We don't have complete rosters yet for all the teams in the World Baseball Classic, but some provisional names have been announced. Here's how I would rank the top 10 squads:
1. United States
As I wrote earlier, the U.S. lineup looks better than 2009, and the pitching staff is led by a strong 1-2 punch of R.A. Dickey and Kris Medlen, and a deep arsenal of relievers. It's the favorite on paper, but the U.S. has gone just 7-7 in the first two Classics.
The Venezuela lineup will look something like this:
SS Elvis Andrus
LF Martin Prado
Looks pretty good to me, with Marco Scutaro available as well. If Felix Hernandez can pitch every game, Venezuela might be favored to win. But it will have to rely on Anibal Sanchez, Henderson Alvarez and Carlos Zambrano as starters, with Ronald Belisario, Jose Mijares and Francisco Rodriguez in relief. Venezuela beat the U.S. twice in 2009 with a lineup not nearly as good as this one, and games started by Victor Zambrano and Armando Galarraga. The Dominicans have a much stronger bullpen, but can't match the Hernandez-Sanchez combo in the rotation.
3. Dominican Republic
Only 23 players are currently listed on the Dominican roster, but from that group it can field a pretty strong lineup:
SS Jose Reyes
RF Nelson Cruz
CF Carlos Gomez
Erick Aybar, Miguel Tejada and Miguel Olivo round out the bench. The pitching staff doesn't have much depth and lacks an obvious ace. The starters are Wandy Rodriguez, Alexi Ogando and Edinson Volquez, while Fernando Rodney, Santiago Casilla, Joel Peralta, Kelvin Herrera and Pedro Strop headline the bullpen. The Dominicans reached the semifinals in 2006, but will seek redemption after two humiliating losses to the Netherlands in Round 1 in 2009, including a 2-1 defeat in 11 innings.
The Japanese won the first two World Baseball Classics to enthrall their island nation, but with starting pitchers Yu Darvish and Hiroki Kuroda and outfielders Ichiro Suzuki and Norichika Aoki among the U.S.-based players electing not to play, Japan's chances certainly have been hurt. It will still rate as one of the favorites, in part because the players take the tournament so seriously, but I suspect it will have to win some low-scoring games.
Where to rate Cuba? Hard to say. It reached the championship game in 2006, but was shut out twice by Japan in Round 2 in 2009 and failed to reach the semifinals (Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hisashi Iwakuma each pitched six scoreless innings in those two games.) Considering that performance from 2009, the offense is probably a question mark.
6. Puerto Rico
Puerto Rican baseball has fallen off in recent years and while the team includes a few big names -- Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan, Alex Rios and Mike Aviles lead the offense -- a lack of pitching depth appears to be a problem. Former big leaguer Javier Vazquez, who last pitched in 2011 (and very well, mind you), might be the staff ace, with Hector Santiago lining up as the No. 2 starter. Puerto Rico is also hurt by being drafted into a pool that includes Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
7. South Korea
The Koreans made a surprising run to the 2009 championship game, scoring a run off Darvish in the ninth to tie the game before losing in the 10th. Reds outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and Rays minor league shortstop Hak-Ju Lee are the biggest U.S.-based players, but neither is on the provisional roster.
There is enough talent on the pitching staff -- Yovani Gallardo, David Hernandez, Miguel Gonzalez, Marco Estrada, Sergio Romo -- for Mexico to pull off some surprises. The offense is thin behind Adrian Gonzalez and Danny Espinosa, however. Well, unless Karim Garcia has something left in the tank.
Canada went two and out in 2009, suffering a tough 6-5 loss to the U.S., after beating the Americans in pool play in 2006. But Joey Votto isn't on the roster yet -- he needs to pass an insurance physical -- and while Justin Morneau, Brett Lawrie, Russell Martin and Michael Saunders are, the best pitchers are Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon and relievers John Axford and Jesse Crain. The Canadians are seeking their first trip out of Round 1, which is possible since their four-team group includes the U.S., Mexico and Italy (two teams advance).
The Netherlands were the surprise team in 2009, eliminating the Dominican Republic in Round 1. I don't see their provisional roster yet, but since players from the former Netherlands Antilles -- namely, Curacao -- are eligible to play for the Dutch, we could see players like Andrelton Simmons, Jurickson Profar, Kenley Jansen, Roger Bernadina and Jair Jurrjens, although I wonder if the Braves and Rangers will want Simmons and Profar away from their camps.