Is the World Baseball Classic an exhibition or a real tournament? It's hugely popular in Asia, and the Latin players love it. It hasn't quite caught on in the United States as a must-see event, but that might change this year, with the United States rolling out an exciting team, the Dominican Republic stacked with stars, Venezuela and Puerto Rico looking strong, and Mexico sending its strongest team yet.
Let's take a quick look at the rosters, which were officially announced Wednesday, and do our World Baseball Classic power rankings. Before the rankings, here are the pools (two teams from each pool advance to the second round):
POOL A (Seoul): Korea, Chinese Taipei, Netherlands, Israel
POOL B (Tokyo): Japan, Cuba, Australia, China
POOL C (Miami): United States, Dominican Republic, Canada, Colombia
POOL D (Jalisco): Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Italy
1. Dominican Republic
The defending champs went 8-0 in 2013 behind tournament MVP Robinson Cano, so let's make them the pre-tournament favorites. This lineup will work:
2B Robinson Cano
DH Nelson Cruz
The lineup does lean right-handed, but I think manager Tony Pena won't mind writing those names on his lineup card. The bench includes Carlos Santana, Jonathan Villar and Jose Reyes. The rotation is strong at the top, with Johnny Cueto and Carlos Martinez, followed by Edinson Volquez and Wily Peralta as other starting candidates (Alex Reyes, Bartolo Colon and Ivan Nova could be added in the second round). The bullpen includes Jeurys Familia, Dellin Betances, Alex Colome, Hector Neris, Fernando Rodney, Hansel Robles and Santiago Casilla -- that's a lot of heat from the right side. Pena will no doubt pitch Cueto and Martinez against the toughest opponents, which will make the Dominican the team to beat.
2. United States
Not only has the U.S. never won the World Baseball Classic, it has also never reached the championship game. Thanks to some campaigning and phone calls from manager Jim Leyland, the U.S. has its best roster yet. Mike Trout isn't playing, and neither is Clayton Kershaw, but this lineup looks pretty sweet:
2B Ian Kinsler
CF Adam Jones
On the bench, you have Jonathan Lucroy, Matt Carpenter, Eric Hosmer, Alex Bregman and Andrew McCutchen. The problem with the U.S. in past Classics has been the starting pitching, which is a combined 4-8 with a 5.38 ERA. Leyland will choose from the likes of Chris Archer, Danny Duffy, Tanner Roark and Marcus Stroman for his rotation (though Duffy and Roark are part of the "designated pitcher pool" and could be replaced in the second round from a list including Michael Fulmer, J.A. Happ, Drew Smyly and Sonny Gray). Leyland is in good shape if he can get to the bullpen with a lead. His pen includes Andrew Miller, David Robertson, Sam Dyson, Luke Gregerson, Mychal Givens, Nate Jones and Jake McGee. The U.S. was eliminated in 2013 when Puerto Rico's Nelson Figueroa threw six shutout innings, but this lineup and bullpen look like they can carry the U.S. to the title game at Dodger Stadium.
Despite plenty of talent, Venezuela has usually disappointed in the WBC along with the U.S., with just one trip to the semifinals (a third-place finish in 2009). The lineup is once again the strength:
2B Jose Altuve
3B Martin Prado
The question is whether this team will have enough pitching. Felix Hernandez is back after not playing in 2013, with Rangers lefty Martin Perez after him. Francisco Rodriguez, Bruce Rondon, Jeanmar Gomez and Yusmeiro Petit headline a bullpen that manager Omar Vizquel might have to heavily rely upon.
Japan won the first two Classics in 2006 and 2009, but its chances are hurt because Shohei Otani, the best pitcher in Japan (and maybe the best hitter as well) will not play because of an ankle injury. Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, Kenta Maeda and Hisashi Iwakuma are also not participating. Still, you know Japan has talent, and its previous success makes this team one of the tournament favorites.
5. Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico finished a surprising second in 2013, and this team looks stronger, especially with the additions of Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez. You have to love that infield, with Correa presumably sliding over to third base. Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran are still around as the aging dignitaries of Puerto Rican baseball, with Angel Pagan, Eddie Rosario and Enrique Hernandez possibilities in the outfield. The rotation looks a little thin, with Hector Santiago, Jose Berrios (who struggled with an unsightly 8.02 ERA as a rookie with the Twins) and Seth Lugo of the Mets. Jose De Leon, recently acquired by the Rays from the Dodgers, won't be active for the first round. The Mariners' Edwin Diaz is the top bullpen arm.
6. South Korea
The Koreans finished third in 2006 and lost the 2009 championship game to Japan in 10 innings before failing to advance out of pool play in 2013. Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang was left off the roster after a DUI arrest in Korea this offseason. The only major leaguer on the roster is Cardinals standout reliever Seung Hwan Oh. Every other player is from the KBO -- so if we're lucky, we'll see some bat flips. Dae-ho Lee, who showed some big power when he connected with the ball last season with the Mariners, is back in Korea for 2017 and could anchor the lineup. Keep an eye on outfielder Choi Hyung-woo, the Korean batting champ with a .371 average and 29 home runs.
Mexico advanced to the second round in 2006 and 2009 but was eliminated in pool play in 2013, despite a victory over the U.S. Home-field advantage in a tough pool with Venezuela and Puerto Rico should help. Adrian Gonzalez anchors the lineup -- his brother, Edgar, is the team's manager -- while A's slugger Khris Davis and Angels infielder Danny Espinosa provide big league experience. Keep an eye on Dodgers outfielder Alex Verdugo, one of the top hitting prospects in the minors. The pitching staff has several major leaguers, including Jaime Garcia, Yovani Gallardo, Sergio Romo, Oliver Perez, Joakim Soria and Vidal Nuno, but the kid everyone wants to see -- Julio Urias -- is being kept under bubble wrap by the Dodgers, at least for the first round. Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna will also be held back in the first round.
Is there any talent left on the island? Because ex-pats aren't allowed to play for the national team, you never know what you're going to get from the Cuban team. It did advance out of pool play in 2013, but that team included guys such as Jose Abreu, Yulieski Gurriel, Guillermo Heredia and Yasmany Tomas, all of whom are now in the majors. Alfredo Despaigne, who plays in Japan, will have to carry the offense.
Made up mostly of players from Curacao and Aruba, the Netherlands team is stacked with middle infielders -- Xander Bogaerts, Andrelton Simmons, Didi Gregorius, Jonathan Schoop and Jurickson Profar -- so it might have to play some guys out of position to maximize the offense. Wladimir Balentien last played in the majors in 2009 but slugged 31 home runs in Japan last season. Former big leaguer Rick VandenHurk, now pitching in Japan, headlines the pitching staff along with former All-Star Jair Jurrjens, who has never bounced back from injuries. The big name missing from the first round: Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. The Netherlands has had some big moments in the WBC, including twice beating the Dominican in 2009 and finishing fourth in 2013 after beating Cuba twice in the second round.
10. Chinese Taipei
Chien-Ming Wang, who appeared in relief in 38 games for the Royals last season, is the major leaguer you know, but Marlins lefty Wei-Yin Chen won't pitch as he comes back from last summer's elbow injury. There was some controversy when the leadership of the Chinese Professional Baseball League -- Taiwan's top pro league with four teams -- ruled to boycott the WBC, but three of the teams eventually decided to independently allow their players to participate. Still, that means three of the best hitters in the league won't be playing. Chinese Taipei advanced out of pool play in 2013 but lost to Japan and Cuba in the second round.
The Canadians are usually a fun mix of major leaguers, minor leaguers and former Canadian legends. This year's roster is no different, as Ryan Dempster, last seen pitching for the Red Sox in the 2013 World Series, has come out of retirement and former Cy Young winner Eric Gagne is also going to pitch. The biggest name, however, is California-born Freddie Freeman. Both his parents are Canadian, and he wanted to honor his mother, who died when he was 10, by playing for Canada. Veteran catcher Russell Martin will play, and a couple of interesting prospects are Mariners outfielder Tyler O'Neill and Padres first baseman Josh Naylor (a first-round pick by the Marlins a couple of years ago), but the absence of James Paxton and Jameson Taillon from the pitching staff hurts.
If you're looking for a deep sleeper, try Colombia, appearing in its first WBC. Jose Quintana and Julio Teheran can't pitch every game, and pitch limits will restrict how deep they can go, but they give Colombia a chance for an upset. Unfortunately, this team is in a tough Pool C with the United States, Dominican Republic and Canada. The lineup has a few players with major league experience -- Dilson Herrera, Giovanny Urshela, Alberto Callaspo, Donovan Solano, Jorge Alfaro -- and some minor leaguers but doesn't project to score many runs.
The eligibility rules for the WBC are pretty lax, so the Italian team is full of U.S. players. The team has had some success, notably advancing out of pool play in 2013 with victories over Mexico and Canada. Anthony Rizzo isn't on the roster after playing in 2013, but major league players include Francisco Cervelli, Drew Butera, Daniel Descalso, Brandon Nimmo, Gavin Cecchini, Rob Segedin, Chris Colabello, Pat Venditte and Tommy Layne. Alex Liddi, born in Italy, reached the majors with the Mariners for a few games in 2011-2013, and he's still around.
With a team of U.S-born players, mostly minor leaguers, Israel qualified for its first WBC by beating Brazil, Great Britain and Pakistan in September to earn the final spot. Some of the key players include Ike Davis, Scott Feldman, Ryan Lavarnway, Craig Breslow and former big leaguers Jason Marquis and Sam Fuld.
Australia has qualified for all four tournaments but has yet to advance past pool play, with a combined 1-8 record in three previous WBCs (the win came against Mexico in 2009). Australia scored just two runs in three losses in 2013. The pitching staff has some major league experience, with Liam Hendriks, Peter Moylan and Travis Blackley, plus several players who are in the minor leagues.
Baseball is still a relatively new sport on the mainland, but China did win a game in 2009 by beating Chinese Taipei. Bruce Chen, born in Panama but of Chinese descent, is on the roster.