If you’re among the millions of Americans blissfully ignoring the World Baseball Classic, you might be a bit surprised to learn that Major League Baseball really doesn’t care all that much.
You’re not their target.
Rather, the WBC has always been about following the NBA model of growing the game globally. And already this tournament, with pool play that began in Japan and Chinese Taipei, has produced electric moments. In addition to blooming in places where it’s already established like Japan and Taiwan, baseball could take root in places where it barely exists, like Italy, Holland and the Czech Republic.
The following moment from Friday morning’s 11-7 Chinese Taipei win over Team Italy is exactly what baseball is shooting for.
This is electric.pic.twitter.com/l6BvNIQulV
— Mike Monaco (@MikeMonaco_) March 10, 2023
Bear in mind, this took place in a packed Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium, complete with cheerleaders dancing on the dugout and bands playing music in the middle of at-bats.
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If that’s not good for baseball, what is? And if you’re looking for a little sports betting action using baseball, these games offer a lot more entertainment value than yet another A’s-Cubs exhibition game in Mesa.
This is the fifth WBC, a two-week tournament that ends with the championship game at LoanDepot Park in Miami on March 21. Organizers added four teams for this year’s tournament, another good sign for the tournament’s chances of long-term survival. Team USA is looking to repeat as champion after beating Puerto Rico in 2017. (The 2020 tournament was canceled by COVID.)
One of the joys of the WBC is simply roster-surfing. Some of the player names elicit a vague feeling of, “Oh, yeah, that guy.” Yu Chang, for instance, played for four – four! – major league teams in 2022: the Cleveland Guardians, Tampa Bay Rays, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Boston Red Sox. Others prompt a long search through Baseball Reference. Then, there’s the Chinese team, a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a riddle, or something like that. And there are, of course, the powerhouse teams from the U.S., Dominican Republic, Japan, and Venezuela.
Let’s break down the contenders, the pretenders, and the live longshots (odds via DraftKings at start of tournament):
The heavy chalk
Dominican Republic (+200)
I happened to be present for Vladimir Guerrero Sr.’s first winter ball game for Licey, the team he had rooted for as a kid. I’ll never forget being in the clubhouse before the game, seeing Guerrero had braided his hair with tiny blue rubber bands to match the team colors. He seemed to have tears in his eyes. I had never seen that level of emotion from him when he was at a press conference announcing his $72 million deal with the Angels or when he won the 2004 American League MVP award.
Dominican players are extremely patriotic and baseball is in their blood. It’s going to be awfully difficult for somebody to knock out a team that has Juan Soto, Manny Machado, Wander Franco, Julio Rodriguez, Rafael Devers, Sandy Alcantara, and Rafael Montero.
However, the D.R. is in the toughest pool. Rather than lay -250 odds that the Dominicans will win the pool — or, worse, -1400 odds that they will advance to the next round — the better play may be betting on these guys to go all the way. Would anyone be surprised if that happened?
Team USA (+275)
Let’s start with the obvious: Any team with Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and Trea Turner — plus J.T. Realmuto and Will Smith as catchers — is formidable. Heck, the collective payroll of what their teams are paying these guys just might exceed the GDP of some of the other countries in the tournament. (We haven’t done the math.)
But the pitching rotation of Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, et al, might be a bit of a question mark. Team USA does have a wipeout bullpen with Devin Williams, Ryan Pressly, Brady Singer, and Adam Ottavino, so perhaps they’ll be able to piece the pitching together when the going gets tough.
Expect these guys to breeze through Pool C, but the quarterfinals get challenging with two of those powerhouse teams from Pool D waiting in the next round.
The middle tier
Japan (+300), Venezuela (+900) and Puerto Rico (+1000)
Shohei Ohtani is far from alone on Japan’s squad, though there are times it seems like he can beat a team all by himself, such as when he pitched four scoreless innings and went 2-for-4 in Thursday’s win over China. He’s accompanied by energetic young Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar, who chose to represent his mother’s ancestral home rather than his father’s Dutch heritage.
Masataka Yoshida just signed a five-year, $90 million deal with the Red Sox, Roki Sasaki is a terrific young pitcher, and Munetaka Murakani blasted 56 home runs last year for his Japanese team. This is a young team, but it’s more than deserving of its status as the No. 3 choice.
Venezuela can’t be ignored with superstars Jose Altuve, Ronald Acuña Jr., and Andres Gimenez, but the overall depth of this roster might not be what it has been in the past, when guys like Miguel Cabrera were in their prime. If Puerto Rico — which also might be a bit down, but has Francisco Lindor — gets hot, Venezuela might be hard pressed to make it to the next round.
The trendy pick here would have been South Korea (+1200), but the Koreans might not make it to the next round after their shocking loss to Panama and their 0-2 record in their first two games. Korea has excelled in this tournament in the past, but it has to beat the Czech team Saturday just to stay alive.
That Czech squad has some very solid minor-league players, and while you can’t take much from a victory over China, they’d be worth a look as a sizable longshot in that Korea game.
Mexico (+2000) has some of the strongest pitching in the field with Julio Urias, Giovanny Gallegos, Patrick Sandoval, and Taijuan Walker (whose mother is part Mexican). Its team might not score a ton of runs, but with Randy Arozarena, Alex Verdugo, and Rowdy Tellez, it might summon enough thump to hang with the big boys.
The Netherlands (+6500) offers excellent value, in part because of guys like Xander Bogaerts, Jurickson Profar, Wladimir Balentien, and Jonathan Schoop, but also because it’s in the softest pool in the tournament.