Have you been watching the World Baseball Classic? Why not?!?!?!
The games have been dramatic, joyous, tense and about a billion times more interesting than watching the Padres and A’s in Peoria. Examples? Sure, we have a few:
• Italy stunned Mexico with a five-run rally in the ninth inning off Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna.
• Israel went 3-0 in pool play and then defeated Cuba in its first game in the second round.
• Venezuela and Italy played a wild 11-10 game that went 10 innings.
• We had two games go into the 11th inning, instituting the “runners on first and second to start the inning” rule that was actually kind of fun to watch, creating some strategic options in a sport that has lost some of that in recent years.
• Underdog Colombia took the United States and the Dominican Republic into extra innings, and in the game of the tournament, the Dominicans rallied from a 5-0 deficit to beat the U.S.
We’ve learned that we can celebrate this game we love in many ways, with fans in Japan banging drums and chanting songs for nine innings and Dominican fans in Miami blowing horns and dancing in the stands. As U.S. pitcher Danny Duffy said, he turned to Royals teammate Eric Hosmer during the game against the Dominican and they agreed they had never played before a crowd that loud — and they played in two World Series.
We’ve learned that it’s OK to celebrate a home run without worrying that you’ll get a fastball in the ribs next time up. We’ve learned that it’s OK to flip your bat, pump your fist after a big strikeout and to play the game with some emotion while still respecting its traditions. We’ve learned some team is going to be very, very happy if it can find a way to pry Jose Quintana from the White Sox.
Anyway, we’re on to the second round. Here are my updated power rankings of the remaining teams from what I’ve seen and what we can expect moving forward.
1. United States
2. Dominican Republic
“Wait …” you say, “The Dominicans beat the U.S. and they’ve won 11 straight WBC games going back to 2013, and you have the U.S. rated higher?”
Look, you can flip a coin, and as powerful and deep as that Dominican lineup is, the U.S. lineup is nearly as good, so that edge is minimal.
I see two advantages for the U.S., however. First, it has the better starting pitching. Chris Archer, Marcus Stroman and Duffy all looked strong in their outings, while the U.S. beat up Edinson Volquez a bit in their matchup. Both teams have strong bullpens, and unless you expect Andrew Miller to get lit up again, I’m not worried that he served up a couple cookies to Nelson Cruz and Starling Marte this past Saturday.
To be fair, it’s hard to evaluate the staffs moving forward. Colombia and Canada didn’t exactly offer major-league-caliber lineups, plus it’s possible the teams will use different starters from their pitching pools in the second round. Archer, Stroman and Duffy will be on the roster, but the Dominican could add Johnny Cueto and Ivan Nova, who could be upgrades over Volquez and Wily Peralta.
The U.S. also has the advantage on defense. The D.R. has been playing Jose Bautista in left and Cruz in right, and Bautista’s crucial assist at home plate against Colombia to send the game into extra innings notwithstanding, those are defensive liabilities. Manager Tony Pena also played Jose Reyes over Jean Segura at shortstop against the U.S., suggesting he views Reyes as his No. 1 shortstop even though Segura is the better player.
U.S. manager Jim Leyland has also made a couple curious lineup decisions, batting Adam Jones second and Hosmer fifth, even though based on 2016 numbers those are the weakest bats in the lineup. Of course, in a small-sample scenario like the WBC, that’s a minor nitpick as any player can have a few hits or go 0-for.
3. Puerto Rico
The defending runner-ups, Puerto Rico swept through its group, scoring 29 runs in three games, including an 11-0 win over Venezuela. The infield of Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez is obviously stellar, and this is a terrific defensive team with those three plus Yadier Molina or Roberto Perez catching and Reymond Fuentes and Eddie Rosario in the outfield.
They don’t have the pitching depth of the U.S. or D.R., making Mets right-hander Seth Lugo — he of the highest curveball spin rate in the majors! — a huge key to their success. He shut down Venezuela with just one hit over five scoreless innings and will presumably start their first game in the second round.
The two pools in Asia were definitely much weaker than the pools in Miami and Jalisco, Mexico, especially with a disappointing performance from Korea. With that in mind, it’s hard to get a good read on this Japanese team, even though it’s gone 4-0. It did beat the Netherlands 8-6 in 11 innings to open the second round, but the Netherlands pitching staff is a far cry from what the U.S. or Dominican can throw out there.
There is some power here with the likes of Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh and Sho Nakata, but the fact that light-hitting Nori Aoki is batting third — and the absence of Shohei Otani and U.S.-based starters like Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka — suggest this Japan team is weaker than in previous years.
The loss to Puerto Rico was embarrassing, and they appeared in trouble after trailing Italy 5-0 early on. They recovered to win that game and then beat Mexico, and with a lineup featuring Miguel Cabrera, Jose Altuve, Martin Prado, Carlos Gonzalez and Victor Martinez, plus the defense of Ender Inciarte and Odubel Herrera in the outfield, certainly have the firepower to go all the way.
They’ll miss catcher Salvador Perez, who is out the rest of the tournament after bruising his knee in a home plate collision. The concern is ace Felix Hernandez struggled in his outing, as did Martin Perez. They have plenty of big-league experience on the staff, but they’ll need better starting pitching.
Regarded as the 16th seed entering the tournament, the surprising Israeli team has started 4-0 and allowed just 11 runs. They probably shouldn’t have been so lightly regarded as the team of U.S.-born players includes several with major league experience, including Sam Fuld, Ike Davis, Nate Freiman, Ty Kelly and Ryan Lavarnway.
The big key has been starter Jason Marquis, who last pitched in the majors in 2015 (but poorly, with a 6.46 ERA in nine starts for the Reds). He threw three shutout innings against Korea and allowed just one run in 5 1/3 innings against Cuba.
The lineup has some pop and big-league experience with Xander Bogaerts, Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, Jonathan Schoop and Jurickson Profar, but the pitching staff is thin. The tough loss against Japan to open Round 2 puts their backs to the wall.
The Italians — er, Italian-Americans for the most part, at least in the starting lineup — didn’t have any problem scoring in the thin air of Jalisco, but also gave up 28 runs in going 1-2. Italy plays Venezuela on Monday in a tiebreaker to see who advances from the group. Maybe Italian-born Alex Liddi, who had a cup of coffee in the majors, will play the hero and get Italy back to the second again (as in 2013, where it lost two one-run games).
Cuba is 2-2 so far, but color me unimpressed as their wins came against China and Australia. With all the talent that’s left the island, we’re left with a team that’s a little long in the tooth or not quite ready, and I haven’t seen any pitchers that have looked particularly impressive.