World Baseball Classic is anyone's to win

In Vegas, they're already laying odds on the World Baseball Classic. And here's a shocker: The United States is a slightly bigger favorite than the Netherlands.

Or anyone else, for that matter.

But we're not so sure we'd sprint to the Bellagio in the next 15 minutes to make that little wager (assuming we were wagering type) – not before thinking it through, anyway.

So let's think it through for a second:

The Venezuelan starting rotation would kick off with Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano and Freddy Garcia – with Frankie Rodriguez and Ugueth Urbina hanging out in the bullpen to finish what they start. Think those guys might get an out or two?

The middle of that Dominican Republic's lineup figures to include a group that's really enjoyable to pitch to – like Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, David Ortiz, Miguel Tejada, Sammy Sosa and Aramis Ramirez. Think that team might throw a few crooked numbers up there?

Japan would roll out Ichiro at the top of the order, Hideki Matsui in the middle and the almost-legendary Daisuke Matsuzaka fronting the rotation.

That Canadian pitching staff would include a few people you've heard of – like Eric Gagne, Rich Harden and Erik Bedard.

Puerto Rico could roll out Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, Jose Vidro, Pudge Rodriguez, Javy Lopez and Mike Lowell to terrorize any team's pitching staff.

Cuba still has players talented enough to launch a dozen bidding wars.

And Mexico just won the Caribbean Series.

So, does everyone out there still think the Americans would cruise through that field without activating a sweat gland? Trust us. This is not going to be the Dream Team versus Latvia.

"I always say that in baseball, anybody can beat anybody," said Giants/Dominican outfielder Moises Alou. "In the NBA, the Heat can't lose to Charlotte unless Shaq had a 150-degree fever. But in baseball, anybody can beat anybody."

And that's an important principle to remember when we kick around this burning question: Who is going to be the favorite when the first World Baseball Classic tees it up next March?

There's not another topic more fun to kick around than the WBC. We just finished surveying a dozen general managers, managers and international scouting directors on that question. And their thinking lined up overwhelmingly with the early line in Vegas:

Everyone recognizes that a couple of bat-disintegrating pitching performances could stuff all that handicapping right down the old disposal. But here's why our panelists picked those teams in that order:

United States

Biggest strengths: "Balanced offense, defense, pitching and power. Loaded, talent-wise," said Astros GM Tim Purpura. ... "Best rotation and bullpen combo," said Yankees GM Brian Cashman. ... "The frontline U.S. veteran pitching will be too much to handle. Experience will matter. The bullpen is lights out. All you really need is [Trevor] Hoffman, [Brad] Lidge and [Billy] Wagner," said one NL GM.

Biggest concerns: With so many stars on one roster, Pirates GM Dave Littlefield wonders: "Who plays?" ... "My only concern on the U.S. is age of some of the star players, so I guess that means their availability at that time," said Cleveland's Mark Shapiro. ... This team "will need to emphasize patriotism within the team for a high-level international competition," said Purpura.

Dominican Republic

Biggest strengths: "Most offensive ability" of any team in the field, Cashman said. ... "Excellent power. Could control a game offensively. Good pen," said Purpura. ... "Look at that lineup. Are you kidding me? That lineup could put a hurting on anybody," said an international scouting director.

Biggest concerns: "I like their lineup, but look at their pitching," said an AL GM. "Pedro [Martinez] is great. [Bartolo] Colon is great. But then what? [Odalis] Perez is just a third starter. [Daniel] Cabrera is just starting out. After Pedro and Colon, they just don't match up with the United States." ... Not quite the "depth of team and talent" that the United States has, Shapiro said. ... Oh, and one more thing: Their catching – Miguel Olivo? – "looks a bit weak," said one GM.


Biggest strengths: "Santana could be a horse," said an NL GM. ... "Good starting pitching. Their defense is better than the Dominican," Purpura said. ... With their rotation and their glittering supply of infielders (Carlos Guillen, Omar Vizquel, Cesar Izturis, Melvin Mora, Edgardo Alfonzo), "they might have a better team than the Dominican," said Giants manager Felipe Alou.

Biggest concerns: "They have some great arms," said an AL GM. "But remember, you're talking the elite of the elite [in this event]. Good as Carlos Zambrano is, is he better than Curt Schilling? Better than Roger Clemens? Better than Randy [Johnson], [Mark] Prior, [Dontrelle] Willis, [Josh] Beckett, and A.J. Burnett?" ... And other GMs echo that sentiment. "Good players," said Littlefield. "But holes." ... "I see the Venezuelan club clearly behind the Dominican and the United States, mostly because of a lack of depth – in comparison," said an NL GM.

And after those three, there's the question of who else might contend. It will take four pool-play survivors to make up the semifinals. So who might that fourth team be?

Japan? "You can count on them, I think, to finish in the top three," said one international scouting director. "They'll probably put their club together much sooner than anybody else. And don't forget, we have a tough time going over there and winning a series [during the Japan tour] with a major-league all-star team. So they'll be tough."

Puerto Rico? "I don't see it," said the same international scouting director. "They've gone backwards. Every year, it seems like you've got less and less talent. They've got some hitters [Delgado, Beltran, Rodriguez, etc.]. But their pitching [beyond Javier Vazquez] will be thin."

Mexico? "You probably think I'm nuts, but I wouldn't count them out," said another international scouting director. "They won the Caribbean Series, and they've got some players: [Erubiel] Durazo, Vinny Castilla and I love that [Jorge] Cantu in Tampa Bay. ... They've got Oliver Perez and [Rodrigo] Lopez and [Elmer] Dessens. They've got a chance."

Korea? "Nah, that league is very weak," said the second international scouting director. "They'll throw a lot of pitchers out there throwing those side-to-side sliders. But who's their ace? Chan Ho [Park]? Put Chan Ho in those big situations, and he always chokes."

Canada? "They can compete," said the same international scouting director. "Do they have any chance of winning? No. But you put Harden, Bedard or [Jeff] Francis on the mound on a given day, with Gagne at the end, and they could sneak in. Their problem is, they've got a 4-A team out there, other than the pitching."

Cuba? Don't bet on it. They won't be able to suit up El Duque or Livan Hernandez, for political reasons. And this won't be the Swedish national team they're lining up against. "I hope they do play," said one GM, "just so the world can see these guys aren't as good as they're made out to be."

Now that we've finished compiling our scouting reports, the first thing we should probably do is burn them – because this extravaganza will not be decided by how these teams look on paper.

For one thing, once that Final Four rolls around, the format changes to one-and-done. And we all know how many bizarre things can happen in a baseball game.

So one great pitcher can change everything. And that pitcher won't necessarily be an American.

"Venezuela might not have the best team," said one international scouting director. "But if they go out there with Johan Santana on the mound and Frankie Rodriguez at the end, that team could win it."

And those Latin American teams will have another advantage, too: Their seasons don't end in September or October.

"I believe that places like the Dominican and Venezuela – where these guys pitch winter ball – they'll have the upper hand," said Felipe Alou. "It will be so easy for these guys to just go from winter ball to the world cup and pitch nine innings."

The Americans, on the other hand, are already talking about pitch counts and limited innings and playing this almost like the All-Star Game. Which makes sense if we're talking about avoiding visits to Dr. James Andrews – but also means less chance of riding one or two hot pitchers to a gold medal.

"I think the U.S. pitchers who are selected," said one GM, "will need to make a real commitment to being further along than they usually are in March."

But even if that happens, will the Americans have the same passion to win this event that those other teams have? We'll need to be convinced of that.

"Whenever there is national pride involved," said Mets GM Omar Minaya, "anything could happen."

That national pride is much more likely to well up in the hearts of the Dominicans or the Mexicans or the Japanese, because they have waited so many years for this moment. Remember, before this, there has never been, say, a Dominican Dream Team.

"There never has," said Moises Alou. "So to get all these players together, it will be good for the country – especially because we've been so badly represented in amateur international competition. Every kid in the Dominican with talent – as soon as they're 16, they're signed."

But come March, they'll all be on one field, wearing one uniform, wondering just how great they can be. As will the Venezuelans and the Japanese and the Mexicans. Not to mention the Italians and Taiwanese.

So someone had better give that American team the kind of pre-tournament pep talk that people make movies about – or those compelling Vegas odds will mean about as much as one spin of the roulette wheel.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.