Before the provisional rosters were even announced Monday for the World Baseball Classic, you may (or may not) be happy to know the United States was already favored to win this thing by the savvy folks at bodoglife.com. (Odds: 6-5.)
And China and South Africa (both 200-1) were already considered least likely to win this thing. For some reason.
But now that we actually have our hands on the provisional 45-man rosters, it's time to take a deeper look.
We surveyed people in baseball whom we consider especially internationally savvy. Now here's their early take on the WBC, a month and a half before the second edition of this global baseball extravaganza gets underway:
Missing Persons Department
Who are the biggest names missing from this year's rosters? Let's start with the United States.
Then there's Alex Rodriguez. He played for the United States last time, and switched over to the Dominican Republic this time. But that's another story, too.
The Dominican team he's joining IS missing Manny Ramirez. But Manny is the only big-name player from the last Dominican WBC juggernaut who isn't listed on this roster. So watch out.
Other major absences:
From Venezuela: Victor Martinez, Kelvim Escobar
From Canada: Ryan Dempster, Erik Bedard
From Japan: Pitchers Hiroki Kuroda, Takashi Saito, Magisa Arakaki, Kazumi Saito
From Chinese Taipei: Pitchers Chien-Ming Wang and Chen Wei-Yin
From Cuba: Just-defected pitcher Yadel Marti (shut out the Dominicans for 4 1/3 innings in the '06 semis)
Also: Yankees game-changer Mariano Rivera (Panama), Phillies pitcher/Korean team leader Chan Ho Park (Korea), currently employer-less Amsterdam favorite Andruw Jones (Netherlands), Braves reliever Peter Moylan (Australia) and longtime Chinese national team catcher Wei Wang (China).
Bear in mind that these are only provisional rosters. Final rosters, which will include only 28 of these names, won't be set for another five weeks. So while Johan Santana appears on Venezuela's provisional roster, for instance, it's not likely he'll be cleared by the Mets' doctors to make the final roster because of October knee surgery.
In other words, as you look over all of these rosters, always keep in mind that magic word: "provisional."
New To The Dance Dept.
Is there any doubt which WBC newbie will lead the world in buzz? It's 22-year-old Japanese ace Yu Darvish, who can be to this WBC what Daisuke Matsuzaka was to the last go-round.
"This guy," said one of our panelists, "is like a rock star."
Other new attractions:
- United States: Roy Oswalt, Jimmy Rollins, David Wright, Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Braun, Grady Sizemore.
Cuba: Much-hyped power left-hander Aroldis Chapman, sweet-swinging outfielder Alexi Bell.
Most Improved Teams
- 1. USA
3. Dominican Republic
You can debate whether this American team has more talented players than the last group. But two different panelists told us they think the biggest upgrade on this team will be above the neck. "The USA won't need a wake-up call this time," said one panelist. Said another: "They're improved because of mindset, not talent. I think the last time, they saw it as an exhibition. This year, they see it as a real tournament, to prove who the best country in the world is, and they're going to be more driven to win it." Meanwhile, watch out for the Canadians, who beat the USA last time around -- and have upgraded substantially this time. (Check out those names above.) If Martin and Jason Bay actually play, these guys "will be dangerous." And while a bunch of other countries got votes (including Mexico and even Italy), the Dominican's upgraded rotation depth might make that team the favorite -- no matter how Bodog sees it.
Best Potential Lineup
- 1. Dominican Republic
One of our panelists called the Dominican's bat collection "ridiculous." And he's not kidding. This is an outfit that can haul out Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Alfonso Soriano at the top of the order (if they can find a way to play Ramirez and Reyes at the same time), and then stack the middle of the lineup with A-Rod, Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, Big Papi and Carlos Pena. "I'm not sure there are any outs in that lineup," said one exec. Meanwhile, the American pieces appear to fit together better than they did three years ago. And watch out for Cuba, just because "they know how to play in these tournaments," said one panelist. "For pure talent, there are other countries that are better. But for knowing how to play in this setting, there's no one better."
Best Potential Rotation
- 1. Japan
Six countries split this vote almost evenly -- the three above, plus the USA, the Dominican and Venezuela. We eliminated Venezuela because we don't expect Santana to pitch. But the other five are almost impossible to separate, at least until we know what the final rosters look like. So why are Japan and Korea ranked 1-2? "They'll be better because they will be in top form by March 1," said one panelist. And it's a good bet the Americans and Dominicans won't be.
Best Potential Bullpen
- 1. USA
3. Dominican Republic
It was almost impossible to separate the cream of this crop, too. But if the Americans get a lead, they can roll out Joe Nathan, Brian Fuentes, B.J. Ryan, J.J. Putz and Jonathan Broxton to lock it in their safe-deposit box. That'll work. "The USA may have five closers, man," said one panelist. Another said this bullpen "will 'save' the USA -- and get them to the final four" this time around. The Americans also have great left-handed options in Fuentes, Ryan, George Sherrill, J.P. Howell and Matt Thornton. And that always helps. Meanwhile, a bunch of countries also got votes in this department. So picking a top three was officially impossible. Japan and Korea are loaded. Cuba has the ageless Pedro Lazo. And Venezuela has some guy named K-Rod. But we went with the Dominicans, just because of all those live arms (Marmol, Jose Valverde, Francisco Cordero, Octavio Dotel, Damaso Marte, Rafael Perez, etc., etc., etc.).
- 1. China
2. South Africa
3. Chinese Taipei
Baseball may be gaining steam worldwide. But it sure is gaining a lot slower in these places than in the other countries in this field. "Just because China has 1 billion people," said one exec, "doesn't mean they have any baseball players. They have a fundamental problem. They don't play baseball."
Yeah, but they'll be playing it in the World Baseball Classic. And after perusing these preliminary rosters, frankly, we can't wait.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.