Regardless of our feelings here in the United States, there is no disputing that soccer is the most global of sports. However, choosing a silver medalist in the realm of worldwide awareness isn't quite so cut and dry.
At first glance, it's probably basketball the NBA has certainly done the best job of all the major American professional leagues in marketing itself overseas, and the game's presence in the Olympics has encouraged many countries to build development programs. However, America's domination of the game, while certainly lessened in recent years, is still very real and very significant.
And then there's baseball.
America's pastime has become perhaps the most globally competitive of all the major team sports - at least in the eyes of this country. And while an argument can be made that not all of America's best players have necessarily taken the field for the WBC, the truth is that despite baseball being our national pastime, we have yet to achieve victory in this global tournament.
In fact, only two countries have won the WBC – Japan in 2006 and 2009 and the Dominican Republic in 2013.
The tournament will play out over two weeks with games taking place in four different countries – South Korea, Mexico, Japan and the U.S.
The format breaks down into three rounds of play. In the first, the 16 teams are divided into four groups of four. Each team will play the other three teams in its pool once; the two from each pool with the greatest winning percentage advance to the next round. In round two, the top two from Pools A and B are placed in Pool 1 and the top two from C and D are placed in Pool 2. These pools then play out in a double-elimination format. From there, it’s on to the semifinals and the championship round – it’s win or go home.
Here are the four initial pools, along with a few thoughts about how things might play out:
Pool A - Gocheok Sky Dome; Seoul, South Korea
South Korea; Chinese Taipei; Netherlands; Israel
The host team has some distinct advantage going into Pool A play; they’ve got some exceptional talent that includes KBO superstar Kun-woo Park and a few players who have made the transition to MLB play, though they won’t have Pittsburgh third baseman Jung Ho Kang thanks to a DUI arrest. Still, they look good. So do the Netherlands – they have a STACKED infield, with players like Xander Bogaerts and Jonathan Schoop and Didi Gregorious. The rest of the roster isn’t as strong, but that infield will take them a long way. Chinese Taipei’s roster isn’t a familiar one, built largely from China’ professional league; they can hit, but their pitching is really suspect. And Israel, one of two first-time qualifiers, is going to rely on a mix of low-minors guys and aged MLB vets. They’ve got a chance to be one of the best defenses in the field, but that likely won’t be enough.
Pool B – Tokyo Dome; Tokyo, Japan
Japan; Australia; China; Cuba
Japan has the greatest history of success in WBC history, with two wins and third-place finish. There’s no reason to expect anything less, even though they’re missing two-way superstar Shohei Otani. This team is stacked with elite talent from the highest levels. Meanwhile, Cuba is another stalwart WBC powerhouse. Despite not allowing defectors to play – eliminating the elite Cuban talent from MLB – they consistently perform exceptionally; look out for slugger Frederich Cepeda. I’d love to say that Australia can make some noise here, but they simply don’t have the horses, with relatively few elite talents available to them. Still, they’ll play hard and be fun to watch. China is still figuring out just how devoted to the sport they are as a country, leaving them with a team that has very little experience outside their own national professional league. Japan and Cuba will romp through this pool.
Pool C – Marlins Park; Miami, Florida
United States; Canada; Colombia; Dominican Republic
Team USA is stacked on offense – guys like Buster Posey and Nolan Arenado and Adam Jones and Andrew McCutchen and numerous other stars – but their pitching isn’t quite as elite. They’ve got some great bullpen arms, but their starters aren’t necessarily aces. The Dominican Republic won in 2013 and looks plenty strong again. Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre, Manny Machado, Jose Buatista on offense, Johnny Cueto, Carlos Martinez and Dellin Betances pitching – they’re just a great team. The pitching might be a bit erratic, but there’s no disputing the talent. I love Canada, but the schedule does them no favors. Freddie Freeman’s the only star here, but this is an experienced WBC group, which might help. As for Colombia, they’ve got two aces – Jose Quintana and Julio Teheran – but little else. This is their first time here … and it’ll be a quick trip. The US and the DR advance with ease.
Pool D – Estadio Charros de Jalisco; Guadalajara, Mexico
Mexico; Italy; Puerto Rico; Venezuela
This might be the most competitive pool of them all, with three teams sporting legitimate title aspirations. Mexico has a deep pitching staff and a lineup anchored by MLB vet Adrian Gonzalez. They’re really good – and they might miss out. Puerto Rico has an astonishing level of offensive talent – Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Beltran, Javier Baez – and some electric arms on the mound. They could go deep. Ditto Venezuela, which features hitting machines like Miguel Cabrera and Jose Altuve to go with also-awesome players like Carlos Gonzalez and Salvador Perez – they’re maybe the best lineup in the whole thing. The starting pitching is led by Felix Hernandez and the bullpen is strong. As for Italy, well … this just isn’t their year. They’re going to struggle against these other three teams. It should be Puerto Rico and Venezuela going forward, but look out for Mexico.
As for the rest, it’s tough to predict too much when it comes to tournament baseball. My final four is Japan, Cuba, Venezuela and the United States. As for the 2017 WBC champs, I’m going with – jingoistic homer alert – the USA.