By: Devin Braden
When March rolls around every year, it marks the return of Major League Baseball and the five-month drought without America’s pastime ends. Excitement always runs high for those of us in Chicago as we watch on as the Cubs and White Sox rev up for the long MLB season. On top of the usual excitement of watching our favorite players prepare for the season, fans and players alike are excited about the return of the World Baseball Classic. It is still hard to fathom that the last WBC was six years ago. The fifth WBC was originally scheduled for 2021 but was canceled out of precaution due to the pandemic. If the games during this year’s tournament are anything like the game during the 2017 tournament, the WBC drought will be worth it for baseball fans.
The fifth edition of the World Baseball Classic kicked off yesterday on March 8th with the championship scheduled for March 21. The field of teams is the largest it has ever been, as the number of nations competing grew from 16 to 20 since the last WBC. All the teams from the last rendition qualified automatically with four additional teams gaining a berth in the tournament. Like most international sports tournaments, the bracket is broken up into four different pools of teams. The top two teams from each pool advance to the quarterfinals. Four different venues are slated to host games during the tournament, with games taking place at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium in Taichung, Taiwan, the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan, Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona, and LoanDepot Park in Miami, Florida. One of the more interesting aspects of these international tournaments is having different venues across the globe, allowing fans to see different players they wouldn’t typically see in their home market. The United States won the World Baseball Classic final against Puerto Rico in 2017 and will look to defend its title this time around. Japan secured third place with a win over the Netherlands to round out the top four finishers of the previous installment of the WBC
The main thing the fans love about the World Baseball Classic is the number of star players from MLB representing their home nations. Seeing matchups we wouldn’t usually see is also something to look forward to. It is crazy to think that we could see matchups such as Mike Trout vs. Shohei Ohtani during this star-studded event. Some of these rosters look like MLB all-star lineups with the amount of star power they have. Paul Goldschmidt, Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve, and Miguel Cabrera make up the list of the seven former MLB MVPs competing in the tournament. On top of this, Chicago baseball fans will be able to watch our favorite players represent their countries. The White Sox will have Tim Anderson, Kendall Graveman, and Lance Lynn representing the United States, Yoan Moncada, and Luis Robert Jr. representing Cuba, and Eloy Jimenez representing the Dominican Republic. The Cubs’ lone representative Marcus Stroman will represent Puerto Rico.
There will be some exciting matchups during the tournament this year. Pool A contains Chinese Taipei, Netherlands, Cuba, Italy, and Panama. Pool B includes Japan, South Korea, Australia, China, and the Czech Republic. Pool C contains the United States, Mexico, Columbia, Canada, and Great Brittain. Pool D includes Puerto Rico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Israel, and Nicaragua. With these being the pools, Cuba, Japan, the United States, and the Dominican Republic are all the favorites in their pools. The Dominican Republic is the favorite to win the entire tournament, with the United States and Japan rounding out the list of three favorites to win it all.
If I had to make a pick for a winner, my bias as a White Sox fan comes out to play as I would go with Cuba as a sleeper pick. The Cuban National Team will have a chance with star players like Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert Jr. leading the charge and carrying Cuba in the tournament. In a more realistic and less biased route, it is hard to bet against Shohei Ohtani and Japan as he is already crushing dingers in exhibition games that are leading up to pool play. Japan also has the reigning Nippon Professional Baseball MVP Munetaka Murakami and star San Diego Padres pitcher Yu Darvish. Also, it wouldn’t be fair to mention potential winners without mentioning how the Dominican Republic will be a force to be reckoned with. They have a roster littered with MLB talent ranging from blossoming stars like Wander Franco and Julio Rodriguez to established stars like Rafael Devers and Manny Machado.
The United States team has no shortage of talent on its roster, but it will have some hurdles to clear. Another thing worth noting is that the last major international baseball event was at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where Japan secured the gold medal, the United States got silver, and the Dominican Republic got bronze. While MLB players didn’t compete, this still gives a nice preview as to what we can expect in this tournament.
There is a lot at stake for some of these players and national teams, as proving who the ultimate baseball nation is and maybe even getting some bragging rights amongst teammates in the clubhouse. The ball is in the United States court right now, but Japan seeking its first title in 14 years, and the Dominican Republic is looking to pick up its second WBC title all time will provide much watch baseball for fans all across the globe. Anytime the fans get to see world-class talent compete at such a high level is a privilege. Anytime we get an extra month of high-level baseball prior to the MLB season, it is savored by players and fans alike.