The opening round of the 2023 World Baseball Classic had no shortage of surprises and excitement.
The Dominican Republic’s dream team is done. A Czech electrician named Ondrej Satoria struck out Shohei Ohtani and later gifted the Japanese superstar a team jersey signed by the entire Czech Republic team. Duque Hebbert, a 21-year-old, 5-foot-10 former outfielder from Nicaragua, struck out Juan Soto, Julio Rodriguez and Rafael Devers — in the same inning — and agreed to a minor league contract with the Detroit Tigers immediately after the game. Fans from Latin America flocked to LoanDepot Park in Miami with their vuvuzelas and nonstop joy. The Czech Republic beat China with a dramatic ninth-inning home run and even led Japan for a couple innings. Australia upset Korea. Mexico walloped the United States.
Unfortunately, the lasting image so far from WBC will be Puerto Rico closer Edwin Diaz being carried off the field and placed in a wheelchair after injuring his right knee in the postgame celebration following his team’s 5-2 victory Wednesday night, which eliminated the powerful Dominican Republic team. Diaz waved to the fans as he was wheeled off the field, but he and brother Alexis, the closer for the Cincinnati Reds, were both in tears.
As the event moves forward to its elimination rounds, let’s dig into the six remaining teams — Japan and Cuba already won their quarterfinal games to reach the semifinals in Miami. We’ll start by reranking the teams, which means a new No. 1 team — the pre-tournament favorite Dominican Republic went 2-2 in pool play, scoring just three runs in losses to Venezuela and Puerto Rico.
What Japan has done so far: Gone 5-0, outscoring their opponents 47 to 11.
OK, Samurai Japan has been impressive — no surprise there. This team also had an easy group that featured the Czech Republic and China, and then beat an outmanned Italy team 9-3 in the quarterfinals. Since Japan has already reached the semis, it is the betting favorite at this point, especially since it draws the Mexico-Puerto Rico winner in the semifinals. Japan could end up winning the tournament without having to beat either the U.S. or the Dominican Republic, who were the top two teams in our WBC Power Rankings.
Japan pitched Ohtani and Yu Darvish against Italy but still has two of the best pitchers in the world left to turn to, with 21-year-old phenom Roki Sasaki ready for the semifinals and Yoshinobu Yamamoto set for the championship. Sasaki made headlines in April when he nearly pitched back-to-back perfect games for the Chiba Lotte Marines, throwing one perfect game and then following up with eight perfect innings before getting removed after 102 pitches — he retired 52 consecutive batters. He throws in the upper 90s while touching 100 with a wipeout splitter and occasional curveball and slider.
Yamamoto, meanwhile, is a polished veteran at 24 years old and winner of the Sawamura Award as the best pitcher in Japan the past two seasons. He has been playing professionally since he was 18 and owns a 1.84 career ERA, including a 1.68 last season. He’s not big at 5-10, 170 pounds, and his stuff isn’t as powerful as Sasaki’s, but he pounds the zone with a 94-mph fastball that he can dial up at times and mixes in a plus-plus splitter and curveball. He’s expected to be posted to MLB after the 2023 season and scouts regard him as better than Kodai Senga, who signed a $75 million deal with the Mets.
The lineup doesn’t match that of Venezuela or the U.S. — and, really, it has yet to face a top major league-caliber pitcher in the tournament. They did score two runs off Cardinals reliever Andre Pallante in the quarterfinal win, and Ryan Castellani, Vinny Nittoli and Matt Festa all have major league experience. But Ohtani and company haven’t faced an elite velocity yet. Star third baseman Munetaka Murakami, who set a record for a Japanese-born player with 56 home runs last season, has yet to get untracked. He has gone 4-for-17 without a home run and eight strikeouts. Murakami, Ohtani, new Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida and Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar are the core of the offense, but Japan likely needs Murakami to do some damage these final two games.
What Venezuela has done so far: Went 4-0 in the pool of death.
One of the flaws of the WBC is the pool setups aren’t evenly distributed, so Pool D in Miami ended up with the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico — three of the top five teams on paper — in order to lure fans from those countries in close proximity to Miami. It worked. Those games were sellouts with loud and boisterous support, giving the Dominican-Venezuela-Puerto Rico games a playoff-like atmosphere and the most intensity of the tournament.
In our pre-tournament preview, I cautioned not to overlook the Venezuela lineup. Everyone was gushing about the Dominican and U.S. lineups, but Venezuela features Jose Altuve, Ronald Acuna Jr., batting champ Luis Arraez, Andres Gimenez and plenty of power with the likes of Eugenio Suarez, Anthony Santander and Salvador Perez. It beat Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara in its opener and then scored seven runs in the first two innings against Puerto Rico, six of those off Jose Berrios.
It also has the starting pitching depth that can win this tournament. Martin Perez started against the Dominicans and allowed just one run in 3.1 innings. But the big key was Luis Garcia tossing three hitless innings in relief with seven strikeouts, absolutely cruising through the Dominican lineup. Remember, Garcia has had to revamp his windup as MLB’s new rules expressly forbid that rocking side-step he utilized at the beginning of his motion, but he seems just fine with his new delivery.
Pitch limits increase from 65 to 80 for the quarterfinals (it goes up to 95 for the semis and final), but I imagine manager Omar Lopez will rely on a similar Perez-Garcia tag team against the U.S. The rest of the bullpen isn’t particularly deep but does feature hard-throwing — and sometimes erratic — Phillies lefty Jose Alvarado and Angels lefty Jose Quijada, plus journeymen like Jose Ruiz, Jhoulys Chacin and Silvino Bracho.
If Venezuela gets past the U.S., it can go with Pablo Lopez in the semis and Jesus Luzardo in the championship. It would be even deeper, but the Detroit Tigers have said that Eduardo Rodriguez will not be allowed to pitch again in the event.
Venezuela has reached the semis just once in four previous Classics, back in 2009, so Saturday’s game against the U.S. will arguably be the biggest it has ever played — and I expect the crowd in Miami to be 75/25 or so in favor of Venezuela.
“This is a dream,” third baseman Eduardo Escobar said after the team wrapped up pool play. “The most important thing, the key secret here, is that the egos were removed. No matter the position you play, the most important thing is that we are representing our country and we have one name on our chest, and that’s Venezuela.”
We don’t want to overanalyze the early action, but Venezuela has played the toughest schedule and played the best so far. The lineup is powerful and versatile and if the starting pitchers can be efficient and maximize their innings, this team is going to be tough to beat.
3. United States
What the U.S. has done so far: Went 3-1 in a soft Pool C, but lost 11-5 to Mexico and the offense hasn’t clicked.
The U.S. was my pre-tournament pick as the lineup — at least based on 2022 numbers — was even better than the more ballyhooed Dominican lineup. Well, this greatest lineup ever has also been a big dud. The only pitcher it did much damage against in the first round was a 19-year-old Canadian kid named Mitch Brett, who less than two years ago was pitching for the Georgia Premier Academy. The U.S. scored nine runs in the first inning of that game, but otherwise has scored just 17 runs in 31 innings against a bunch of pitchers who won’t exactly be confused as Cy Young contenders.
That can turn around at any time, of course, but now the U.S. is going to face legitimate major leaguers in the quarterfinal matchup against Venezuela. It will be interesting to see what manager Mark DeRosa does with his lineup. He has said the best players are going to play — meaning, those playing the best, but what can you really gather from four games? With lefty Perez the likely starter for Venezuela, DeRosa no doubt sticks with his top four of Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, who have started all four games. Pete Alonso is 0-for-9 and might get benched — I could see Kyle Schwarber as the DH with Kyle Tucker in left field, especially anticipating the right-handed Garcia in relief.
There has been a lot made of the pitching staff not having the likes of Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Corbin Burnes or even young up-and-comers like Spencer Strider or Shane McClanahan. Scherzer told reporters recently that the WBC would benefit from a shift to midseason. “I’m not ready to step into a quasi-playoff game right now. If I do that, I’m rolling the dice with my arm,” he said. “If the WBC was during the season, I think you would get more pitcher participation, and, more importantly, I think it’d be more exciting for the fans because you’d actually have starters built up. You wouldn’t have guys on pitch counts or whatever it is. You’d actually have real guys going at it. It’d be a real game.”
Fair point, but, of course, you’re not going to shut down the season — let alone seasons in Japan and Korea — for two weeks. And I’m sure the Mets wouldn’t want their $43 million ace pitching tournament games in the middle of the season. Anyway, all the criticism of the U.S. staff is ignoring that Adam Wainwright, Nick Martinez, Lance Lynn and Merrill Kelly are all good major league starters — although, admittedly, none looked especially good in pool play (Martinez was undone by some sloppy defense in his start against Mexico). With a long list of quality relievers, the U.S. still has deepest staff from one through 15. DeRosa also has starters Kyle Freeland and Brady Singer, but he’s going to rely heavily on his bullpen for these knockout games. Even if they’re not “real guys.”
What Mexico has done so far: Thrashed the U.S., beat Canada and Great Britain and lost to Colombia.
The Mexico lineup doesn’t have any big stars, but does have several solid major leaguers with Luis Urias, Rowdy Tellez, Isaac Paredes, cult hero Joey Meneses and an outfield featuring Randy Arozarena, Alek Thomas and Alex Verdugo. The pitching staff may have the second-best rotation left with Julio Urias, Patrick Sandoval and Taijuan Walker. The bullpen is a little thin beyond closer Giovanny Gallegos, although Houston Astros starter Jose Urquidy is an option for long relief. In other words: There is enough juice here to roll out three wins in a row.
The key might be a player who has thrived before in big games: Arozarena. He’s hitting .500 in the WBC so far with six of his seven hits going for extra bases (five doubles and a home run). He’s signing autographs between innings and seems to be enjoying himself as much as anyone in this tournament. With nine RBIs, Arozarena has a chance at breaking the WBC tournament record of 12 set by Netherlands’ Wladimir Balentien in 2017.
“The fans make me happy every time they clap for me, every time they chant my name,” Arozarena said after Mexico clinched Pool C. “It makes me play at 100 percent of my capacity.” Born in Cuba, Arozarena settled in Mexico after defecting and became a Mexican citizen last year.
5. Puerto Rico
What Puerto Rico has done so far: Went 3-1 in pool play, beat the Dominican Republic in a win-or-go-home game, but lost Edwin Diaz to a torn patellar tendon (he’s likely to miss the entire season).
Once again, Puerto Rico has played above its on-paper ranking after it reached the championship game in both 2013 and 2017. Last time around, the tournament had a different structure and Puerto Rico was undefeated entering the final, going 3-0 in the first round, 3-0 in the second round (including wins over the U.S. and Dominican Republic) and beating the Netherlands in the semifinals before losing to the U.S.
The Puerto Rican strategy was to scratch out an early lead and then hand the ball to their late-game relievers: the Diaz brothers and Jorge Lopez, three major league closers. Even without Edwin Diaz, the bullpen still has Jovani Moran (2.21 ERA with the Twins last season), Emilio Pagan and Duane Underwood, so that remains key.
Their potential three games will be against Mexico, Japan and the U.S. or Venezuela, so it’s not an easy road. Marcus Stroman, the 2017 WBC MVP for the United States, is pitching for Puerto Rico this time around and should start against Mexico, followed by Berrios and then Jose De Leon. Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez, MJ Melendez and Enrique Hernandez lead the offense, which hit just two home runs in the four pool games but hit well with runners in scoring position.
The biggest question, however, might be the team’s emotional response after the Diaz injury — and whether they can play with the same level of enthusiasm.
“I was hugging our coaches in the dugout,” manager Yadier Molina said after the game. “Then when we looked up, Edwin was on the ground. I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to act, I didn’t know what to say.”
What Cuba has done so far: Went 2-2 in pool, beat Australia 4-3 in the quarterfinals.
Make no mistake: This Cuba team is nowhere the caliber of some of the teams of the past, especially the 2006 team that lost the final to Japan in the first WBC. Cuba benefitted from the weakest pool in the tournament — all five teams went 2-2 with Cuba advancing via tiebreaker. Australia’s upset of Korea also presented an easier quarterfinal matchup for Cuba.
But here Cuba is — and, in baseball, that means it has a chance. For the first time, players who defected are allowed to play for the national team, so major leaguers Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert Jr. are the big names (Yoenis Cespedes was on the team but had to depart for personal reasons). Moncada has hit .421 while Robert has gone 5-for-22 with seven strikeouts and no walks or home runs. Longtime DH Alfredo Despaigne, now 36, is still around and has hit .412 so far. Its best pitcher has been reliever Miguel Romero, who has tossed 8.1 scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts and no walks — not bad for a pitcher who had a 7.76 ERA for Triple-A Las Vegas in the Oakland system in 2022.
Of special note: This will be the first time the Cuban national team has ever played in Florida.
Finally, in case you’re curious, if we do get a Japan-United States final, it would be the fourth meeting in the WBC between the two baseball powerhouses — but the first in the championship. In 2006, the U.S. beat Japan 4-3 in the second round of pool play (but failed to advance out of the group and Japan went on to win the tournament). In 2009, Japan beat the U.S. 9-4 in the semifinals as Japan pounded Roy Oswalt for six runs while Daisuke Matsuzaka started and a young Yu Darvish closed it out. In 2017, the U.S. won 2-1 in the semifinals behind Tanner Roark’s four shutout innings and Ian Kinsler’s crucial double in the eighth inning.
So if we do get there: The best pitcher in Japan against one of the best lineups ever assembled? I’ll take it.