Monday, March 02, 2009

Batter up: Previewing the World Baseball Classic ...

The 2009 World Baseball Classic begins in the wee hours of Thursday morning, which for some of you lot, probably elicits a huge shrug. However, some of us will take baseball any way we can after a long winter and haven't forgotten the awesomeness of March 8, 2006, when Canada beat the U.S.. Here is a preview of Pool A (Tokyo): China, Japan, Korea and Chinese Taipei. A full schedule is here.

  • Opener: Thursday, March 5 vs. China (first pitch flies around 4:30 a.m. Eastern)
  • WBC 2006: Went just 3-3 in the first two rounds, but won the tournament, beating Korea 6-0 and Cuba 10-6 in the semi-final and final.
  • Players to watch: RHPs Daisuke (Dice-K) Matzusaka (Boston Red Sox) and Yu Darvish, 2B-3B Akinori Iwamura (Tampa Bay Rays), some guy named Ichiro
  • Who's missing: Free-agent DH-OF Hideki Matsui, RHP Kenshin Kawakami (Atlanta Braves), RHP Junichi Tawaza
  • Pitching: Both Dice-K and Darvish have had some dodgy pre-tournament outings (really, it's surprising that Matsuzaka would show any inconsistency, he nevers does that during the American League season). Toshiya Sugiuchi, the classic plate-widener (left-hander whose best pitch is a change-up) probably figures to be an X-factor among Team Samurai's starting pitchers. Hisashi Iwakuma, who's sort of a Japanese equivalent to Roy Halladay (which is to say he had a 1.87 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and was the Pacific League MVP last season while playing on a fifth-place team) was solid in his last outing.

    Sidearmer Shunsuke Wanatabe, who was untouchable in the 2006 WBC, is back in the fold.
  • Hitting: Ichiro is probably not going to pitch, or play shortstop, but will step outside his regular role by becoming Japan's No. 3 hitter, since they're knee-deep in hitters who are about bat control and base running, including the Cubbies' Kosuke Fukudome and Norichika Aoki, a two-time batting champ in Japan.

    The middle of the order, by our guesstimate, should include two veterans (Japan's one of the older teams in the tourney) from the pennant-winning Yomiuri Giants: lefty-hitting veteran third baseman Michihiro Ogasawara and catcher Shinnosuke Abe.
  • Fielding: Defence is usually an immutable for Japanese teams since, basically, they don't pay lip service to glove work. They have the two best shortstops in Japan, Munenori Kawasaki and Hiroyuki Nakajima. Kawasaki started during Japan's title run in 2006. Nakajima, who has better power numbers, started at the Olympics where Japan failed to medal..
  • Predicted Round 1 finish: First
  • Tournament potential: Runners-up, although anything can happen in a one-game final.
  • Opener: Friday, March 6 vs. Chinese Taipei (another 4:30 a.m. Eastern start)
  • WBC 2006: Lost to Japan in the semi-final, 6-0, after winning six straight games, including two over their rival
  • Players to watch: DH-OF Shin-Soo Choo (Cleveland Indians, pictured), OF Hyun-Soo Kim, 1B-3B Dae Ho "Big Boy" Lee, LHP Kwang-hyun Kim, LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu, leadoff man and CF Jung Wook Lee
  • Who's missing: Shortstop Jin-Man Park, who's been their McGlovin for a decade. First baseman Seung-Yeop Lee, who opted to stay at his Japanese training camp; former major-league closer Byung-Hyun Kim was dropped after losing his passport.
  • Pitching: Remember the left-hander who shut out Canada 1-0 at the Beijing Olympics? That was Hyun-Jin Ryu, who also went eight-plus in Korea's gold-medal game upset of Cuba. Korea can pitch like nobody's business, thanks to young pitchers such as Hyun-Jin (21), Kwang-hyun Kim (20) and swingman right-hander Suk-Min Yoon (22). Righty Jung Bong, who pitched in the majors a few years ago, is also in the mix, or at least you have to assume he is, am I right?

    Sidearmers seem to be more popular than peculiar in Asian baseball. Korea has two good ones, Tae-Hyon Chong and Chang-Yong Lim, who (Canadian fans can relate) missed the Olympics because the Yakult Swallows would not give him his release. Lim, according to reports, got whacked on his right elbow by a batted ball during a spring training game, leaving his status is up in the air.

    Seong-Hwan Oh is another option out of the bullpen.
  • Hitting: Choo, who on-based .397 and slugged .549 in a half-season with Cleveland, Dae Ho Lee and Tae Kyun Kim are envisioned as the 3-4-5 hitters for Korea, which will probably have to scratch out runs. Jung Wook Lee can flat-out fly and presumably impact games in the way base stealers used to in the baseball of the 1980s.
  • Fielding: The left side of the infield could be problematic. Korea has turned over the entire infield which played error-free ball at the 2006 WBC. Park is a rock.

    Over at third, they might have to sacrifice D for some power. Cleveland's condition for Choo playing was that he would only play in the field once in the first round and twice in the second round and DH the rest of time. Having him DH and having Kim at first base means Dae Ho Lee, who is a Big Papi-esque 6-foot-3, 264 lbs., might have to play some third. Presumably putting someone that large at the hot corner could be a problem, but they need his bat.
  • Predicted Round 1 finish: Second
  • Tournament potential: Semi-finals, more likely a Round 2 exit
  • Opener: Thursday, March 5 vs. Japan (4:30 a.m. Eastern)
  • WBC 2006: Went 0-3 and were outscored 40-6 in pool play
  • Players to watch: C Zhenwang Zhang (a Yankees farmhand), SS-1B Yufeng Zhang, CF Lingfeng Sun, SS Ray Chang, DH Fenglian Hou, LHP Kai Liu, RHP Chenhao Li, RHP Jiangang Lu.
  • Who's missing: C Wei Wang, who is still recovering from ACL surgery (he was injured in a home-plate collision with Cleveland Indians phenom Matt LaPorta at the Olympics)
  • Pitching: This area is a wee bit of an Achilles heel for China, seeing as it was outscored 60-14 while going 1-6 in the Olympics. Li, who gave up only two earned runs in 10 innings in Beijing, along with Lu, have had a modicum of success in international tournaments.

    China's pitching staff seems right-hand dominant. Liu, who was signed by the Yankees in July 2007, had a rocky Olympics.

    Kun Chen's claim to fame is throwing at a brushback pitch at LaPorta during the Olympics in retaliation for taking out Wang.
  • Hitting: Hou is about the Chinese's best hitter and will probably hit second or third. Yufeng Zhang, the player-coach of the Shanghai Golden Eagles, will probably hit cleanup. At the Olympics, Sun attempted to hit leadoff, but as our liveblog of the Canada-China game noted, wasn't succeeding.

    The bottom line is Ray Chang (.705 career OPS in a minor-league career which includes only 10 at-bats about Double-A ball) is being expected to provide pop in the middle of the order.
  • Fielding: The aforementioned Zhang is apparently a pretty rangy shortstop. Chang also plays that spot but has played second base in the minors, so he could slide over to make room for him. Defence has let China down in the past.
  • Predicted Round 1 finish: Third
  • Tournament potential: Advancing out of pool play is way beyond them, but China is making strides, so put them down to beat a short-handed Taiwanese team.
  • Opener: Friday, March 6 vs. Korea (yup, 4:30 am)
  • WBC 2006: Didn't advance past the first round, with a 1-2 record.
  • Players to watch: CF Che-Hsuan Lin and 2B Chih-Hsien Chiang (both Red Sox farmhands), LHP Chi-Hung Cheng (former Jays farmhand), RHP Chen-Chang Lee (in Cleveland's system)

    Chiang has an infamous birthday video, but it's hard to figure out what, if anything, is infamous about it:

  • Who's missing: Yankees RHP Chien-Ming Wang (foot injury), L.A. Dodgers LHP Hong-Chih Kuo
  • Pitching: The China Post reports that Taiwan is lacking in pitching depth, not unlike Canada:
    "In a tournament that will limit pitchers to 70 pitches — good for up to about five innings — in first round games, pitching depth will be critical. The collapse of the squad's relievers in recent exhibition games has left a major question mark."
    Lee, who's a sidearmer, might be worth watching just out of curiosity. Their pitching staff is mostly young and untested.
  • Hitting: Lin figures to be the leadoff man and centrefielder, with first baseman Cheng-Min Peng, the four-time batting champion in China (he hit .391 last season) likely anchoring the middle of the order. Kuo-Ching Kao, who can also rake it in the Chinese league, will also be in there somewhere. Who knows how well the numbers in that league translate to facing the best pitchers from Japan and Korea. The lineup appears to be rather thin, which can be expected with such a young team.
  • Fielding: The same above-linked article also noted that fielding has been sloppy during pre-tournament games.
  • Predicted Round 1 finish: Fourth
  • Tournament potential: The only faint-hope scenario is that with the double-knockout format in the first round, they have a rematch with Korea and beat them.


Rob Pettapiece said...

This tournament, now being the only one that features professional players from every country, is most certainly not met with a shrug at OOLF's Waterloo headquarters. It is possible that there will be live coverage of that China/Japan game, regardless of damage to sleep patterns.

Korea is going to be tough. I can easily see them going to the semis instead of Japan, assuming Cuba takes the other spot.

Not sure who I'd pick to win it all: it's probably one of those three, or someone from the San Juan pool.

Rob Pettapiece said...

Nakajima was pretty rangy himself this morning in Japan's 4-0 win over China. (Would have been much more if any more of those eight walks for Japan came around.) He looks like a guy who can get to the ball, but isn't always accurate once he lets it go.