The fourth and final pool of the 2023 World Baseball Classic starts Saturday at 11 a.m. Central Time when Nicaragua takes on Puerto Rico at loanDepot Park in Miami.
Here it is folks. The group of death.
Pool D of the World Baseball Classic consists of the Dominican Republic, Israel, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Only two of these five teams will advance to the second round, which will also be played in Miami. As will the semifinals and finals.
This group has been termed the “group of death” because there are four teams that have the talent to advance to the second round. The Dominican Republic won the 2013 WBC and is widely considered the favorite this time. Puerto Rico finished second in both 2013 and 2017. Venezuela has been widely disappointing in previous tournaments, but no one doubts they have the talent to win the whole thing. And Israel was the Cinderella of the 2017 tournament, beating Korea, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and Cuba in their first four contests before finally losing the re-match with the Netherlands and then getting knocked out of the tournament by Japan.
Nicaragua? Happy to be here.
If you need a refresher on how the whole WBC works, here’s a link to last week’s introduction.
WBC history: As noted above, the Dominicans won the whole thing in 2013, but have otherwise not lived up to expectations in the WBC. The DR finished fourth in 2006 after losing to Cuba in the semifinals. They failed to advance out of pool play in 2009 after the famous upset by the Netherlands. And thanks in part to a miraculous catch by Adam Jones, the Dominican Republic got knocked out by the US in the second round last time around.
Manager: Rodney Linares
The roster: Maybe the lineup isn’t quite as stacked as Team USA, but it’s awfully close. The Dominican Republic has an outfield of Juan Soto, Julio Rodriguez, Eloy Jimenez and Teoscar Hernandez. The infield has Rafael Devers, Manny Machado, Jeremy Peña and Wander Franco. Ketel Marte could play anywhere. The depth of the lineup isn’t quite as good and some old names made the roster in Nelson Cruz and Robinson Canó. Losing Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to injury doesn’t help things, but it’s not a fatal blow.
On the pitching side, reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara is the ace of the staff. Astros right-hander Cristian Javier—who threw six innings of a World Series no-hitter— gives the Dominican Republic a second excellent starter. Veteran Johnny Cueto and young Pirates hurler Roansy Contreras give Rays bench coach Rodney Linares more options.
With the pitch counts, having a deep bullpen in the WBC is a must and the Dominican Republic has that. Camilo Doval, Bryan Abreu, Carlos Estevez, Hector Neris, Yimi Garcia and the Padres’ Luis Garcia can all get an out.
Top prospects: Astros right-handed reliever Ronel Blanco is the only player on the roster who still has rookie eligibility. He’s not a top prospect, but at least he still qualifies.
Any Cubs? None.
Old friends? Nationals third baseman Jeimer Candelario came up in the Cubs system and has a World Series ring after making his major-league debut in 2016. Eloy Jiménez played in the Cubs’ system from 2014 to 2017.
Chances in the tournament: Japan has better pitching and the USA has better hitting, but the Dominican Republic has the best overall balance. Don’t underestimate the “home field advantage” that they’ll get by playing all their games in Miami, either. The Dominican fans will be out in force and loud.
But unlike Japan and the United States, the Dominican Republic doesn’t have a clear path to the second round. It’s possible they make an early exit. But if they get out of “the group of death,” the Dominican Republic has to be considered the favorite in the tournament.
WBC history: This is Israel’s second WBC. Israel was the darling of the last WBC, going undefeated in pool play in Seoul and beating Cuba in the first game of the second round before being eliminated by losing to the Netherlands and Japan. Overall, Israel finished sixth in 2017.
Manager: Ian Kinsler
The roster: Like last time, the Israel roster is made up almost entirely of Jewish Americans, with only 44-year-old Israeli baseball legend Shlomo Lipetz being born in Israel. (He’s a right-handed pitcher, in case you were wondering.) Israel has a couple of solid outfielders in Joc Pederson and Alex Dickerson and a solid major league starting pitcher in Dean Kremer. Red Sox reliever Richard Bleier adds some veteran leadership out of the bullpen.
But there are some talented minor league prospects on Team Israel, including Cubs first baseman Matt Mervis, Athletics third baseman Zack Gelof and Blue Jays first baseman Spencer Horowitz.
Danny Valencia is officially retired, but he had a long, solid career as a major league journeyman and he’ll play one last time for Israel. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway also provides experience.
Top prospects: I mentioned them already with Gelof, Mervis and Horowitz. Right-hander Jacob Steinmetz was a third-round pick by the Diamondbacks in 2021 and there were a lot of stories about him at the time after he was the first practicing Orthodox Jew drafted by a major league club. Steinmetz has struggled so far in rookie ball, but he’s also very young at 19 and still a prospect.
Any Cubs? Mervis.
Old friends? Joc Pederson. Robert Stock pitched one game for the Cubs in 2021. Left-hander Alex Katz pitched in the Cubs’ system in 2021, getting as high as Double-A Tennessee.
Chances in the tournament: Put Israel in Group A and I think they’d have a solid chance to advance. But this group is probably too tough for them to be Cinderella again. But they could play spoiler and knock one of the three favorites out of the second round with a win.
WBC history: This is Nicaragua’s first trip to the WBC. They qualified for the 20th and final spot with a win over Brazil in qualifiers last year.
Manager: Sandor Guido
The roster: Those of you who don’t like players qualifying through their parents and grandparents will like Nicaragua, as the only two US-born players are former Reds infielder Alex Blandino and outfielder Isaac Benard, a former Rays farmhand who is the son of former outfielder (and Nicaragua manager) Marvin Benard.
The Nicaraguan lineup isn’t going to strike fear in anyone. Former Royals third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert is probably the best bat in the lineup and he last played in the US in 2021. Switch-hitting 21-year-old third baseman Milkar Perez is a Top 20 prospect in the Mariners system.
But the pitching staff for Nicaragua is a little more experienced. There are a couple of major league relievers in the Yankees’ Jonathan Loáisiga and the Nationals Erasmo Ramírez. JC Ramírez has major-league experience as well and pitched for Triple-A St. Paul last year.
Top prospects: Perez is the top prospect, but right-handed pitcher Carlos Rodriguez was a sixth-round pick of the Brewers in 2021 and was named their Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2022. Nationals right-hander Rodney Theophile was the star of qualifying for Nicaragua. He pitched for High-A Wilmington last year.
Any Cubs? No.
Old friends? None that I see.
Chances in the tournament: Not good. Nicaragua is just hoping to avoid last and qualifying for the next tourney, but that will be a tough task in this group.
WBC history: Puerto Rico has played in all five WBC and has done well in all of them. They finished second in each of the last two WBC and finished fifth in both 2006 and 2009, going 4-2 both years.
Manager: Yadier Molina
The roster: This is a mostly major-league roster, although it’s not quite as fearsome as in the last two tournaments. The withdrawal of Carlos Correa (his wife is due to give birth) hurts. But they still have two of the three big shortstops from last time in Francisco Lindor and Javier Báez. The Red Sox’ Kiké Hernández is back too, and he can play anywhere.
Catching is still a strong suit for Puerto Rico, even if this is the first WBC that Yadier Molina won’t play in. (Just manage.) The Twins’ Christian Hernandez, Houston’s Martín Maldonado and the Royals’ MJ Melendez give manager Yadier Molina a good rotation behind the plate.
The outfield is a bit weaker, with only the Braves’ Eddie Rosario and the Cubs’ Nelson Velázquez playing in the majors last year.
Marcus Stroman was the MVP of the 2017 tournament, pitching for the USA and beating Puerto Rico in the title game after throwing six scoreless innings and allowing just one hit. Now Stroman has switched sides to honor his mother’s Puerto Rico. Blue Jays right-hander José Berríos give Puerto Rico a second strong starter. The bullpen has Mets closer Edwin Díaz and Reds closer Alexis Díaz. Lefty Jovani Moran had a great rookie season out of the pen for the Twins last year.
Top prospects: The Mets took right-hander Dominic Hamel in the third round in 2021 and he had a strong season for High-A Brooklyn last year. Right-hander Anthony Maldonado could make his major league debut in the Marlins bullpen this year after a strong performance in Triple-A Jacksonville in 2022.
Any Cubs? Stroman and Velázquez.
Old friends? Javier Báez, of course. Reliever Duane Underwood Jr. was in the Cubs’ system from 2012 to 2020 and made his major-league debut in 2018. Nicholas Padilla pitched one game for the Cubs last year, which was his major-league debut. Martín Maldonado briefly played for the Cubs in 2019. Outfielder Johneshwy Fargas played for the Cubs in 2021. Infielder Vimael Machin was in the Cubs’ system from 2015 until 2019 when the Cubs’ lost him in the Rule 5 Draft. Fernando Cruz, who made his major-league debut at 32 with the Reds last season, pitched in the Cubs minor-league system in 2015.
Chances in the tournament: If they can get out of this group, Puerto Rico has the talent to go a long ways. They aren’t as deep as a lot of teams are and that might hurt as the tournament goes on. But never bet against the team that finished second twice in a row.
WBC history: Venezuela has been a trendy pick to win it all in pretty much every WBC and it seems like in every WBC, they disappoint. They did have a good 2009 tournament, winning their group and finishing third. But they haven’t advanced out of pool play in either of the last two tournaments despite having a very talented roster both times. Part of their problem is that, except in 2009, they always get put in tough first-round pools.
Manager: Omar Lopez
The roster: The big news is that the Braves have allowed Ronald Acuña Jr. to participate. After some initial hesitation because of Acuña’s injury history, the Braves felt confident enough in his health to let him play. Orioles outfielder Anthony Santander is coming off the best season in his career.
The infield is strong with José Altuve, Luis Arraez, Gleyber Torres, Andrés Giménez, Eduardo Escobar and Eugenio Suárez. Salvador Perez is one of three major league catchers behind the plate.
Miguel Cabrera returns. He’s played in all five WBC tournaments.
Venezuela’s pitching isn’t as impressive as its offense, but there is some talent here. Jesús Luzardo, Pablo López, Ranger Suárez, Martin Perez and the Astros’ Luis Garcia give them a strong and deep rotation. German Marquez might join them if they advance to the second round. The bullpen isn’t anywhere near as strong and could be Venezuela’s achilles heel. But they do have enough quality starters that Venezuela could move some of them to bullpen duty.
Any Cubs? None.
Old friends? Catcher Robinson Chirinos was in the Cubs’ system from 2001 to 2010 and finally made his Cubs debut in 2021 after a decade away. Gleyber Torres was a top Cubs prospect from 2014 to 2016. Reliever Erick Leal pitched in the Cubs’ minor league system from 2013 to 2019, reaching Double-A Tennessee.
Chances in the tournament: Venezuela is probably the second-best team in this group and if it weren’t for their history of disappointment in the WBC, they might be mentioned along with the Dominican Republic, Japan and the USA as a favorite. They aren’t as deep as those three teams, but Venezuela does have the talent to win it all if they can overcome their snakebit history.