore in the 1990s. That’s all I’ve got.

Prediction: Even a depleted Cuban team probably has enough talent to get past Australia and China and advance to the next round. Probably. But a first-round exit at the hands of the Australians wouldn’t be a shock.

Team Australia:

WBC history: Australia has qualified for all three WBCs in the past, but they’ve only won one game, a 17-7 win over Mexico in 2009. However, Mexico eliminated Australia later in the double-elimination pool that year by beating them 16-1. Overall, Australia is 1-8. They did win a qualifying tournament in Sydney to make the 2013 tournament.

Who?: There are a lot of names here that should be familiar if you pay close attention to the minor leagues and to players who get a cup of coffee in the majors. But the one name you should all be familiar with is longtime major league reliever Peter Moylan, who is currently with the Royals. Athletics reliever Liam Hendriks pulled out of the first round, citing his belief that he wasn’t in game shape yet. He may pitch in the later rounds should Australia advance.

If Australia is going to advance, it will be on the strength of their pitching. In addition to Moylan, Team Australia also has former major leaguers Ryan Rowland-Smith and Travis Blackley. Tigers reliever Warwick Saupold made his major league debut last season and 19-year-old lefty Lachlan Wells is a promising prospect in the Twins organization.

On offense, Australia will rely on former major league outfielders Trent Oeltjen and Luke Hughes. Infielder James Beresford has been a long-time organizational player in the Twins minor league system before getting his first major-league experience at the age of 28 this past September. Outfielder Aaron Whitefield is also 19-years-old and in the Twins system and he had a promising season in rookie ball last year.

Cubs connection: Rowland-Smith pitched for the Iowa Cubs in 2012. Right-handed reliever Ryan Searle was in the Cubs organization from 2008 to 2014, rising as high as Double-A Tennessee. He’s also been a star in the Australian Baseball League the past two seasons.

Prediction: Australia is definitely the underdog here and their previous WBC record doesn’t inspire confidence. But Cuba is down and for Australia, this is fall and not spring. Many of these players are in midseason form coming off the Australian Baseball League season. I don’t expect them to get past Cuba, but it wouldn’t shock me, either.

Team China:

WBC History: China has competed in all three WBC tournaments, but they’ve never gotten out of the first round. They are 2-7 overall with wins over Chinese Taipei in 2009 and Brazil in 2013.

Who?: Good question. Manager John McLaren managed the Mariners in 2007 and 2008. You probably are also familiar with longtime major league pitcher Bruce Chen, who competed for his native Panama in 2006 and 2009 but with Panama failing to qualify this time, he’ll play for the country where his grandparents were from. Andrew Chin was a 15th round pick of the Yankees in 2014 and infielder Ray Chang is a 11-year minor league veteran. He played for the Reds Triple-A affiliate in Louisville last summer. Infielder Joey Wong has been in the Rockies system since 2009 and played in Triple-A Albuquerque last summer.

Other than that, the rest of the team is made up of players from Mainland China, only one of which has played in the US. First baseman Gui Yuan Xu hit .247 for the Orioles in rookie ball last summer.

Honestly, I don’t know much of anything about this team, but scouting reports tell me that they are supposed to be better than they were in 2013. Maybe not a lot better, but China is taking baby steps towards becoming a baseball-playing country.

Cubs connection: Uhh, Chen was once traded for Turk Wendell, who used to be a Cub. But really, nothing.

Prediction: It’s possible that China comes away with a win over Australia, but there is no chance that they advance out of this pool.