As profiled yesterday, the 2013 World Baseball Classic has officially begun. The Jupiter tournament will commence tonight, while a second qualifier begins in Regensburg, Germany, a day later. Two other rounds will not begin until November, for which I have yet to discover a reason. As profiled by ESPN almost a year ago, Germany, and Regensburg in particular, is a viable place to play top-tier baseball. The stadium is the size of a small Triple-A ballpark with many of the amenities, as well as home to a baseball academy (similar to a US high school that focusses on arts or maths and sciences). Hosting a round of the WBC is a coup for Germany. As touched on in my last article, the Netherlands, as well as Italy, are generally thought of as the strongest baseball-playing nations in Europe. Neither of these two countries have to play into the tournament as each won at least one game in the last classic (Italy triumphed over Canada in a major upset in Toronto), but the Germans should still be rightly proud, as South Africa, Spain and France all have stadia and will be playing in Florida. Germany will host Canada, Czech Republic, and Great Britain. Like the first qualifier, there is a clear worst team (Great Britain), one with a lot of MLB connexions (Canada), and one worthwhile spoiler (Germany). For a preview of the teams, check out Josh Timmers’ blog.
Canada is the clear favourite in this group despite missing an all-star roster of Joey Votto, Ryan Dempster, Brett Lawrie, John Axford, and others. The team is still dominated by players in the high minors and independent leagues, and should have no trouble disposing of the Czech Republic and Great Britain. They are ranked No. 5 in the world by IBAF, behind only Cuba, the United States, Japan, and Korea. Their selection to the Regensburg bracket was good news for them, as the more natural selection would have had them at the Jupiter bracket instead of either France or Spain. The field is slightly weaker in Germany, and the likelihood of them losing twice to the Germans is small, whereas two losses might have been more possible in Jupiter. They are still at a disadvantage, however, as the three other teams in their bracket are not missing any players from North American or East Asian leagues, while the list of missing Canadians is lengthy. It would be surprising news for them not to advance, as they are easily the best and highest-ranked team in the qualifiers (as only Chinese Taipei at No. 8 is also ranked in the top 13, after which the ranking points drop dramatically).
The Germans are probably the most exciting of the upstart teams in the qualifiers (ahead of Spain, Czech Republic, and perhaps Brazil). In the mid-2000s, it appeared that the Czech Republic would be assuming a much greater role in European baseball affairs, but their results in the last few years have been disappointing. At this year’s European Championships they were back up to fifth after seventh and twelfth-place finishes in the last two and a twentieth-place finish at the 2009 World Cup. Germany (as well as Spain) has quickly surpassed them. Germany (No. 17) is fresh off a fourth place finish in Europe last week, suffering a slight upset in the bronze game at the hands of the Spanish (nearly coming back from a 5-0 deficit). Like France, they are fielding a team of mostly national players, rather than the so-called ‘passport players’ of Israel and, to a lesser extent, Spain. Unlike the French, though, this is because a number of talented Germans are already playing in the minor leagues. Several are top prospects, groomed at the academy in Regensburg.
The Czechs are ranked No. 25 in the world, down five places from last year, and below Pakistan, Argentina, and Thailand, countries very new to organised baseball. They had mixed results at the European championships, finishing 4-4. They had a dramatic win over the Netherlands in extra innings and lost in ten to Germany, but were also defeated soundly by Great Britain and only squeaked by Sweden. They have added a couple minor leaguers to go with their domestic players, but enter having lost some of the respect they had gained last decade after suddenly entering the international spotlight (at least in my opinion, which, I hope, is wrong).
Like France, Great Britain (No. 24) is expected to be rather punchless, but gain much from the experience. The Lions (although we are a long way from saying ‘baseball is coming home’!) have added five minor league players, all thought of quite highly. They are actually ranked ahead of the Czech Republic and defeated them only eleven days ago (as of writing), but were 2-4 at the European Championships and earned their victories over winless Russia and the Czechs, failing to defeat woeful Belgian and French teams.
An interesting note of comparison between the first two qualifiers is that players on forty-man rosters are not able to play as they may either be playing currently in the majors or soon be called up to their parent club. This, in particular, hurts Canada and Israel (though how Kevin Youkilis and Ian Kinsler are Israeli is something inexplicable!). It also gives a slight advantage to teams like Germany that have a number of good young players that have not advanced to the high minors or MLB just yet. It is also worth noting the common debate in international sporting circles is whether it is better for a team to field a team of resident citizens or to do well with imported players that have relatives (sometimes distant) who are citizens. I offer no conclusion to that debate, but it will be interesting to see how this plays out for Israel, as there is the possibility that if they advance out of the Jupiter bracket how their team is comprised when full MLB rosters are available (barring injury) for the main tournament in March.