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Pool B of WBC 2017 filled with intrigue

Japan, Cuba the favorites to advance, while Australia, China look to surprise
MLB.com

The 2017 World Baseball Classic is set to begin next week, and Pool B -- featuring Australia, China, Cuba and Japan -- will have plenty of intriguing subplots.

The venue for this group of games is the Tokyo Dome, and action begins on Tuesday morning with Cuba against two-time Classic champs Japan at 5 a.m. ET.

The 2017 World Baseball Classic is set to begin next week, and Pool B -- featuring Australia, China, Cuba and Japan -- will have plenty of intriguing subplots.

The venue for this group of games is the Tokyo Dome, and action begins on Tuesday morning with Cuba against two-time Classic champs Japan at 5 a.m. ET.

Get World Baseball Classic tickets

The World Baseball Classic runs from March 6-22. In the U.S., games will air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN will provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. will have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. Internationally, the tournament will be distributed across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

Here's a breakdown of each country and why it will (or will not) advance.

Australia

Previous World Baseball Classic results: Australia was winless (0-3) in the 2006 Classic, but won a game against Mexico before being eliminated in the first round of the '09 tournament. In '13, Australia was once again eliminated in Round 1 without a victory.

Top players: RHP Peter Moylan (10 MLB seasons with Braves, Dodgers, Royals), LHP Ryan Rowland-Smith (five MLB seasons with Mariners, D-backs), LHP Travis Blackley (four MLB seasons in 2004, '07, '12-'13), RHP Warwick Saupold (Tigers organization).

Manager: Jon Deeble

Prospects to watch: LHP Alex Wells (Orioles' No. 17 prospect), LHP Lachlan Wells (Twins' No. 26 prospect.

Video: Top Prospects: Lachlan Wells, LHP, Twins

Why it could advance: With a pitching staff that showed improvement from the 2009 to '13 Classics, and now boasting several hurlers with Major League or Minor League experience, Australia could be a dark-horse candidate to get into the second round. The team also features several players who have experience in prior tournaments, including infielders Brad Harman and Luke Hughes, as well as outfielder Trent Oeltjen.

Why it might not: The competition in Pool B is stiff, with the likes of Japan and Cuba awaiting. Even if the pitching holds its own, offense may be difficult to come by with Australia's lineup.

Sound smart with your friends: In the 2011-12 season, Saupold set an Australian Baseball League record by posting a 1.41 ERA over 70 innings (10 starts).

China

Previous World Baseball Classic results: China was winless (0-3) in the 2006 event, but won a game in the first round of tournament play in both '09 and '13 -- beating Chinese Taipei in '09 and Brazil in '13.

Top players: LHP Bruce Chen (pitched in MLB from 1998-2015), INF Ray Chang (12 Minor League seasons), INF Joey Wong (Rockies Minor League system), C Wei Wang (Beijing Tigers from 2002-15).

Video: Bruce Chen discusses pitching for Team China

Manager: John McLaren

Why it could advance: It'll be an uphill battle for China to advance out of the first round. If China is to move into Round 2, however, it'll likely be through a combination of strong performances from Chen and timely hitting from its more experienced hitters (Wang has played in all three Classics, and both Chang and Wong have a combined 20 seasons of professional experience in the Minors).

Why it might not: Competing in the same pool as Japan, Cuba and Australia, China's team just doesn't feature enough MLB-caliber talent to stack up. McLaren, in an interview with MLB.com's Lindsay Berra, said that "winning a game is monumental" in terms of the continued advancement of baseball in China.

Sound smart with your friends: Wang hit the first World Baseball Classic home run back in 2006, and it came off current Cubs reliever Koji Uehara.

2017 World Baseball Classic rules

Cuba

Previous World Baseball Classic results: Cuba was eliminated by Japan in both the 2006 and '09 tournaments -- in '06, Japan defeated Cuba in the championship game, and in '09, Japan eliminated Cuba in the second round. Cuba was again eliminated in the second round during the '13 Classic, falling to the Netherlands.

Top players: OF Yoelkis Cespedes (half-brother of Mets OF Yoenis Cespedes, played for Alazanes de Granma in Cuba's Serie Nacional), OF Victor Mesa Jr. (Matanzas Crocodiles of Serie Nacional), OF Alfredo Despaigne (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of Japan's NPB).

Video: Morosi on Cuban players to look out for in WBC 2017

Manager: Carlos Marti

Why it could advance: While Cuban Major Leaguers aren't eligible to play for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic, the team does feature some young stars capable of helping lift Cuba into the second round. Mesa, 20, hit .354/.399/.539 in 70 Serie Nacional games last season. Cespedes, 19, starred for Cuba in the Caribbean Series, going 5-for-16 with a double, and showing off a tremendous arm in right field.

Cuba also has a veteran slugger in Despaigne, 30, who was named MVP of Pool A in the 2013 Classic. He hit .389/.522/.944 with three home runs and eight RBIs that year.

Why it might not: Cuba's pitching ranks are relatively thin, particularly after right-hander Freddy Asiel Alvarez was ruled out due to an elbow injury. That, coupled with the lack of big league talent on the roster makes Cuba vulnerable, particularly if Australia can take advantage with a stronger roster this time around.

Sound smart with your friends: Mesa's father, Victor Mesa Sr., was one of the greatest players in Cuban baseball history. In the 1984 Amateur World Series, Mesa outperformed Team USA outfielder Barry Bonds. Mesa was named Series MVP, hitting .475/.523/.797 with 14 RBIs and eight steals in 13 games. Bonds hit .304/.319/.565 with 16 RBIs in 12 games.

Japan

Previous World Baseball Classic results: Japan won the first two World Baseball Classic tournaments, defeating Cuba in the championship game in 2006 and South Korea in '09. Japan's championship streak ended in 2013, with a 3-1 loss to Puerto Rico in the semifinals.

Top players: RHP Tomoyuki Sugano (Yomiuri Giants of Nippon Professional Baseball), OF Norichika Aoki (Houston Astros), INF Tetsuto Yamada (Yakult Swallows of NPB), OF Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (Yokohama BayStars of NPB).

Manager: Hiroki Kokubo

Video: Japan tops South Korea in 2009 to win second Classic

Why it could advance: Pitching has been Japan's calling card in the past, and a deep staff led by Sugano is expected to be strong once again. But the slugging featured in Japan's lineup is formidable, even without two-way star Shohei Ohtani, who is out of the tournament with a right ankle injury.

Headlined by Yamada (38 home runs and 1.000+ OPS each of the past two seasons), Tsutsugo (44 homers, 1.110 OPS last season) and Aoki, who has five years of MLB experience, Japan boasts a strong stable of bats.

Why it might not: Japan not advancing to Round 2 would be a surprise. But if there's anything that could hinder an otherwise strong team, it's the lack of World Baseball Classic experience on the pitching staff: only one of Japan's hurlers (Kazuhisa Makita) has pitched in the tournament before. Japan's pitching was hammered for 17 hits in a tuneup against Taiwan's All-Stars on Tuesday.

Video: Morosi on players to watch on Team Japan in WBC 2017

Sound smart with your friends: With Ohtani not participating, Sugano has a chance to announce his presence to the rest of the baseball world. The 27-year-old hasn't posted an ERA north of 2.33 the last three seasons, and as a rookie in the 2013 Japan Series (the NPB equivalent of MLB's World Series), he outdueled Masahiro Tanaka to force a decisive Game 7 against the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MannyOnMLB.

Australia, Cuba, China, Japan