Tuesday night at 10 p.m. Central time, the fifth World Baseball Classic will get underway. Taiwan when Cuba will play the Netherlands in Group A play.
Today is the first of four previews of each of the groups. The five teams in Group A are host Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands, Cuba, Italy and Panama.
All Group A games will be played at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium in Taichung, Taiwan. It’s the home of the CTBC Brothers of the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) and seats 20,000 fans. Group play in the WBC was last held there in 2013.
WBC history: The Taiwan team, which is called Chinese Taipei for political reasons, has played in all four WBC. They had their most success in 2013 when they won the pool the last time it was a held in Taichung. They failed to win a game in the second round that year. However, Chinese Taipei failed to win a game in both 2009 and 2017 and went 1-2, beating only China, in group play in 2006.
Manager: Yueh-Ping Ling
The roster: Most of the Chinese Taipei team is made up of players in the CPBL. The one current major leaguer is infielder Yu Chang, who just signed a deal for 2023 with the Red Sox. A few of those players have major league experience, such as former Athletics left-hander Wei-Chung Wang, former Rays right-hander Chih-Wei Hu and former Red Sox infielder Tzu-Wei Lin.
Top Prospects: Shortstop Tsung-Che Chen is a solid prospect in the Pirates system. Right-hander Kai-Wei Teng pitches in the Giants organization.
Any Cubs?: None
Old friends?: Chih-Wei Hu pitched two games for the Iowa Cubs in 2019.
Chances in the tournament: Group A is probably the weakest of the four groups and Chinese Taipei is at home, so they’ve got a chance to advance to the next round. But most likely, they finish third or fourth in the group and clinch a spot in the next WBC.
WBC history: Cuba had been the powerhouse of international baseball for decades and were the runner-up in the first WBC in 2006. But since then, Cuban baseball has fallen on hard times as their best players have left the island for more money and fame in the US and Japan.
In 2009, Cuba advanced out of the first round, only to lose twice (and badly) to Japan in the second round. Cuba failed to advance out of the first round in 2013 and while they did make it out of the first group in 2017, they went 0-3 in the second round last time.
Manager: Armando Johnson
The roster: For the first time, Cuba is allowing players who have left the island for America to play for the national team in the WBC. But rather than go with a team made up almost entirely of players in MLB or their farm systems, the Cubans have chosen a blend of players from MLB, NPB, the Mexican League and Cuba’s domestic league.
Still, there are some elite players on the roster. Two White Sox, Luis Robert and Yoán Moncada, are likely to start. Tigers first baseman Andy Ibáñez and former major league outfielder Yoenis Cespedes are also playing for Cuba. Former Royals pitcher Onelki Garcia joins the team as well.
Top Prospects: Left-hander Livan Moinelo has been a dominant reliever for the SoftBank Hawks of NPB and would fit in nicely in an MLB bullpen. Right-hander Raidel Martinez is the closer for the Chunichi Dragons and might also make the trip stateside. Martinez’s teammate on Chunichi, Yariel Rodriguez, is his setup man in the pen and might also have a major league future.
Any Cubs?: Cubs left-handed reliever Roenis Elías is pitching for Cuba.
Old friends?: None that I can see.
Chances in the tournament: Cuba is probably the second-best team in Group A and should be favored to advance out of Group A, but there’s no guarantee. It’s unlikely they go farther than that, but there’s a small chance they make it to the final four. In any case, they should have no trouble avoiding last place and failing to qualify for the next tournament.
WBC history: Italy has played in all four WBCs. They advanced out of the first round only in 2013, but they lost both of their games in the second round.
Manager: Mike Piazza
The roster: As in previous tournaments, most of the Team Italy is made up of Italian-Americans with a few native Italians tossed in. Royals first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino is probably the best player on the roster. Former Mets pitcher Matt Harvey is probably the most famous. Angels utility player David Fletcher and Royals second baseman Nicky Lopez will likely play a lot. RIght-hander Andre Pallante had a good rookie season for the Cardinals last year.
Top Prospects: Brewers outfielder Sal Frelick is a consensus top 100 prospect.
Any Cubs?: Three. Infielder Miles Mastrobuoni, outfielder Ben DeLuzio and reliever Vinny Nittoli are on the team.
Old Friends? Slugging infielder Robel Garcia is a naturalized Italian citizen. Right-hander Jeffrey Passantino pitched in the Cubs system from 2017 to 2019. He’s now in the Pirates system. Catcher Albert Mineo is one of six players on the team born in Italy (or San Marino) and was in the Cubs’ system from 2012 to 2019.
Chances in the tournament: Italy has enough quality players that they could sneak out of pool play if some of the favorites falter. They probably don’t have enough depth or pitching to do much more than that. Their main goal should be to avoid last place and clinch qualification for next time, which they should accomplish.
WBC history: The Netherlands have played in all four WBCs and finished in fourth place in each of the last two tournaments. They’ve always been a trendy underdog and in 2009 they knocked the Dominican Republic out of the tournament with a pair of upsets. They’ve advanced out of group play in the previous three WBC.
Manager: Hensley Meulens
The roster: The Netherlands roster is strong up the middle with Padres shortstop Xander Bogaerts and Tigers second baseman Jonathan Schoop. Meulens will also have to find room for shortstop Didi Gregorius — maybe by moving Bogaerts to third. The outfield has the Palacios brothers — Cleveland’s Richie and Pittsburgh’s Josh. The pitching isn’t as sharp, but they do have Kenley Jansen on the reserve roster and he’ll join the team if they advance past pool play. Former major leaguers Jair Jurrens and Shairon Martis will pitch until then.
Former Mariner and NPB legend Wladimir Balentien joins the team for one last go-round at age 38. He’ll likely be the DH.
Most of the big names on the Netherlands team are major and minor leaguers from Aruba or Curaçao, but the bulk of the roster plays in the Dutch domestic league.
Top Prospects: Right-hander Jayden Estanista is a Top 30 prospect in the Phillies system. But this is a pretty veteran team.
Any Cubs? None.
Old friends?: Pedro Strop and his slanted cap have joined Team Netherlands. Andrelton Simmons is also in the infield. Infielder Dwayne Kemp played in the Cubs’ system from 2007 to 2009. He’s been in the Dutch league since then.
Chances in the tournament: The Kingdom of the Netherlands are the powerhouse of this group and should easily advance on to the next round. But the Dutch team isn’t as strong as it was in previous tournaments, especially on the pitching side. Making the final four again would be a major accomplishment.
WBC history: Panama was in the first two WBC tournaments, but they failed to win a game either time and failed to qualify for either the 2013 or 2017 tournament.
Manager: Luis Ortiz
The roster: Rays catcher Christian Bethancourt and Angels right-handed reliever Jaime Barria are probably the top players on Team Panama. Veteran Nationals starter Paolo Espino is also on the team. So is Rockies right-hander Justin Lawrence. In general, Panama has some decent pitching and catching and not a lot else.
Top prospects: Catcher Ivan Herrera is a top-ten prospect in the Cardinals system. Outfielder Jose Ramos is a top-ten prospect with the Dodgers.
Any Cubs?: Nope.
Old friends: None that I can see.
Chances in the tournament: Panama is just happy to be back in the WBC after missing the past two. If they can win a game and avoid last place and having to qualify again next time, it will be a major victory.