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Previewing the 2013 World Baseball Classic

It's time for the world to take the field the 2013 World Baseball Classic has arrived. From March 2 through March 19, baseball teams from 16 different countries will try to unseat two-time tournament winner Japan, the only champion the Classic has ever known.

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.

The tournament will play out over two weeks with games taking place in four different countries Japan, Taiwan, Puerto Rico 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. Four teams from this round qualify for the semifinals; from there, it is win or go home.

Here are the four initial pools, along with a few thoughts about how things might play out: 

Pool A

  • Japan
  • China
  • Cuba
  • Brazil

Pool A is definitely on the top-heavy side. You've got Japan, whose two championships make it the only team to ever win the WBC. Even without major leaguers like Ichiro Suzuki and Yu Darvish in the mix, Japan's high-level professional league makes it a top-tier contender once more. And while Cuba has lost a number of its best players to defections over the years, the baseball-mad island will undoubtedly put together yet another competent, quality squad. Brazil and China have some decent players, but the programs in those respective countries are still in the early stages of their development. Both teams have managers with major league bona fides Barry Larkin for Brazil and John McClaren for China but this year's tournament will likely serve mostly as a learning experience for them.

Pool B

  • South Korea
  • The Netherlands
  • Australia
  • Chinese Taipei

South Korea is probably the favorite in this group due to their record of international success over the past decade-plus. They've won Olympic medals and put up good showings in previous WBCs; they dominated the 2009 tournament before losing to Japan in extra innings in the championship game. Chinese Taipei features a veteran team featuring a number of talents from every level of professional baseball - pitchers Chien-Ming Wang and Wei-Yin Chen have both seen success in MLB. The Dutch are the crme de la crme of European baseball, drawing both from their homeland and territories such as the Antilles. They've got a puncher's chance, but they're likely to be just a bit outclassed. And the Australians have built a bit of a baseball tradition Down Under, but it won't be enough. Their hitting prowess has yet to match their solid pitching; they'll have trouble matching up.

Pool C

  • Venezuela
  • Puerto Rico
  • Dominican Republic
  • Spain

Venezuela's roster is absolutely stacked with major league players and prospects, led by 2012 MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. Their starting nine compares favorably to many MLB teams; their star power and talent should lead to an easy first-round victory. Of course, the Dominican Republic is impressive as well the country has over 100 players currently in MLB. They've got names like Robinson Cano, Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirezand that's just the infield. Any game between them and Venezuela will be must-see TV. Puerto Rico's roster has a fairly strong MLB pedigree as well, including the catching Molina brothers, but the unfortunate luck of the draw has them opposing a pair of powerhouses. They'll put up a good fight, but in the end, it will probably be for naught. Spain is the odd man out here; they've got a few exceptional players, but in the end, they'll be firmly in the 'just happy to be here' category.

Pool D

  • United States
  • Mexico
  • Canada
  • Italy

Not to get all jingoistic, but this pool pretty clearly belongs to the United States. While some of the USA's best and brightest have declined to play, manager Joe Torre's roster still reads like an All-Star team, with MVPs (Ryan Braun, Joe Mauer) and a Cy Young (R.A. Dickey) among many other great talents. Mexico has a pretty solid roster to go along with their country's rich baseball tradition, featuring big leaguers such as Adrian Gonzalez and Yovani Gallardo. They'll definitely put up a fight. While Team Canada's roster is certainly top-heavier than Mexico's they've got a pair of MVPs of their own in Joey Votto and Justin Morneau they simply don't have the roster depth. Still, this could be the year they finally break out and advance past Round 1. Italy has a few big-leaguers on their team, but the likelihood of them being any kind of factor is very slim.

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All in all, it looks like another fantastic opportunity to watch the world on the diamond. The World Baseball Classic is still a work in progress this is only the third tournament, after all but perhaps someday it can help the sport scale the heights and maybe even challenge the global sporting domination of soccer.

Probably not, but hey you never know.

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