Breaking down World Baseball Classic Pool A

March 8th, 2023

When Pool A play in Taichung, Taiwan, concludes, many expect that Cuba and the Netherlands will move on to the quarterfinals in Tokyo, but the margins are a lot closer than you may think at first glance. Italy -- led by manager Mike Piazza -- has Major League stars joined by veteran Italian ballplayers, Chinese Taipei's roster features CPBL superstars, and Panama dominated its way through the Qualifier to get to this point. It may be one of the most balanced brackets in the entire tournament.

Suffice to say, things didn’t go according to plan for Chinese Taipei at the last World Baseball Classic. After finishing eighth in 2013 by defeating the Netherlands and Australia to advance to the second round for the first time in tournament history, it went 0-3 in 2017.

Though not a favorite, a trip to the second round is certainly within this team’s purview. American fans may even be familiar with some of the team’s players this time around. When MLB games were delayed due to the pandemic, the Chinese Professional Baseball League was one of the first to return to play. Games were streamed online, and many baseball fanatics in the States tuned in to watch while eating their breakfast.

The offense will be the team’s strength, led by reigning CPBL MVP Li Lin and Kungkuan Giljegiljaw, who led the league in home runs last year. Giljegiljaw, who changed his name in 2019 to reflect his Taiwanese indigenous tribe name, was known as Li-Jen Chu when he 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 , who recently signed a big league deal with the Red Sox, Pirates Minor Leaguer Tsung-Che Cheng (stole 33 bases in A-ball last year) and the Giants’ Kai-Wei Teng (11.2 K/9 in Double-A in 2022). The lineup will also feature not one but two Triple Crown winners: Po-Jung Wang accomplished the rare feat in 2017 and Lin did the same just last season.

The original darlings of the World Baseball Classic -- their 2-1 win to eliminate the Dominican Republic in 2009 remains one of the best games in tournament history -- have now become a powerhouse. The Netherlands have the highest WBSC ranking in Europe, and the team's roster is led by Major Leaguers like Xander Bogaerts, Jonathan Schoop and Chadwick Tromp, who all hail from the Caribbean islands of Curaçao and Aruba.

Combined with Wladimir Balentien -- who holds the Japanese league single-season home run record (60) and showed off plenty of power at the 2017 tournament (4 HR, 12 RBIs, 1.792 OPS) -- opposing pitchers won’t ever get much of a break. Team Netherlands’ pitching staff is a little thin with an emphasis on youth – though veteran pitchers Kenley Jansen and Jair Jurrjens are included in its pitching pool and may join the team should it reach the semifinals in Miami.

The Kingdom of the Netherlands team is made up of players from mainland Europe, as well as Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius and Sint Maarten. The famous “Honkballers” have finished fourth in the past two Classics and are looking to medal this time before pursuing their 25th European Baseball Championship title in September.

A powerhouse in international baseball, Cuba has won a medal in all five Olympic Games in which baseball was played. The team is a sneaky favorite to go far in this tournament, given it has never failed to advance from pool play and finished second to Japan in the first Classic. This year is also the first time the country features MLB players on its roster -- a twist that could really impact its fortunes.

That means that White Sox stars Luis Robert Jr. and Yoán Moncada will now fill the middle of the lineup for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic. Though Robert failed to repeat his 2021 performance (.946 OPS) due to injury last year, he’s always been able to hit -- and do everything else -- when healthy. Cuba will be plenty happy if he repeats his performance from his last stint in the Cuban League in 2016-17. That year, an 18-year-old Robert hit .401 with 12 home runs in just 53 games.

In addition to the MLB talent -- Robert, Moncada, the Tigers’ Andy Ibáñez and the Royals’ Ronald Bolaños -- Nippon Professional Baseball (Japan) players Yurisbel Gracial and Ariel Martinez will suit up as well. 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.

Of course, there’s a chance for some history, too. Nearly every offensive record in tournament history belongs to a Cuban player. 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. The rest are owned by 42-year-old Frederich Cepeda. Though he posted a 1.151 OPS for Sancti Spiritus last year, he won’t be joining the Cuban roster this time around.

Excitement is high around Team Italy with new manager and Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza taking over the club. One of his first moves was to host “Mission Classic,” which brought MLB players with Italian heritage together with some of the country’s finest homegrown talent for a week-long training camp and cultural tour. 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.

We’ll see if Piazza's efforts make an impact on the field. Italy’s best finish came in 2013, when a 6-5, ninth-inning comeback win against Mexico helped send the team to the second round for the only time in its WBC history. But the team has made strides on the world stage as of late, taking home a bronze medal in the 2021 European Baseball Championship on its home turf in Turin.

Now, it’ll have the most aptly nicknamed player in the Majors on the roster in Royals slugger Vinnie “Italian Nightmare” Pasquantino (.295/.383/.450, 10 HR in '22) on the roster, along with Cardinals starter Andre Pallante and Angels superutility player David Fletcher. Former Mets ace Matt Harvey makes a surprising appearance on the team’s roster as well.

"I think we've put together a good ballclub," Piazza said. "We've put together a great staff. Baseball is unpredictable."

The team looks set to compete in the future, too. Filling out the squad are young prospects Joey Marciano -- a left-handed arm 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.

After Colombia’s Dilson Herrera kept Panama from qualifying for the 2017 tournament with a game-winning home run, the host nation at this year’s Panama City Qualifiers made sure that wouldn’t happen again: It simply didn’t allow a single run in the competition. Panama beat Argentina, 11-0, before Ariel Jurado one-hit Brazil for 5 1/3 innings in a 4-0 victory to send the team to Taiwan.

Central America’s strongest team entered '23 without having earned a win in the main tournament, but this crew could easily end that drought. After all, it's used to shocking the Caribbean baseball world. 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 (48 K's in 42 2/3 IP) and former Major Leaguer Javy Guerra leading the way. But with veterans Christian Bethancourt and Ruben Tejada in the lineup, opponents need to be wary of their bats. Dodgers prospect Jose Ramos could make a name for himself, as well. He bashed two monster home runs in the qualifying round, in addition to his 25 homers in the Minors, while adding a single and a stolen base for good measure.