TAIPEI, Taiwan -- World Baseball Classic regular Chinese Taipei may be hoping to sail through the tournament qualifier this week in Taiwan, but it is facing strong challenges from Thailand, which features former big league star Johnny Damon, New Zealand and a Philippines squad bolstered by promising Minor Leaguers.
Chinese Taipei, which is ranked eighth in the world by the International Baseball Federation, participated in the 2006 and '09 World Baseball Classics but didn't advance past the first round in both previous tournaments. Because of its failure to win a game in '09, Chinese Taipei is required to qualify for a berth in the '13 tournament.
Chinese Taipei is suffering from an absence of Major Leaguers on its roster, as Orioles left-hander Wei-Yin Chen and former Yankees and Nationals starter Chien-Ming Wang have both decided to skip the qualifiers. Manager Chang-Heng Hsieh is relying on talents from the local and Japanese professional leagues to advance his team. While Hsieh is hoping left-handed starter Yao-Hsun Yang of Japan's Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks may overwhelm opponents with his fastball and slider, he also needs local sluggers Cheng-Min Peng, Yi-Chuan Lin and Chih-Sheng Lin to come through with big hits to ensure victories.
"When I first put together the team, I thought I had stronger batters than pitchers," Hsieh said. "But after three weeks of training, now our pitchers have improved significantly. We will be very careful in each game no matter whom we are playing against to make it through the qualifier."
Thailand is playing in the World Baseball Classic qualifier for the first time, and it has done well in recent regional competitions. It won the championship in the Southeast Asian Games in 2007 and finished third in the event last year. It is now ranked 27th in the world.
The team is grabbing the limelight with the help of Damon, who is currently a free agent after being released by the Indians in August. Damon played for the U.S. in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, but this time he is playing for his mother's home country. Damon said he still wants to return to the Major Leagues, although he has not talked to any club so far. There are no other current or former Major and Minor Leaguers on Team Thailand, and the roster consists mostly of amateurs and students.
"I like how the [Thai] players are progressing ... they are inspired," Damon said. "I am very excited to be a part of it. Every team that's here, they hope to win, and that's what Team Thailand wants to do also."
Ranked 34th in the world, the Philippines is going to depend on its two star hurlers -- former Giants reliever Geno Espineli and Chunichi Dragons farm team starter Ryuya Ogawa -- to help them excel in the qualifier.
Philippines manager Jim Ramos also has White Sox first-base prospect Leighton Pangilinan, A's outfield prospect Ryan Pineda and some other Minor Leaguers to boost his lineup. Ramos said he is confident in his players, and he has a good balance between pitching and offense.
Manager Andy Skeels of previously unranked New Zealand has enlisted three Minor Leaguers to boost the Kiwis' first appearance in World Baseball Classic action. They are first baseman Boss Moanaroa (Red Sox), catcher Beau Bishop (Red Sox) and infielder Daniel Devonshire (Blue Jays). Skeels currently manages the Giants' Class A Advanced affiliate San Jose Giants.
It appears that for the Kiwis, baseball blood often runs in the family. Five pairs of brothers are featured in the team, including former Minor League catcher David Skeels, brother of the manager. Brothers Moko and Boss Moanaroa have both been associated with Red Sox. Moko used to play in the Red Sox organization as an outfielder, but he was released in 2011. It is also possible to see right-handed pitcher Sam Bishop partnering with his brother Beau as a battery mate.
Andy Skeels described his team as the "underdog" of the tournament, but suggested they could still surprise.
"The game isn't played on the paper," he said. "That's a great thing about baseball. You never know. We are gonna go out there and play hard."
Only one of the four teams will advance to the 16-team World Baseball Classic next year.
The qualifier will be held from Thursday through Sunday in Xinzhuang Stadium in a bustling industrial area in New Taipei City in northern Taiwan. The stadium can seat 12,000 fans. During the local sports season, it serves as the home stadium to Brother Elephants, one of the longest-standing professional baseball teams in Taiwan.