The best player on every World Baseball Classic team
The World Baseball Classic is nearly here. For the first time in six years, all the world's greatest players will face off with pride, bragging rights and the World Baseball Classic trophy all on the line.
But who is the key player on each team? What player could make the difference between an early trip back home and a spot in the semifinals in Miami? We're glad you asked.
Let's break that down -- pool by pool, team by team.
Chinese Taipei: Li Lin
While Yu Chang, who played for Cleveland from 2019-22, is probably the most prominent MLB player on Chinese Taipei’s roster, Rakuten Monkeys second baseman Lin is the one to watch at the tournament. The second baseman hit .335/.391/.517 with 14 home runs to win the CPBL batting title and MVP Award in 2022. He even tied for the home run crown with former Guardians farmhand Kungkuan Giljegiljaw, but because Lin played more, Giljegiljaw was given the title. According to Rob Liu of CPBLStats.com, Lin is “known for hitting the ball hard with plenty of gap power.”
Cuba: Luis Robert
For the first time in World Baseball Classic history, Cuba will be playing with Major League talent on its roster. With Robert and White Sox teammate Yoán Moncada on the team, the country couldn't have picked a better duo to start with.
Nicknamed “La Pantera” or “The Panther,” Robert is a true five-tool talent who has yet to put it all together across a full big league season on Chicago’s South Side. Three separate stints on the injured list robbed Robert of at-bats in 2022 and likely prevented him from repeating his 2021 performance, when he posted a .946 OPS. Robert's got plenty of talent, though: He was only 18 the last time he played for Cuba's top league, Serie Nacional, yet he hit .401 with 12 home runs in 53 games.
Yoenis Cespedes -- currently a free agent -- also returns to the roster along with NPB slugger Alfredo Despaigne, who holds the all-time Classic record with seven home runs.
Italy: Vinnie Pasquantino
How could a player nicknamed “The Italian Nightmare” -- a moniker gifted to him by none other than George Brett -- not be the player to watch on Team Italy? The first baseman put together a solid rookie season in Kansas City, hitting .295 with 10 home runs across 72 games while walking more than he struck out. He should inspire plenty of fear at the heart of the Italian roster.
Pasquantino hasn't been shy to share his excitement about playing for Italy in the tournament -- joining up for Mike Piazza's "Mission Classic" over the winter -- and could now make his own impact for the country.
Netherlands: Xander Bogaerts
It’s been quite the winter for the X-Man, who left the only big league team he’s ever known to join the star-studded San Diego Padres. But before he ever suits up in the Friars' brown in the regular season, he will once again don the orange for the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
A lifetime .292 hitter, Bogaerts has excellent bat control and sneaky power. Even while battling a shoulder injury in 2022, he competed for the batting title, finishing with a .307/.377/.456 batting line and 14 home runs. In the last two Classics, the shortstop has collected 10 hits, including two doubles and a triple, in 41 at-bats.
Should the Netherlands reach Miami, they may also be joined by Kenley Jansen, who suited up for the team in 2009 ... as a catcher.
Panama: Jose Ramos
While there are plenty of MLB players joining Panama for the tournament -- including Rays catcher Christian Bethancourt and Angels reliever Jaime Barria -- let’s give it up for the breakout star of the Panama City qualifiers. The Dodgers’ No. 23 prospect may have slipped down the rankings due to contact issues, but he has more power than almost anyone when he makes contact. In addition to the 25 home runs he hit in the Minor Leagues last season, he bashed two monster home runs in the qualifying round to help Panama reach its first World Baseball Classic since 2009.
Though he may have a few more years to wait until he reaches the big leagues, Ramos could make a name for himself on the Classic stage.
Australia: Aaron Whitefield
He may be playing baseball for Australia on the international stage, but that’s not where the Angels outfielder got his start: He first picked up fastpitch softball, courtesy of his mother. Nicole Molander was a star softball player for the Australian national team and got her son into the sport. It was only when a Reds scout saw Whitefield and suggested he try baseball that he made the switch.
Since then, Whitefield has shown off solid defensive chops and plenty of speed. He’s topped 30 stolen bases four times in the Minors, and fell just one steal shy of the mark in 2022. In a small batting sample during two short MLB stints, he’s gone 0-for-12. He’ll look to do well at the World Baseball Classic as a springboard to stick in the Major Leagues.
China: Luo Jinjun
While Ray Chang returns for his fourth tournament at the age of 39, and Angels undrafted free agent signee Alan Carter is the only affiliated player on the team, we're going to choose Jinjun. The star infielder is one of the best defenders on the team and he has the ability to play at second, third and shortstop. He led Team China to a third-place finish in the 2019 Asian Championships and was one of the Chinese players who joined the Texas Airhogs of the American Association in 2018 and '19, hitting .219/.265/.255 across 367 PA.
Known for his kindness and willingness to help his teammates and coaches while out on the field, Jinjun is looked at as a clubhouse leader, fully earning his status as team captain.
Czech Republic: Martin Schneider
Even though former Major Leaguer Eric Sogard (the first U.S.-born MLB player with Czech citizenship) joins the Czech team for the tournament, all eyes should be on Schneider. He is arguably the best pitcher and shortstop in Czech baseball history; manager Pavel Chadim will ask him only to pitch in the World Baseball Classic to keep his arm loose and his body fresh.
After tossing just 19 innings during the Czech Extraliga’s regular season -- his day job as a firefighter requires him to work for 24 hours before getting 48 hours off, which means he misses one out of every three Czech Baseball Extraliga games -- he was expected to pitch in relief during the qualifiers. But with the chance to advance on the line, Schneider took the ball for 6 1/3 innings, striking out five while allowing just one run to upset Spain and send the Czech Republic to its first World Baseball Classic.
Japan: Shohei Ohtani
I mean, who else could it be? Yes, while Japan has reigning NPB MVP Award winner Munetaka Murakami coming off a 56-homer campaign -- setting the single-season home run record for a Japanese-born player -- and young Roki Sasaki could break out as well, Ohtani is doing things on the diamond that have never been done -- except perhaps in a young child’s wildest dreams.
The 28-year-old seems to only get better with time, and has hit 80 home runs while posting a 2.70 ERA in nearly 300 innings over the last two seasons. Those numbers put him among superstars like Aaron Judge and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at the plate and Max Scherzer and Julio Urías on the mound -- and he’s out here doing both! Ohtani is expected to start the first game for Japan on the mound and hit at the tournament, so Japan may go just as far as its superstar can take them.
Korea: Jung-hoo Lee
He won the KBO Rookie of the Year Award in 2017, has five KBO Golden Gloves and took home the league MVP Award after blasting 23 home runs to complement a .349 average and .996 OPS for the Kiwoom Heroes last year. His team has agreed to post him to MLB following the 2023 KBO season, so the last thing for Lee to accomplish for Korea is to bring a World Baseball Classic title home.
Nicknamed “grandson of the wind” -- his father, Korean baseball legend Jong-beom Lee was called “son of the wind” -- Lee could become an international sensation by the end of the tournament and the No. 1 bat on the free-agent market next winter.
Canada: Freddie Freeman
After going just 2-for-11 in 2017, you can bet that Freeman will be looking to improve this time around -- especially since he’s been talking about playing in this year’s tournament since the 2022 All-Star Game, when he helped recruit Tyler O’Neill.
Since the last Classic, Freeman has also taken his game to a new level. The first baseman has been a six-time All-Star, picked up three Silver Sluggers, a Gold Glove Award and the National League MVP Award, and -- of course -- won a World Series title with the Braves in 2021. Clearly all that’s left is world domination.
Notably, fan-favorite reliever John Axford returns to play in the tournament, as does former pitcher-turned-outfielder-turned-back-into-pitcher Adam Loewen. He has not played in the affiliated or independent Minor Leagues since 2018, but he helped Canada at the 2019 Pan-Am Games.
Colombia: Gio Urshela
At the World Baseball Classic in 2017, Colombia’s pitchers posted a 2.73 ERA. Unfortunately, its batters hit just .202, with Jorge Alfaro providing the only home run in the tournament. Urshela should help. The new Angels acquisition will not only give the team some flexibility with his ability to play all over the infield, but his bat should provide a boon, too.
Despite not being much of a power hitter, Urshela hit 13 home runs with a .285/.338/.429 batting line in 2022. Since 2019, he’s posted an OPS+ of 119 -- 19 percent better than the league average.
A's rookie Jordan Díaz could also make his breakout on the national stage. Díaz played 15 games in his Major League debut with the A’s last year after hitting .326/.366/.515 with 19 home runs while seeing time at first, second, and third base in the Minor Leagues last year.
Great Britain: Harry Ford
There are two things to know about Ford: 1) His given name is Harrison. Yes, his actual name is Harrison Ford. 2) The guy can hit the ball.
Only 20 years old, Ford has already rocketed to the top of Seattle's prospect list after hitting 11 home runs with an .863 OPS in Class A last year. The veteran of MLB's Dream Series and the 12th overall pick in the 2021 Draft, Ford is MLB Pipeline's No. 49 prospect in the game and claimed his athleticism has “earned him comparisons to Craig Biggio.”
More importantly, Ford showed off those tools when Great Britain needed them most. The young catcher went 5-for-11 with three home runs and eight RBIs during Team GB’s sprint through the qualifiers.
He's not the only star playing for Team GB: Though Jazz Chisholm Jr. is skipping the tournament to focus on his shift to center field, Dodgers outfielder Trayce Thompson joins the squad after bashing 11 home runs and posting a .947 OPS in the second half last season.
Mexico: Julio Urías
Hailing from Culiacán, Mexico, Urías has made it clear how important playing in this tournament is when he first committed to playing.
“It’s going to be something really nice. Mexico is obviously everything for me,” Urías said in Spanish to MLB.com. “The love I get from my fellow Mexicans is something I feel every day, not only in Mexico but also here in Los Angeles. It’s going to be an honor for me.”
He’s also giving Mexico a starter who can match up against any team in the WBC. Last season, Urías went 17-7 with a league-leading 2.16 ERA in 175 innings. Batters hit just .199 against him -- the sixth-best mark in baseball.
United States: Mike Trout
Although there are stars and likely future Hall of Famers at nearly every position for Team USA, there’s no overlooking Trout’s participation. Baseball’s best five-tool player for over a decade is finally joining the World Baseball Classic fun -- and as team captain no less.
Despite struggling with injuries over the past few seasons, Trout proved he’s still the same big fish. Over just 119 games last year, Trout bashed 40 home runs, posted a .999 OPS and earned his 10th All-Star Game appearance and ninth Silver Slugger. Now, the entire world will see what he can do.
Dominican Republic: Julio Rodríguez
If you want to talk about exciting, otherworldly talents, you can begin and end with Rodríguez. In his rookie season last year, the Mariners outfielder cruised to the American League Rookie of the Year Award with a blend of patience, power, speed and highlight-reel defense. Rodríguez smashed 28 home runs, stole 25 bases -- the first rookie to post a 25/25 season since Trout in 2012 -- and posted a 147 OPS+, good for 47 percent better than league average.
He’s already shown up on the international stage, too: Rodriguez went 10-for-24 with two doubles and a home run as the Dominican Republic won a bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Israel: Joc Pederson
One of the very first players to announce his intention to participate, Pederson won’t be pulling on the Israel jersey for the first time. That was in 2013, when he appeared for the team in the Classic qualifiers. Just 20 years old at the time, Pederson went 4-for-10 with three stolen bases, but Israel fell one game shy of qualifying for the main tournament.
Now, he’ll be the most frightening bat in the Israeli lineup. Coming off arguably his strongest year, Pederson posted a .274/.353/.521 batting line with 23 homers in his first season with the Giants. But his skill will be felt beyond just his place in the lineup: Team leaders said he was hard at work recruiting his fellow players to join the club leading up to March.
Nicaragua: Jonathan Loáisiga
Nicaragua's strength is definitely its pitching, with qualifiers star Osman Gutierrez and Brewers prospect Carlos Rodriguez (3.01 ERA, 129 K's in 107 1/3 IP in the Minors) on the team. But no one will be more important than Loáisiga. A ground-ball machine, Loáisiga threw his sinker more than 60 percent of the time in 2022, collecting grounders at a nearly equal rate. (Good thing he’ll have Freddy Zamora’s glove behind him at shortstop.)
Pitching primarily in the seventh and eighth innings, Loáisiga has an 18-9 record with a 3.55 ERA and seven saves across five big league campaigns. Don’t just look out for his arm, though: The Yankees pitcher showed off a fresh pair of Nicaragua-themed cleats that he planned to wear in Miami.
Puerto Rico: Francisco Lindor
The MVP of Pool D in the 2017 tournament is back to man the middle of the infield and perhaps finally lead Puerto Rico to a World Baseball Classic championship. Since posting a .370/.419/.630 batting line with two home runs and four RBIs in the '17 tournament, Lindor has played in three All-Star Games, was traded to the Mets and inked a 10-year, $341 million contract to keep one of the faces of baseball in the Big Apple through 2031.
While his bat and penchant for game-changing home runs -- his emotional 2018 home run at Puerto Rico’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium is still shown on repeat -- have helped make him a superstar, it’s important to remember just how good his glove is, too. While he’s third among all big league shortstops with 124 home runs since 2018, he’s first among all players with 86 outs above average in that same time frame.
Venezuela: Ronald Acuña Jr.
One of the biggest questions of the offseason was answered when WBC rosters were revealed and Acuña was listed. That should provide a huge boon to Venezuela, which has just one third-place finish to its name in the previous four tournaments. A true five-tool talent, Acuña has played only 201 games over the past two seasons due to injuries, but has still bashed 39 home runs and stolen 46 bases in that time frame.
Playing in the Venezuelan winter league over the offseason, he added a Venezuelan Home Run Derby title to his trophy case and posted an absurd .441/.513/.647 line in 10 games.
Keep an eye on Miguel Cabrera, as well: Though he's nearing the end of his career, he'll become the only batter to appear in every World Baseball Classic.