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World Baseball Classic Preview: Group D/Jalisco

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The most balanced group may offer the best games in the first round.

Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

The fourth and final group in the first round of the World Baseball Classic takes us to Jalisco, Mexico and the Estadio de Béisbol Charros de Jalisco, just outside of Guadalajara. The final four teams in the tournament are the host Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Italy.

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 complete schedule for Group D is :

Jalisco is in the Central Time Zone, so that’s great news for Cubs fans wanting to watch the games. It’s also great news that Javy Baez will take the field for Team Puerto Rico.

Just a reminder. This is a round-robin tournament with the top two teams in each group advancing to the second round in San Diego.

This is the “Group of Death” if you have to pick one.

Team Italy:

WBC history: Four years ago, Italy advanced to the second round, thanks in part to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who was just coming off his rookie season in Chicago. They were eliminated in the second round with two one-run losses to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Italy went 1-2 in each of the first two tournaments, failing to advance beyond the first round both times.

Who?: No Rizzo this time, but Italy does boast a similar combination of Italian-American and Italian-Latin American players along with Italian natives like third baseman Alex Liddi, who played parts of three seasons with the Mariners and played in the Mexican League last year.

Behind the plate is Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli, who played for Team Italy in 2009 but not in 2013. Although he was born in Venezuela, his Italian heritage has been a running bit (“That’s Amore”) at PNC Park. Royals catcher Drew Butera will also catch.

Other major leaguers on the team include veterans Chris Colabello and Daniel Descalso. Rob Segedin is coming off his rookie season with the Dodgers.

Mets prospect fans will be following Team Italy as two of their top prospects, outfielder Brandon Nimmo and shortstop Gavin Cecchini, will also be on the team.

For the Cubs, as you know if you saw the game Team Italy played against the Cubs, is Iowa Cubs outfielder John Andreoli. Andreoli was one of the better I-Cubs players last season with a .374 OBP, 12 home runs and 43 steals. In a different season or on a different team, he would have gotten a September call-up.

The pitching staff doesn’t have the same kinds of familiar names, although switch-pitcher Pat Venditte will take the mound for Team Italy. A.J. Morris made his major league debut for the Reds last season.

Cubs connection: Beyond Andreoli, a lot of the pitching staff has a connection to the Cubs. Cubs minor leaguer Daury Torrez pitched in Myrtle Beach the past two seasons, as did Cubs minor league Jonathan Martinez, who also got a couple of games in Double-A Tennessee. Italian-born Alex Maestri pitched in the Cubs system from 2006 to 2011. He’s pitched in both NPB and KBO since then. Morris pitched in the Cubs minor-league system in 2012 and 2013.

They also appear to have stolen a cap design from the Iowa Cubs.

Prediction: Italy is a pretty similar team to Team Israel in talent level. Maybe even a little better. But they are in a much, much tougher pool and advancing would be a tall order.

Team Mexico:

WBC history: Mexico advanced to the second round in both 2006 and 2009. Last time, Mexico upset the United States at Chase Field, but also lost to Italy and Canada, which meant they finished last in the pool and had to go through qualifications this time around. However, they easily qualified with a win over the Czech Republic and two routs of Nicaragua.

Who?: The big name on this team is Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, and he’s played in all four WBCs for Mexico. But the lineup is pretty weak after Gonzalez. But Mexico is a team with a lot of quality pitching. Orioles right-hander Yovani Gallardo and White Sox righty Miguel Gonzalez are two starters in the first round. If Mexico advances to the second round, Dodgers lefty Julio Urias and Blue Jays right-hander Marco Estrada are set to join the team.

But the real strength of Team Mexico is the bullpen, which is as deep as any in the field. Sergio Romo, Joakim Soria, Fernando Salas, Roberto Osuna, Vidal Nuno, and Oliver Perez are all names you are likely familiar with.

Alongside Adrian Gonzalez, there are some promising prospects on Team Mexico. Outfielder Alex Verdugo is the number 58 ranked prospect in all of baseball in the most recent Baseball America Top 100 prospects list. Second baseman Luis Urias is the 6th-ranked prospect in the strong Padres system.

Third baseman Brandon Laird (Gerald Laird’s brother) had 53 games in the majors and has played the past two seasons in Japan. Most of the rest of the roster is made up of veterans who play in the Mexican League.

Cubs connection: Manager Edgar Gonzalez (Adrian’s brother) played for the Iowa Cubs from 2012 to 2014. Former top Cubs pitching prospect Trey McNutt is in the bullpen for Team Mexico. He played in the Padres system last year.

Prediction: Mexico is playing at home and the pitch counts play in favor of their deep pitching staff. Even with an anemic offense, Mexico has a solid chance to pull off an upset and advance.

Team Puerto Rico

WBC history: Puerto Rico made it all the way to the Championship Game in 2013 before losing to the Dominican Republic juggernaut. Puerto Rico advanced to the second round in both 2006 and 2009 before getting eliminated.

Who?: The infield here is getting all the buzz as three of the most exciting young shortstops in the game, the Cubs’ Javier Baez, the Indians’ Francisco Lindor and the Astros’ Carlos Correa are all going to take the field together. The three of them are friends and have been talking about being teammates for Puerto Rico for a while.

All through the lineup, Puerto Rico can boast of quality major league hitters. Yadier Molina is behind the plate. Outfielders include Carlos Beltran and Angel Pagan. Twins first baseman Kennys Vargas is here.

But Puerto Rico is kind of the mirror image of Mexico. They have a powerful lineup but an untested pitching staff. Mets right-hander Seth Lugo is here, coming off of his successful rookie season. They have Twins rookie Jose Berrios, as well as Joe Jimenez from the Tigers system and Brewers minor leaguer Jorge Lopez pitched in two games in the majors in 2015. If Puerto Rico advances to the second round, top Rays prospect Jose De Leon is eligible to join the team.

Puerto Rico does have a few veteran relievers such as J.C. Romero and Hector Santiago. Edwin Diaz just finished his first major league season with the Mariners.

Cubs connections: Baez obviously, and Pagan played his first two seasons in the majors with the Cubs in 2006 and 2007. Reliever Miguel Mejia is in the Cubs system, having pitched for Tennessee and Iowa last season. Reliever Giovanni Soto pitched for the Iowa Cubs last season and is in the White Sox organization this year. Joel Pineiro didn’t pitch last season, but he pitched four games for the Tennessee Smokies in 2014.

Prediction: Puerto Rico should be favored to advance, but a young pitching staff and tough competition leaves them vulnerable. Puerto Rico could make the semifinals again this time or they could be eliminated in the first round.

Team Venezuela

WBC history: If the United States has any competition of the title of “Most Disappointing Team,” it’s Venezuela. A traditional Latin American baseball power, Venezuela was eliminated in the first round last time around. In 2009, Venezuela made the semifinals but were crushed by South Korea. In 2006, they made the second round, but were eliminated after losses to the Dominicans and Cuba.

Omar Vizquel is the manager this time around.

Who?: The only country in South America where baseball is more popular than soccer. On paper, Venezuela has one of the best teams in the field. Future Hall-of-Famer Miguel Cabrera leads the offense alongside two-time AL batting champion Jose Altuve. The Rangers’ Rougned Odor and the Marlins’ Martin Prado are here, alongside a pair of Royals, shortstop Alcides Escobar and catcher Salvador Perez. Victor Martinez can DH if Cabrera doesn’t. And we haven’t even mentioned the outfield of Carlos Gonzalez, Ender Inciarte and Odubel Herrera.

Team Venezuela can pitch as well, with King Felix Hernandez serving as the ace and the Rangers’ Martin Perez and the Padres’ Jhoulys Chacin right behind him. The bullpen has Tigers teammates Francisco Rodriguez and Bruce Rondon. Angels right-hander Deolis Guerra is here. Cubs reliever Hector Rondon is on the list of pitchers to join to the team in the second round. Franklin Morales and Yusmeiro Petit have long major league resumés.

Cubs connection: Rondon, of course and the Cubs signed reliever Jhondaniel Medina as a minor league free agent this past winter. Catcher Robinson Chirinos was in the Cubs system from 2001 to 2010.

Prediction: Venezuela has the talent to win the whole tournament, but it seems we say that every time and they’ve never even come close. But this team is determined to put the disappointments of the past behind them. Even though this is the “Group of Death,” Venezuela should advance to the next round.