Breaking down World Baseball Classic Pool D
If there’s a "Group of Death" in the 2023 World Baseball Classic, it has to be Pool D.
With powerhouses Venezuela, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico all in one group, there won’t be a shortage of star players and extremely competitive games when the teams duel at loanDepot park in Miami beginning on Saturday.
But while those three star-studded teams will be competing for two spots, Team Israel and Nicaragua will look to pull off upsets of their own. Israel, which is led by manager Ian Kinsler, has more big league talent than ever before.
The crowds in this group are also expected to be raucous, as three of the games in Group D have already sold out, including Saturday night’s contest between the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
Don’t be surprised if it all comes down to Wednesday, the last day of this round, making Pool D must-watch TV.
After winning its first World Baseball Classic with an undefeated run in 2013, the Dominican Republic was unable to repeat in '17, falling short in the second round of the tournament.
The good news for the D.R., however, is that its roster for this Classic might be its strongest group since the tournament started in ‘06. As always, the Dominican squad will be led by a star-studded lineup that features a combined 19 Silver Slugger Awards.
Even without Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who had to withdraw last week due to injury, the Dominican Republic can beat you with power, contact and even some speed. The infield will be led by Manny Machado, who was famously nicknamed “El Ministro de la defensa” by Dominican fans, which translates to “The Minister of Defense.” Joining Machado will be Willy Adames, Rafael Devers and Wander Franco. Oh, and reigning World Series MVP Jeremy Peña might not even start every game at shortstop; that’s how loaded this team is.
If that’s not enough for you, the outfield mix is headlined by superstars Juan Soto and Julio Rodríguez , as well as 2021 All-Star Teoscar Hernández.
As good as the lineup is, what makes this Dominican team its most complete yet is the pitching staff manager Rodney Linares will have at his disposal. Leading the staff is Sandy Alcantara, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, giving the country its first true ace in any of the competitions. Joining Alcantara will be talented young pitchers Cristian Javier and Roansy Contreras, as well as veteran Johnny Cueto.
In the bullpen, the D.R. has a plethora of Major League closers that will help shorten games. It’s one of the best collections of talent the Classic has ever seen.
“It’s a failure,” Linares said when asked how he will view the Classic if his team doesn’t win the tournament. “I think we have everything that we need to have as a team in order to compete and win this thing.”
Team Israel made its Classic debut in '17 and instantly became the Cinderella story of the tournament, going undefeated and winning Pool A. In the second round, Israel took down international powerhouse Cuba in the first game but dropped its next two games and was eliminated before the semifinals.
This time around, Israel will have its work cut out for it since it’s part of a much tougher group than in '17, but this team has a more experienced group than last time around and will benefit from more Major League talent on its roster.
On the pitching side, Orioles right-hander Dean Kremer will be the team’s ace and will get the ball in the opener against Nicaragua on Sunday. When he takes the mound, Kremer will become the first big league hurler to pitch in a World Baseball Classic with Israeli citizenship. Behind Kremer, Israel has a couple of other big league pitchers in Richard Bleier (Red Sox), Jake Fishman (A’s) and Robert Stock (Brewers).
Offensively, Israel doesn’t carry the same star power as its Pool D foes, but outfielders Joc Pederson and Alex Dickerson will give the club some pop.
“Saw a lot of familiar faces, some new faces,” said Kremer, who joined the team Friday. “From what I’ve heard, we’ve got a pretty decent squad that they have put together. Excited to see everybody play for sure.”
Nicaragua was the last Latin American team to qualify for the ‘23 Classic, earning a bid with its win over Brazil in last fall’s qualifiers. Now, the Nicaraguan squad will look to make some noise in its first taste of the Classic.
Nicaragua has the fewest current Major Leaguers of any Classic team, but it does have Erasmo Ramírez and Jonathan Loáisiga, both of whom have years of big league experience. Brewers prospect Carlos Rodriguez, owner of a notable shimmy on the mound and Nicaragua's starter against Puerto Rico on Saturday, is another name to keep an eye on.
It’s on the position-player side where the Nicaraguan roster gets fairly thin. Cheslor Cuthbert, a former top infield prospect with the Royals, is probably the most recognizable hitter on the roster, but otherwise, Nicaragua will look to pull off upsets behind standouts from the country’s winter ball league.
“I’m already happy. We’re here in the World Classic,” said Nicaragua manager Sandor Guido. “Nicaragua is competing here. We are not favorites, of course, compared to the powerhouses we’re going to face, but we are going to do our best.”
Puerto Rico has finished as the runner-up in each of the last two World Baseball Classics but believes this group can get over the hump and win it all.
Even without Carlos Correa, Puerto Rico has plenty of star power heading into the tournament. The club is led by captain Francisco Lindor, who will pair with Javier Báez in the middle of the infield to give Puerto Rico perhaps the best double-play combination in the tournament.
Puerto Rico’s outfield has Kiké Hernández and 2021 postseason hero Eddie Rosario, who will look to spark another magical run for two weeks. Martín Maldonado gives Puerto Rico an advantage behind the plate with his elite game calling -- a skill mastered by the club’s manager, Yadier Molina.
One minor weakness on this Puerto Rican team may be its lack of pitching depth. Still, the club will lean on José Berríos and Marcus Stroman, who won tournament MVP while playing for the United States in '17. In the bullpen, elite Mets closer Edwin Díaz will be ready to finish off games.
“It means the world,” Lindor said, when asked about representing Puerto Rico. “Usually when I come here [to Miami] with the Mets, I see a lot of flags, but it’s completely different. It’s a whole different vibe. ... It’s in our blood. It’s in our DNA. To me, it’s the greatest event.”
On paper, Venezuela always poses one of the biggest threats in the tournament. But through four tries, the club has not lived up to expectations, advancing past the second round just once, in 2009.
But perhaps no Venezuelan team has had a better combination of youth and experience as this year’s club. With likely first-ballot Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera leading the way in the clubhouse, Venezuela looks to take the next step as it searches for its first Classic title. Venezuela will also benefit from large crowds, given the large Venezuelan population in Miami.
Offensively, it all starts with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Jose Altuve, who give Venezuela its best 1-2 punch in tournament history. Behind that duo, Venezuela will have a strong supporting cast that features All-Stars Andrés Giménez, Luis Arraez, Salvador Perez and Cabrera.
As with the Dominican team, the difference for this Venezuelan club could be the quality pitching on its roster, though it was announced Friday that left-hander Ranger Suárez will miss the tournament with a left forearm issue.Still, Venezuela has Martín Pérez, who will start Saturday’s highly anticipated game against the Dominican, Pablo López and Jesús Luzardo in the rotation, while José Alvarado gives the team a dominant presence in the backend of the bullpen.
“We have great chemistry,” Altuve said. “The team, everyone is willing to do whatever it takes to win, to go out on the field, and do their best. There are no egos. We talk about winning, and to me that could be the key.”