Happy Spring! Yes, the sidewalks in my neighborhood still haven’t been completely shoveled and I’ve developed a cold from the crappy weather, but I get to talk about baseball in an actual competition sense again, so for me it’s spring time. Specifically, it’s time for the second World Baseball Classic (can something be three years old and considered a classic?) and Minda, Metschick, and I will be previewing all the participating teams. Today I’ll be looking at Group A: China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, and Korea. They’ll be kicking off play very early tomorrow morning, so if you want to get up at 4:30 (et), here’s a helpful cheat sheet.
You’ve Heard Of: No one, probably. Only three Chinese players are even connected to major league clubs: Ray Chang, a Pirates infielding prospect born in the U.S., and two pitchers in the instructional leagues for the Yankees.
2006 Results: 0-3 in Pool A (which featured the same 4 teams). Only South Africa allowed more runs and had a higher ERA, and only three teams had a worse batting average.
2009 Expectations: Not good. Stuck in the Asian pool against three teams with fully developed professional systems, China is basically fielding a AA team at best. Winning even one game would be considered a huge victory; they likely would simply like a less embarrasing loss to geopolitical rival Chinese Taipei this time (in 2006 they lost 12-3).
Special Geography Fact: Commonly known as Taiwan or the Republic of China, the country plays under Chinese Taipei in international sports competition for a bunch of political reasons which Wikipedia will happily explain.
You’ve Heard Of: Chen-Mien Wang, Taiwan’s biggest major league star …will not be playing, which leaves Che-Hsuan Lin, the MVP of last year’s Futures Game and a Red Sox prospect. (I know, no one actually cares about the Futures Game, but it did make him easier to Google.) A number of other Taipei players are in the farm systems of other major league clubs including the Cubs, Pirates, Rockies, and
Astros. Though personally, I’m more interested in the several players that play for a Taiwanese professional team called the Brother Elephants.
2006 Results: 1-2 in pool A. At least they finished with a convincing win over China.
2009 Expectations: Better than China – maybe. According to East Wind Up Chronicle (a truly excellent source of WBC news), this team is quite a bit younger and more inexperienced than the 2006 squad. Equaling their 2006 record may be the best they can hope for.
Special Geography Fact: Though listed all over the WBC site as just “Korea,” the team is not some kind of special unified team, but solely the product of South Korea.
You’ve heard of: Byung-hyung Kim and Chan-Ho Park, Korea’s most well known (to American fans) players will not be on the team this year: Park to make one last shot at sticking with the Phillies, Kim because he’s a little messed up. This leaves outfielder Shin-Soo Choo of the Indians as the only Korean player also on an MLB roster, though Korea’s strong professional system and last summer’s Olympic Gold Medal means their players are plenty prepared for this competition.
2006 Results: Lost in the semifinals to Japan, after going undefeated through the first and second round of pool play (including 2 victories against Japan in earlier rounds).
2009 Expectations: After getting some revenge against Japan during the 2008 Olympics, and knocking off Cuba for the gold medal, it will be interesting to see if Korea arrives overconfident from their recent success or hungry to best their 2006 results. The biggest surprise here will be if they fail to make at least the semifinals.
You’ve heard of: Other than Hideki Matsui, who is still recovering from knee surgery, most of MLB’s Japanese stars are expected to play: Dice-K, Fukudome, Okajima, Iwamura, and of course, Ichiro, who will not be allowed to pitch even though that would have been actually interesting for casual fans who might not otherwise be inclined to get up and watch Group A’s early round games. You should probably also learn the name of Yu Darvish, a 22 year old pitcher who may be the next big import.
2006 Results: Japan won the inaugural WBC, defeating Cuba 10-6 in the final game, despite going 1-2 in both the second round pool and head-to-head against Korea.
2009 Expectations: Even though Japan’s win in 2006 was a bit of a surprise given their rough start, their fearsome rotation and the fact that main Pool A rival Korea is missing some key players may make a repeat performance somewhat easier. Expect them to make the second round easily, and almost certainly the semifinals.
I don’t care if it is 20 degrees outside in my immediate vicinity: somewhere, (some) major league players are playing baseball that (sort of) counts!