Part two of the Sports Quotient’s 2017 World Baseball Classic preview, featuring Australia, China, Cuba, and Japan.
After looking at the teams from Pool A of the 2017 World Baseball Classic (Chinese Taipei, Israel, the Netherlands, and South Korea), it’s time to preview Pool B.
Pool B: Tokyo Dome – Tokyo, Japan
Australia suffered a hat-trick in the 2013 WBC, going 0-3 en route to a first-round elimination. However, with some of their best players returning and 20 Australian Baseball League All-Stars, this year’s WBC team will be anything but noncompetitive. 34 year-old Ryan Rowland-Smith, former Seattle Mariners pitcher and current TV analyst for the team, will be coming out of retirement to pitch for team Australia.
Player to watch: Luke Hughes, 32, experienced a career revival while playing second base for the Perth Heat in the 2016-2017 ABL season. Hughes’s batting average rose over 100 points from the previous season, and his OBP increased by 155 points. In 37 games, he finished with six home runs (the league high was seven) and drew nearly as many walks (26) as strikeouts (30). Hughes went 1-for-11 at the plate during the 2013 WBC.
What to expect: Australia is leaving no resource untapped as they try to climb back into the win column–deploying a team with as many 19-year-olds (two) as 39-year-olds. They will still face an uphill challenge, as only three of their position players are signed on to play at a level higher than the ABL in 2017, which is no better than a US amateur league. Aaron Whitefield, 20, is the lone standout of said trio after batting .298/.370/.366 for the Minnesota Twins’ Rookie League affiliate in 2016. Team Australia’s strength lies in its pitching, with Dushan Ruzic and Travis Blackley serving as the staff’s anchors. Ruzic registered a 1.34 WHIP in his season at age 35 as reliever/starter for the Melbourne Aces. Blackley, 34, is four years removed from pitching for the Texas Rangers and maintained a 3.92 ERA in 110 innings for the Pericos de Puebla in the 2016 Mexican League. Playing against two of the tournament’s best teams will likely limit Australia’s ceiling to a single win.
China was also eliminated in the first round of the 2013 WBC, though they were able to beat Brazil 5-2 to avoid a doughnut in the win column. Their 2017 roster contains a smorgasbord of low-level talent including five retired players, and only three with experience outside the China Baseball League. Team China is also young, with 14 players aged 25 or younger. Bruce Chen, who last pitched in the Major Leagues for the Cleveland Indians in 2015, is on the roster.
Player to watch: Xu Guiyuan, 21, is a first baseman in the Baltimore Orioles minor league system who hit .247/.271/.284 in 2016 at Rookie ball. With time on his side, however, Guiyuan still has the chance to prove the potential he showed at the MLB Development Center in Wuxi, China that was enough to net him a contract from the Orioles.
What to expect: China, like Australia, is a mediocre team that will likely be no match for Cuba and Japan. Their roster contains a handful of players with MiLB experience, including Ray Chang, who hit .257/.316/.304 splitting time between the Cincinnati Reds’ Triple and Double-A affiliates. Stats on China’s CBL players are hard to come by, leaving the 2013 WBC as the best evaluator of the team’s pitching. In the tournament, China suffered a mercy-rule loss to Cuba. Xin Li and Yu Liu, who are both returning to team China in 2017, surrendered 12 runs in five innings while issuing five walks along the way in that game. Another returning player, Xia Luo, tossed 3.2 innings of one-run ball versus Japan, although the effort was for naught as the bullpen buckled behind him and gave up four runs. China’s best chance at a win will come versus Australia, although an uninspiring roster devoid of any stars will likely make them the underdogs in the matchup.
Cuba – As the great Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it. Also, it’s kinda hard to win the WBC when your best players are labeled traitors to the state.” Last year, Cuba announced that defectors, once again, will be unable to play in the WBC. This means no Yoenis Céspedes, José Abreu, or Yasiel Puig. Nonetheless, Cuba always fares well in the tournament, having never been eliminated in the first round. In 2013 they touted future Major Leaguers up and down their roster (such as Abreu, Guillermo Heredia, and Yasmany Tomás), which hints they may have a few on the team in 2017.
Player to watch: Jefferson Delgado Castañe hit .402 in 283 at-bats last year playing for the Matanzas of Serie Nacional de Béisbol, and only struck out 18 times compared to 28 walks. Castañe also managed to hit 20 doubles while still manning third base at 34 years old.
What to expect: “Página no encontrada” seems to be a running theme amongst websites promising statistics from the SNB. Nonetheless, history shows us it’s a safe bet that Cuba will fare well in the WBC, thanks to a potent lineup. Between rounds one and two in 2013, Cuba averaged 7.5 runs per game and maintained a team batting average of .343. Frederich Cepeda, one of team Cuba’s returning player, is a 31-year-old outfielder who hit .474/.615/.895 in 19 at-bats while batting ahead of José Abreu in 2013. Unless Cuba’s pitching has improved since the last Classic, however, they will continue to struggle against quality teams. In round two in 2013, Cuba lost to the Netherlands twice, first 6-2 and then 7-6. Vladimir García, another returning player, pitched in Cuba’s second loss to the Netherlands, where he gave up four runs in 3.2 innings pitched. Round one will be a cinch with Australia and China in the same pool, but beyond that, the future doesn’t look too bright for team Cuba.
Japan has never finished lower than third place in the history of the WBC, but that doesn’t mean 2017 will be a walk in the park. Samurai Japan will be without one of their best pitchers, hitters, and Bryce Harper enthusiasts in Shohei Otani, who is recovering from an injury. One of the world’s premier two-way players, Otani djazzled for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of Nippon Professional Baseball in 2016 as a starting pitcher, striking out 174 batters in 140 innings pitched en route to a 1.86 ERA that was accompanied by a minuscule 0.3 HR/9. With the bat, he hit .322/.416/.588 in 323 at-bats with 22 home runs. However, even without Otani’s 100 mph fastball, Japan is well situated to continue their reign of dominance. From 1point02.jp, the 2017 WBC team will carry the NPB’s top four leaders in ISO and OBP from the 2016 season, and five starting pitchers who attained a FIP below 3.50.
Player to watch: Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, 25, batted .322/.430/.680 in 2016 and led the NPB in home runs with 44 while playing outfield for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars. Far and away the best hitter in the league last year, Tsutsugo also had a wRC+ of 198. While not a one-to-one comparison, here is a list of every MLB player since 1999 to post a wRC+ of 198 or higher: Barry Bonds. That’s it.
What to expect: A 2017 Samurai Japan featuring Shohei Otani would be many people’s hands-down favorite to win the WBC, but even without their modern day prodigal son, Japan seems destined for a third or fourth place finish at the very least. Tomoyuki Sugano marquees a pitching staff that terrified NPB hitters in 2016 after he notched a 63 xFIP- while striking out a shade over a batter per inning. Japan’s lineup is also electrifying. Including Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, it features four hitters who maintained an OBP of .400 or higher, and had more than 20 home runs in 2016.
It’s safe to say Japan and Cuba are the favorites to advance to the second round, while China and Australia will probably only combine for one win. However, there is a possibility for some variability within those two groups. Cuba, despite an inauspicious lack of known quantities, could defeat Japan—as they did in the first round in 2013—thanks to a lineup that, historically, has been one of the best in the WBC. Japan’s pitching, however, might have the makeup to overpower Cuba in embarrassing fashion. The game between Australia and China could also go either way, although Australia, with an experienced pitching staff, is the favorite to steal away a win.
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