With the final four bids for the 2013 World Baseball Classic in the book, it is possible to make an educated guess as to what teams will make up each of the four pools in the main part of the tournament. Three nations have already been selected to each pool, and the final team will be a country that reached through the qualification rounds.
Here are the pools as currently assigned:
Pool A: Cuba (No. 1), Japan (No. 3), and China (No. 20).
Pool B: South Korea (No. 4), the Netherlands (No. 6), and Australia (No. 12).
Pool C: Venezuela (No. 7), Puerto Rico (No. 9), and the Dominican Republic (No. 13).
Pool D: United States (No. 2), Mexico (No. 10), and Italy (No. 11).
[NB: The rankings are based on my predictions, explained in this article on Nov. 23.]
One conclusion for placement of a team with a qualifying bid comes simply from geography. Pool B is hosted by Taichung, Taiwan, so it seems quite likely that Chinese Taipei (No. 8) would slot in there.
The placements from Brazil (No. 19), Canada (No. 5), and Spain (No. 16) are much more difficult to project. Pool A is in Fukuoka, Japan, while the third group is in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Phoenix, Arizona hosts Pool D.
Pool A is clearly the strongest at the top, so Brazil or Spain would seem a natural fit there. If one goes purely by ranking (those projected by me), Brazil should be sent to Fukuoka, especially with the enormous influence Japan has had on Brazilian baseball. Of the two, Brazil seems more likely to play in the first pool.
The final pool is slightly easier to project than Pool C. After the embarrassing performance by the United States in 2009 (and only marginally better effort in 2006), the MLB-funded Classic is likely going to ensure that they advance. Canada was not happy about having to travel to Germany to ensure a place in the WBC and looks like a good bet to join the US in Tucson as favourites in Pool D.
That leaves the third pool, which has the teams ranked in the middle of all the groups. Spain would round out that group nicely, though it would likely ensure that hosts Puerto Rico would take on the Dominican Republic in their first game. (Still, that option is better than having Canada in the group, which would mean taking on Venezuela in the first game.)
Assuming my prognostications are correct, these will be the groups for the 2013 Classic:
Pool A (Japan): Brazil, China, Cuba, and Japan.
Pool B (Chinese Taipei): Australia, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands, and South Korea.
Pool C (Puerto Rico): The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Spain, Venezuela.
Pool D (United States): Canada, Italy, Mexico, United States.
As this article is hypothetical in nature, it is also possible to have a stab at the last place team in each group and, therefore, the one that would have to win a qualifying round to play in 2017. Each of the groups has one team that is clearly the best and another that is unlikely to secure a victory, assuming that the teams more or less stay with their current rosters.
The likely last-place finisher in Pool A is China. Were Brazil to beat China in what would be the expected first game in the loser’s bracket they would complete an improbable five months in which they went from an afterthought in Panamá City to inching over 100 points in the IBAF ranking metric (the equivalent of No. 76 American Samoa jumping to 17th, ahead of Germany!). China has had very poor, if lucky, showings in the two previous WBCs.
Pool B is more difficult to forecast. South Korea is a sure bet to advance, and Chinese Taipei will likely win at least one game. The Netherlands have had a stunning 18 months in which they won the final World Cup and placed second in the European Baseball Championships. I would take them in a tossup over Australia.
While Spain used a bit of magic to advance out of Jupiter, Fla., it is likely that they will come up short in a tough Caribbean group. Like the Panamá City qualifier, this one should feature the most exciting, nail-biting baseball. Unlike that tournament, I think it improbable that the lowest-rated team will win.
Assuming that Canada crosses only one border to play in Tucson, it would appear that Italy, the European Champions, will be the hard-luck losers. They could just as easily upset Canada again, in which case Mexico or Canada could finish in last place. My prediction is that the Italians will have to qualify for 2017.
If China, Australia, Spain, and Italy are all eliminated without a victory, the 2016 Qualification rounds will need new hosts. Look for Panamá City to host a bracket with Panamá, Colómbia, and Nicaragua. I am going to take a wild guess and say Spain joins them because of the linguistic connection.
Italy would almost certainly host a European qualifier with Germany and two other European nations (possibly Great Britain and the Czech Republic). It is possible that Germany would again host a bracket, but more likely that it would travel to Nettuno, Italy.
The Asian qualifier would be hosted by either Australia or China. It is a real possibility that Australia would host New Zealand, the Philippines, and another team (Indonesia, Pakistan, or Thailand will all be considered), with China travelling to another location. Both countries are supported by MLB International, but this might lead to Australia travelling to a US bracket, as that seems more likely than China playing in Florida or California.
That leaves an American bracket, which would host South Africa, either Australia or China, Israel (who will almost certainly merit an inclusion despite having only one native Israeli) and one of the European countries not hosted by Italy. As I have tried to place every team in a group, I am going to take another shot in the dark and add France to the group once more.
Stay tuned to Extra Innings: Baseball Around the World for in-depth analysis. In the months leading up to the 2013 WBC, I will be profiling all the teams that will compete. After the third Classic champion is crowned, I shall then start a series that looks at countries that may merit inclusion in the 2016 Qualifying Rounds.