Road to World Baseball Classic starts Down Under

First qualifier for 2017 tournament set for Thursday in Australia

February 8th, 2016

First, it'll be Sydney. Soon enough, it'll be the World.

Baseball's ultimate international tournament is still more than a year away, with the fourth World Baseball Classic slated for 2017. There's a lot to look forward to, including rosters packed with Major League talent.

The last Classic, in 2013, was won by a Dominican Republic team that featured Robinson Cano, Hanley Ramirez, Nelson Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion. The American team from that year had Giancarlo Stanton, Adam Jones, Ryan Braun and Craig Kimbrel, among others ... and didn't even make the semifinals.

"It's an incredible event," said Blue Jays first baseman Chris Colabello, who played for Italy in 2013 alongside big leaguers Anthony Rizzo, Nick Punto, Jason Grilli and Chris Denorfia. "You really get a sense of the passion players have for playing for their countries, and the fans really get into it, too."

But we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves. The 16-team Classic won't be contested until March of next year during Spring Training. The sense of urgency for the time being, therefore, is centered around the qualifying tournaments that will determine the four teams that have not yet made it into that elite field of 16.

So here we go. The first qualifier is set for this week Down Under.

The action unfolds starting Thursday afternoon local time and ends Sunday in Australia's biggest city, as four countries -- Australia, New Zealand, Philippines and South Africa -- will play a six-game modified double elimination at Blacktown International Sportspark to produce one team that will advance to the 2017 Classic.

The Sydney qualifier will be the first of four, with four-team mini-tournaments set in the coming weeks to determine three other teams to round out the field. The others will be held in Mexicali, Mexico, from March 17-20 (with Mexico, Czech Republic, Germany and Nicaragua competing), in Panama City from March 17-20 (Colombia, France, Panama and Spain) and in Brooklyn, N.Y., from Sept. 22-25 (Brazil, Great Britain, Israel and Pakistan).

Once the four teams emerge from these qualifiers, they will join the 12 countries that already earned automatic bids based on their 2013 Classic results. Those countries are the defending-champion Dominican Republic, the 2013 runner-up from Puerto Rico and the '06 and '09 champions from Japan, plus the United States, Canada, Cuba, Italy, Korea, the Netherlands, Venezuela, China and Chinese Taipei.

For the time being, however, the focus will be on Australia, where the home team looms as a heavy favorite to make it to the next round. Former and current Major Leaguers Travis Blackley, Peter Moylan, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Luke Hughes, Trent Oeltjen are on the Aussie team, along with Minor Leaguers Sam Gibbons, Todd Van Steensel, James Beresford, Aaron Whitefield and Logan Wade (Twins), Warwick Saupold (Tigers), and Steven Kent and Matt Kennelly (Braves).

"On paper, as far as rosters go, we have the best roster, we have the most depth," Rowland-Smith, the former Mariners left-hander, recently told the Sydney Morning Herald. "Anything can happen, but on paper, we have obviously the best chance out of all those teams. And if we can click, we're going to be just fine."

New Zealand comes into the Sydney qualifier with two affiliated players -- Nick Maronde (Indians) and Max Brown (D-backs) and a coaching staff that includes new Dodgers third-base coach Chris Woodward and bullpen coach Josh Bard, both former Major League players.

Tim Hulett, the former big league player who is the manager of the Rangers' Class A affiliate in Spokane, Wash., will be at the helm for the Philippines, which has two affiliated players (Brad Haynal of the Marlins and Angelo Songco of the Dodgers) on its roster.

And South Africa, which has played five games in the main tournament, will have four affiliated players: Gift Ngoepe (Pirates), Callan Pearce and Rowan Ebersohn (Twins) and Dylan Unsworth (Mariners).

In addition to serving as a showcase for baseball talent all over the globe, the World Baseball Classic has been an eye-opener for players and established countries alike.

Take Colabello, for example. He wasn't on the radar of many clubs after playing seven years in an independent league and finally landing on the Twins' Double-A team prior to the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Then Colabello went 4-for-5 with a three-run home run and four RBIs as Italy beat a Canada club that featured big leaguers Joey Votto, Justin Morneau and Michael Saunders at Chase Field. Fast forward a few years, and Colabello is an integral part of the lineup of one of the best teams in the American League.

"It's a great tournament for a lot of reasons, and it's really taken off," Colabello said. "It's gaining more momentum each time."

Braun agreed, making sure even in the immediate aftermath of his team's elimination in 2013 to emphasize just how many strides the World Baseball Classic has made in the minds of the great players who take part and the fans who watch on the edge of their seats.

"I would think anybody that watched the games could see the passion, the energy, just the atmosphere, environment for all these games, is really special," Braun said. "I think it far surpasses anything we experience in the regular season at any point. It really is playoff-type atmosphere baseball, and I would certainly highly encourage everybody and anybody that has an opportunity [to participate] to say yes.

"It's definitely something that's pretty special."