WBC 2017 Preview: Breaking down Japan

January 15th, 2017

Team Japan entered the 2013 World Baseball Classic as two-time defending champions, winning the first two editions of the international tournament in 2006 and '09. But after losing to Puerto Rico in the semifinal round four years ago, Japan has unfinished business when it opens WBC '17 in Tokyo on March 7 against Cuba.
The baseball world's eyes will be on Shohei Ohtani, the two-way sensation who has a 100-mph fastball and hit 22 home runs with a 1.004 OPS in 382 plate appearances for Nippon Professional Baseball's Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2016. But while the 22-year-old superstar may be the headliner, Japan will field a very talented group alongside him.
Before the Classic's first pitch is thrown on March 6, MLB.com is breaking down each roster in the 16-nation tournament. Here's a look at Japan's confirmed roster so far:
:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::
Hirotoshi Masui, RHP
Kazuhisa Makita, RHP
Naoki Miyanishi, LHP
Ryo Akiyoshi, RHP
Tomoyuki Sugano, RHP
Takahiro Norimoto, RHP
Shohei Ohtani, RHP
Position players
Motohiro Shima, C
Shota Ohno, C
Nobuhiro Matsuda, 3B
Hayato Sakamoto, SS
Sho Nakata, 1B
Ryosuke Kikuchi, 2B
Tetsuto Yamada, 3B
, OF
Seiichi Uchikawa, OF
Shogo Akiyama, OF
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, OF
Seiya Suzuki, OF
With the recent addition of the only MLB player on the roster so far in Aoki, Japan has nine spots remaining. There's still a possibility that pitchers and could join the team, as well as outfielder , who played for Japan in the 2006 and '09 tournaments. Tanaka was a member of the '09 and '13 teams, and Iwakuma pitched for Japan in the '09 Classic.
Given their track record in the Majors and success in past tournaments, adding Tanaka (2.89 ERA, 17 strikeouts and no walks in 9 1/3 Classic innings), Iwakuma (1.35 ERA, 0.90 WHIP in 20 Classic innings) or both would be a big boost for Japan's pitching staff.
How they fared in the past
Japan defeated Cuba in the inaugural Classic final in 2006, and beat South Korea to win a second straight Classic title three years later. In '13, Japan was ousted by Puerto Rico in the semifinal round, 3-1.
What they should do well
Japan has thrived in past tournaments with excellent pitching, but it's the slugging that could take center stage for the club this time around. Beyond Ohtani, the team boasts six other hitters that belted 23 or more homers in NPB last season -- Tsutsugo (44), Yamada (38), Suzuki (29), Matsuda (27), Nakata (25) and Sakamoto (23).
Japan should shine defensively, too -- manager Hiroki Kokubo said he thinks his team's defense will be its greatest strength in the tournament.
Where they could struggle
Japan has had strong pitching in past tournaments, and has a solid staff headed by Ohtani and Sugano this year. But pending additions to the roster, only one of their hurlers has pitched in the Classic before (Makita), and Japan's pitchers were shelled for 29 runs over four exhibition games against Mexico and the Netherlands in November.
How far they could go
With Japan's pedigree, as well as the talent in its starting rotation and powerful lineup, a third Classic championship in four tournaments is definitely possible. There's also added motivation for Japan after coming up short in 2013.