World’s stars align as Classic rosters announced
It’s nearly here. After a six-year wait, the World Baseball Classic has returned, and it’s bigger than ever. That’s not hyperbole, either: The tournament field has been expanded to 20 teams, with three first-time participants in Great Britain, the Czech Republic and Nicaragua hoping for a Cinderella run. But they’ll need to get past Japan (looking for its third title), the USA (hoping for a repeat), the Dominican Republic (the pre-tournament favorite) and Puerto Rico (trying to win it all following back-to-back second-place finishes).
Baseball is more of a global game than ever before, and that’s proven on the rosters: There are dozens of MLB All-Stars, nearly 200 players on 40-man rosters and more than 300 players under contract with big league teams. There are seven Major League MVPs in Paul Goldschmidt, Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve and Miguel Cabrera. In fact, 16 of the top 18 finishers for the 2022 NL MVP and six of the top 10 finishers for the 2022 AL MVP are scheduled to participate in the 2023 World Baseball Classic, with the reigning Nippon Professional Baseball MVP Munetaka Murakami and Korea Baseball Organization MVP Jung-Hoo Lee joining in, too.
The tournament, which is set to begin on March 8, will pit the very best of the world against each other, and the possibility of dream matchups -- Trout vs. Ohtani, Betts vs. Julio Urías, Xander Bogaerts vs. Yu Darvish, Lee vs. any number of big league pitchers who could be his teammate next year -- has fans on the edge of their seats already.
Before it all begins, read on for previews of all 20 teams playing in this year’s tournament.
Pool A - Taichung, Taiwan
Begins play March 8
Offense will be Chinese Taipei’s strength, led by reigning Chinese Professional Baseball League MVP Li Lin and Kungkuan Giljegiljaw, who led the league in home runs last year. Giljegiljaw, who changed his name to reflect his Taiwanese indigenous tribe name, reached Triple-A with Cleveland in 2018. Outfielder Chieh-Hsien Chen, who has walked more than he has struck out in every season with the Uni-President Lions, should help set the table for the batters behind him.
They’ll be joined by infielder Yu-Cheng Chang, who has a career .639 OPS with 14 HRs in the Majors, Pirates Minor Leaguer Tsung-Che Cheng (stole 33 bases at Class A last year) and the Giants’ Kai-Wei Teng (11.2 K/9 in Double-A).
The original darlings of the World Baseball Classic, the Netherlands has the highest World Baseball Softball Confederation ranking in Europe and is led by Major Leaguers who hail from the Caribbean islands of Curaçao or Aruba such as Xander Bogaerts, Jonathan Schoop and Chadwick Tromp.
Adding more punch to the “Honkballers” will be Wladimir Balentien, who holds the Japanese league single-season home run record (60) and showed off plenty of power at the 2017 tournament. Team Netherlands’ pitching staff is a little thin, with an emphasis on youth – though veteran pitchers Kenley Jansen and Jair Jurrjens are included in the pitching pool and may join the roster should the club reach the semifinals in Miami – but this team is likely to score more than enough runs to get out of pool play.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands team is made up of players from mainland Europe, as well as Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius and Saint Maarten.
A powerhouse in international baseball, Cuba has won a medal in all five Olympic Games in which baseball was played and is a sneaky favorite to go far in this tournament. White Sox stars Luis Robert and Yoán Moncada will fill the middle of the lineup for Cuba, and although Robert couldn’t repeat his strong 2021 performance due to injury last year, he’s always been able to hit when healthy.
Cuba will also be bolstered by the Tigers’ Andy Ibanez and the Royals’ Ronald Bolaños, as well as Nippon Professional Baseball (Japan) players Yurisbel Gracial and Ariel Martinez. Fans will also get a chance to see young Cuban stars like 21-year-old catcher Andrys Pérez and 23-year-old left-hander Naykel Cruz.
Free agent Yoenis Céspedes returns to the team and could add to his tournament record for triples (three in 2009, before he defected), while 36-year-old Alfredo Despaigne will look to increase his record of seven home runs.
Excitement is high around Team Italy with new manager and Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza taking over the club. Italy has one of the best leagues in Europe, and former Brewers pitcher Junior Guerra made it to the Majors in 2015 after pitching for San Marino.
Italy has the most aptly nicknamed player in the Majors on its roster in Royals slugger Vinnie “Italian Nightmare” Pasquantino (.295/.383/.450, 10 HR in ‘22), along with teammate Nicky Lopez, Cardinals starter Andre Pallante and Angels super-utility player David Fletcher. Former Mets ace Matt Harvey makes a surprising appearance on the team’s roster after spending all of 2022 in the Minor Leagues.
Filling out the squad are young prospects Joey Marciano -- a left-hander in the Giants' system (and a relative of famed boxer Rocky) -- and Sal Frelick, a first-round pick with the Brewers and owner of the best hit tool in the Minors, according to MLB Pipeline.
Central America’s strongest team has yet to notch a win in the Classic, but this crew could easily end that drought. In 2019, Panama shut down Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba to take home the country's first Caribbean Series title since 1950.
The team’s strength is in its pitching staff, with Jaime Barría (2.61 ERA in 79 1/3 innings last year), Rockies reliever Justin Lawrence and former Major Leaguer Javy Guerra. But with veterans Christian Bethancourt, Jonathan Arauz and Ruben Tejada in the lineup, opponents need to be wary of their bats as well. Dodgers prospect Jose Ramos could make a name for himself, too. He bashed two monster home runs in the qualifying round, in addition to 25 homers in the Minors, while adding a single and a stolen base for good measure.
Pool B - Tokyo, Japan
Play begins on March 9
Although the competition is fierce, Japan’s roster is deep. Of course there’s Shohei Ohtani, a one-man superhero team, a history-maker every time he goes near the field. Expected to close and hit, Ohtani is joined by young starter Roki Sasaki, who nearly pitched back-to-back perfect games for the Chiba Lotte Marines last season. There’s also a collection of established big leaguers in Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar and Padres pitcher Yu Darvish, plus new Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida.
Reigning NPB MVP Munetaka Murakami, who bashed 56 home runs for the Yakult Swallows last season and surpassed the cherished league record for a Japanese-born player (previously held by the legendary Sadaharu Oh), alone makes the lineup menacing.
Korea may have the best up-the-middle defense in the tournament in Padres shortstop Ha-Seong Kim and Cardinals Gold Glover Tommy Edman -- something the pitching staff led by former Cardinals starter Kwang Hyun Kim, 20-year-old Eui-Lee Lee and 21-year-old Hyeong-Jun So will appreciate.
Third baseman Jeong Choi and first baseman ByungHo Park rank No. 2 and No. 4 all-time in KBO home runs, while reigning 2022 KBO MVP Award winner Jung-Hoo Lee should command all the attention before he’s posted to the Major Leagues following the season. Watch out when Korea takes the lead, too: 2022 KBO Rookie of the Year Cheol-won Jeong and LG Twins closer Woo-suk Go (1.48 ERA, 42 SV) stand ready to shut down opposing offenses at the back end of the bullpen.
Though the most well-known Australian in MLB, Liam Hendriks, will miss the tournament due to treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the roster will feature former Tigers right-hander Warwick Saupold and Angels outfielder Aaron Whitefield.
Whitefield offers solid defense and has topped 30 stolen bases four times in the Minors, and Royals middle-infield prospect Robbie Glendinning cracked 22 home runs in Double-A last year. It may not be Australia’s strongest roster in its WBC history, but the country has managed to surprise in the past -- including a 17-7 mercy rule victory over Mexico in 2009.
Shortstop Ray Chang returns for his fourth World Baseball Classic and China will look to rely on his bat that has posted a .324/.324/.471 line in the previous tournaments. Surrounding him are Angels prospect and amateur free-agent signee Alan Carter, who pushed his fastball into the mid-90s after transferring to Lee University; KBO reliever Kwon Ju (3.91 ERA in 50 2/3 IP last year) and NPB OF Yusuke Masago.
Much of the roster plays in China’s National Baseball League, which has been paused due to Covid since 2019. Players have remained with their clubs to train and hold scrimmages, though.
Former Major League infielder Eric Sogard provides the only big league experience, while Georgia Tech commit Michal Kovala was named the No. 1 European prospect by Perfect Game. Nearly every other player was born in the Czech Republic and plays in its local amateur league. Catcher and middle-of-the-lineup stalwart Martin Cervenka -- who nearly became the first Czech-born Major League player since at least 1952 -- picked up six hits and two home runs in the qualifiers and works in sales for his day job, while star pitcher and firefighter Martin Schneider held the heavily favored Spain to one run for the CR to advance to its first WBC.
Starting pitcher Lukáš Ercoli doubles as the team’s media manager. Team captain and DH Petr Zyma works in finance, closer Marek Minařík works in real estate and center fielder Arnošt Dubový teaches high school geography in Brno. The list goes on and on like that.
Pool C – Phoenix, Ariz.
Play begins on March 11
Team USA has had to wait six years to defend its first World Baseball Classic title, but general manager Tony Reagins spent the time well: This year’s roster is arguably the USA’s best ever. They’ll need all that talent if they want to repeat their 2017 championship performance, especially since that year's WBC MVP, Marcus Stroman, is now representing Puerto Rico instead.
While Team USA has always been strong, this year there are All-Stars and Silver Sluggers at nearly every position, including 2022 National League MVP Award winner Paul Goldschmidt at first base, defensive highlight reel Nolan Arenado across the diamond, J.T. Realmuto behind the dish, and an outfield featuring Mookie Betts, Cedric Mullins, Mike Trout and Kyle Tucker. There are more All-Stars on this roster than there are available positions to play them.
The rotation -- usually the hardest spots to fill because of the fear of preseason arm injuries -- is led by two-time All-Star Lance Lynn and veteran starter Adam Wainwright. Dodgers legend Clayton Kershaw and Yankees 2022 breakout star Nestor Cortes were also set to contribute but were forced to pull out. Cortes (hamstring strain) was replaced on the roster by Kyle Freeland, and Nick Martinez was added in place of Kershaw. The expectation will be win or bust, and it will be considered a disappointment if the U.S. isn’t playing on the tournament’s final day.
The team is led by Dodgers starter Julio Urías, who has won 37 games with a minuscule 2.57 ERA over the past two seasons.
“He was one of the first to raise his hand,” said team general manager Rodrigo López.
José Urquidy, Patrick Sandoval and Taijuan Walker offer plenty of depth in the rotation, while the lineup features loads of big league talent with Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo, Brewers infielder Luis Urías, and -- perhaps surprisingly -- Randy Arozarena. Although he was born in Cuba, Arozarena lived in Mérida, Mexico, after defecting from the country, and played in the Mexican League for the Toros de Tijuana, and his daughter was born in Mexico. He became a Mexican citizen just last year so can now represent the country.
Look out for a comeback from Oliver Pérez, too. The 41-year-old southpaw is listed on the team’s pitching pool, so he is eligible to be added to the team later.
Pitching should be a strength just as it was at the 2017 tournament. Mets offseason acquisition José Quintana and Padres swingman Nabil Crismatt have both returned.
The roster should be much deeper now, with the addition of players like Harold Ramirez, Oscar Mercado and Gio Urshela, while Jordan Díaz could make his breakout on the national stage. Díaz got 15 plate appearances in his Major League debut with the A’s last year after slashing .326/.366/.515 with 19 home runs while playing first, second and third base in the Minor Leagues last year. Jorge Alfaro also returns.
In 2017, Canada hit just .155 and failed to homer. Josh Naylor and Joey Votto are unavailable to play due to injuries, but Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman and Cardinals outfielder Tyler O’Neill should perform better than they did six years ago. After all, O’Neill was just 22 at the time, while Freeman has earned significant hardware since then. The Blue Jays’ Otto Lopez will also get to represent his team and country as the only Toronto player to be featured on the roster.
The rotation is getting a lift, too, as Cal Quantrill joins a veteran pitching staff that features Matt Brash, Rob Zastryzny and -- yes -- John Axford. Sadly, Braves starter Michael Soroka, who hasn’t pitched since 2020 due to injury, will not be available this year.
The team’s star is Mariners No. 1 prospect Harry Ford. (Given name: Harrison. Yes, his name is Harrison Ford.) Picked 12th overall in the 2021 Draft, Ford made easy work of the qualifiers. The young star went 5-for-11 with three home runs and eight RBIs during Team GB’s sprint through the qualifiers.
Surrounding him are a mix of veteran Major Leaguers like Trayce Thompson, Ian Gibaut and Vance Worley and young prospects like D’Shawn Knowles (6 H, 1 HR, 1 SB in Regensburg) and London-born Matt Koperniak, who reached Triple-A last year.
Pool D - Miami, Fla.
Play begins March 11
Puerto Rico will see its biggest stars return from the 2017 team that lost in the championship game for a second straight Classic, with Javier Báez and Francisco Lindor manning the infield and Edwin Díaz closing out games. (Shortstop Carlos Correa will miss the tournament with a new child due to be born in March).
While Yadier Molina moved from behind the plate to the manager’s office after participating in the previous four events, Marcus Stroman is on the roster. That should add an interesting wrinkle, as he was Team USA’s winning pitcher in the ’17 championship. Stroman and José Berríos should lead the rotation.
There was debate all winter long whether Ronald Acuña Jr.’s injury history would prevent him from playing, but with the Braves pleased with his offseason progress, the superstar outfielder is set to play in the tournament.
Jose Altuve, Salvador Perez and Miguel Cabrera -- one of the few players to appear in every World Baseball Classic -- are set to return, while Luis Arraez, David Peralta and Anthony Santander are joining for the first time. Pitching may even be the team’s strength, with Eduardo Rodríguez and Pablo López fronting the rotation and Ranger Suárez expected to relieve.
General manager and Team DR designated hitter Nelson Cruz must have the rolodex of all rolodexes. This lineup is a veritable Murderers’ Row, with Rafael Devers and Manny Machado battling for time at third base, and Mariners sensation Julio Rodríguez joining an outfield with Eloy Jiménez and Juan Soto.
The rotation looks just as strong as the offense, with reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara fronting a staff featuring World Series champion Cristian Javier, young Pirates fireballer Roansy Contreras and veteran hurler Johnny Cueto.
The Cinderella team from 2017 will have its work cut out if it hopes to escape arguably the deepest pool in the tournament this time around.
Israel will get to draw on active big league talent for the first time, however. Outfielder Joc Pederson took it upon himself to help manager Ian Kinsler recruit talent, with starter Dean Kremer, relievers Richard Bleier and Jake Fishman and catcher Garrett Stubbs joining the squad. Ryan Lavarnway, named Pool A MVP in 2017, returns as well.
The most surprising thing is that it took this long. The baseball-loving nation -- home to former Major Leaguers Dennis Martinez, Vicente Padilla and Marvin Benard -- failed to qualify in 2013 and ’17, going 0-2 in the former qualifier tournament and getting mercy-ruled by Mexico in the qualifier finals ahead of 2017.
Pitching is the team’s strength. Major Leaguers Jonathan Loáisiga and Erasmo Ramírez are the biggest names, while Brewers prospect Carlos Rodriguez (3.01 ERA, 129 K's in 107 1/3 IP in the Minors) and qualifier star Osman Gutierrez lead the rotation.