The second of four pools in the first round of the 2023 World Baseball Classic will get underway at 9pm Central this Wednesday when Korea faces off against Australia.
Group B, which will play all their games in the Tokyo Dome, consists of five teams: Japan, Korea, Australia, China and the Czech Republic. They will play a round-robin over the next six days with the two two teams advancing to the second round and the team finishing last having to go through qualifiers to play in the next WBC.
This pool features the greatest rivalry in international baseball between Japan and Korea. Without getting too far into the weeds of the history of the relationship between these two countries, the Koreans have good reasons not to care for the Japanese very much. The contests on the diamond have always been handled with dignity and sportsmanship, but the celebrations after the game when one team wins are a little bit bigger and more emotional in this contest. I first fell in love with the WBC when Korea beat Japan at Angel Stadium in 2006 and the team celebrated by planting the Korean flag on the pitcher’s mound as thousands of Korean fans refused to go home.
If you missed our overall introduction to the tournament, it’s here.
WBC history: Australia has played in all four WBC tournaments, but have not found much success. Their overall record is 2-10. They had to go through qualifying to make the 2017 tournament, but they beat China in group play last time. (Although all 16 teams from the last tournament automatically qualified as the field expanded to 20 teams this year.)
Manager: Dave Nilsson
The roster: Australia has produced several quality major leaguers, like their manager Dave Nilsson, but the only players with major league experience on the current roster are Angels outfielder Aaron Whitefield, former Tigers reliever Warwick Saupold and 45-year-old former Padres pitcher Chris Oxspring, who last pitched in the majors in 2005.
Still, there are several minor leaguers on the roster. Royals shortstop Robbie Glendinning played in Double-A last season. First baseman Rixon Wingrove was in High-A in the Phillies system last year. Right-handed pitcher Kyle Glogoski had a good year for High-A Jersey Shore, a Phillies farm club.
Top prospects: Other than the minor leaguers already mentioned, right-hander Mitch Neunborn pitched in junior college in the US before returning home and dominating the Australian Baseball League the past two seasons. A strong performance in the WBC might interest teams in signing him.
Any Cubs?: Shortstop Liam Spence played for Myrtle Beach last year.
Old friends: None that I can see.
Chances in the tournament: It would be a huge upset for the Australians to get out of pool play. But they do have a good chance of beating either China or the Czech Republic (or both) and securing automatic entry into the next tournament.
WBC history: China has also played in every WBC so far and has also had very little success. They are also 2-10 in the history of the tournament and finished 0-3 last time. They qualified only because the field expanded to 20 teams this year and every team from the last tournament qualified.
Manager: Dean Treanor
The roster: Other than infielder Ray Chang, who played in the minor leagues from 2005 to 2016 and has played for China in the last three WBC, there’s not much here. Outfielder Yusuke Masago has played for SoftBank Hawks in NPB from 2019 to the present.
Top Prospects: Right-hander Alan Carter pitched for Lee University and just signed with the Angels as an undrafted free agent.
Any Cubs? Nope.
Old friends: Nope.
WBC Chances: China is just hoping to win a game and avoid having to go through qualification next time.
WBC history: The Czech Republic is making their WBC debut after upsetting Spain in the qualifiers in Germany.
Manager: Pavel Chadem
The roster: Small country, big dreams. That was the Czech Republic’s slogan during qualifying and it has carried them this far. Much has been made of the all-amateur lineup that qualified in Regensburg and most of it returns intact for Group B. For the main tournament, they have added longtime MLB infielder Eric Sogard (whose mother is Czech) and catcher Martin Cervenka, who played in the minors from 2012 to 2021, mostly for the Guardians. Right-hander Marek Minarik pitched in the Phillies and Pirates systems from 2011 to 2015. Left-hander Jan Novak pitched for the Orioles rookie ball club in 2014 and 2015.
But mostly, this is a bunch of firefighters, teachers, salesmen, IT specialists and students who play baseball in their spare time and in a country that barely knows the game exists. The manager is a neurosurgeon.
The Czechs have definitely been the media darlings of the tournament for their (mostly) amateur status and their unwillingness to be intimidated on the field. Here’s yet another story by David Waldstein in The New York Times about the Cinderella Czechs.
Top prospects: The Diamondbacks just signed 19-year-old right-hander Boris Vecerka, so he’ll start his minor league career after the tournament. Shortstop/right-handed pitcher Martin Schneider is the best player in the Czech domestic league and will be trying to impress scouts.
Any Cubs? Heck no.
Old friends: Sogard. The rest of the team will be looking to him to provide leadership during the tournament.
WBC Chances: Just happy to be here and hoping to win hearts. Winning a game would be a major upset. Their first game, which is against China, gives them the best chance at a victory. But if they can win two games and just give the Japanese a scare, they might just get a movie made about them. Probably not, but this is the small country with big dreams.
WBC history: One of the powers of baseball, Japan won the 2006 and 2009 WBCs. They finished third in both 2013 and 2017.
Manager: Hideki Kuriyama
The roster: Samurai Japan has four MLB players on this year’s roster: pitcher Yu Darvish, pitcher/DH Shohei Ohtani, outfielder Masataka Yoshida and outfielder Lars Nootbaar. Nootbaar is the first player who didn’t come out of the Japanese baseball system to play for Team Japan. (Nootbaar’s mother is Japanese.)
The rest of the roster consists of the stars of Nippon Professional Baseball, the second-best league in the world. Corner infielder Kazuma Okamoto has hit 30 or more home runs in each of the last five seasons for the Yomiuri Giants. First baseman Hotaka Yamakawa hit 41 home runs last year for the Seibu Lions. Outfielder Ukyo Shuto is a speedster. And American fans will get their first look at new Red Sox signee Masataka Yoshida, who has a .327 lifetime batting average in NPB.
But the biggest strength of Samurai Japan is their pitching. Beyond Ohtani and Darvish, right-handers Roki Sasaki and Yoshinobu Yamamoto likely have MLB futures ahead of them. Both could probably pitch in MLB right now if their teams would let them leave. Japan probably has the strongest pitching in the tournament.
Top prospects: The 20-year-old Sasaki famously threw 17 consecutive perfect innings in NPB and MLB teams are just waiting for him to be posted. He has a chance to be a number-one pitcher in the majors. Yamamoto, 24, has won the Sawamura Award (the Japanese Cy Young) in both of the past two seasons. He would be a solid number-three starter in the majors right now with a chance to be even better with more experience.
Beyond the two pitchers, third baseman Munetaka Murakami, 23, hit 56 home runs for the Yakult Swallows last year along with a .318 batting average and a .458 OBP. He’s probably a first baseman in MLB, but he has the bat to be an impact player there.
Any Cubs? Losing Seiya Suzuki to an injury is a real blow to Team Japan. Their pitching is probably better than anyone’s, but their offense seems a step behind Team USA and the Dominican Republic.
Old friends: Darvish, of course.
WBC Chances: Japan has the pitching staff to win the whole thing. The Dominican Republic is probably the favorite, but it would not be a surprise to anyone if Japan came home with their third WBC trophy.
WBC history: South Korea did very well in the first two WBC, finishing third in 2006 and second in 2009. They’ve fallen off a bit since then and they’ve failed to advance out of pool play in either 2013 or 2017. This has been a bit of a national embarrassment for the country, so the pressure is on these players.
Manager: Kang-Chul Lee
The roster: Korea has tried to improve their roster over the past two contests and for the first time added a Korean-American player in Cardinals second baseman Tommy Edman, whose mother is of Korean heritage. They also have Padres shortstop and defensive wizard Ha-Seong Kim.
The rest of the roster is filled with players from the domestic KBO league, although there are several former major leaguers on the roster such as Kwang-Hyun Kim. who pitched (and pitched well!) for the Cardinals in 2020 and 2021, first baseman Hyun-Soo Kim, who played for the Orioles and Phillies in 2016 and 2017, and first baseman Byung-Ho Park, who struggled in his one season with the Twins in 2016.
The hitters are a bit ahead of the pitchers for Korea. Soft-tossing lefty Hyeon-jong Yang will be in the rotation with Kwang-Hyun Kim. RIght-hander Woo-Suk Go can hit 98 mph with his fastball and looks to be the closer.
Top prospects: Center fielder Jung-Hoo Lee, 24, hit .349 with 23 home runs last year in KBO. Lee might be the best Korean position player since Shin-Soo Choo. He’s expected to be posted after this upcoming season and is likely to command the biggest contract ever for a player coming over from KBO. Second baseman Hye-Seong Kim was Ha-Seong Kim’s double play partner with the Kiwoom Heroes, has a similar profile and is also expected to follow him to the US. First baseman Baek-Ho Kang is a .317 career hitter in KBO with power, although he’s coming off a miserable and injury-plagued 2022 season.
Any Cubs? Nope
Old friends: None.
WBC Chances: Korea looks better than they did last time around and this group gives them a clear path to qualify for the next round. However, it would be a surprise if they did anything better than that. Between the four teams likely to advance to the next round out of Groups A and B, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands and Cuba, Korea seems like the weakest of the four. But they should handle Australia, China and the Czech Republic to advance out of group play.