Now that we’ve had two days to enjoy the incredible run by the Dominican Republic, it’s time to glance at least one eye to the future, which for international baseball fans means the 2017 World Baseball Classic. With the establishment of the WBC as the major international baseball tournament and, therefore, the abolishment of the World Cup and Intercontinental Cup, the Classic is now the only tourney that attracts the star power that makes global baseball so fun.
Major League Baseball has committed to the WBC through 2017 and has sold media rights to MLB Network (a subsidiary) and ESPN Deportes, so at least one more tournament is guaranteed. Nations and territories will qualify for that tournament by two means.
The first is to be one of the 16 teams to play in the previous edition of the Classic and not finish last in one of the four opening pools. The second is to earn a spot in the WBC by winning a qualifying round that includes four teams.
This means that there are 12 countries that are guaranteed a place in 2017 (unless they withdraw): Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Netherlands, Puerto Rico, United States, and Venezuela.
Several sources, including Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, have said that MLB is considering expanding the qualifying rounds and starting them as soon as 2015. This scheduling strategy would be a good move for the World Baseball Classic, as interest wanes in the three years before the qualifiers begin, and with creative marketing could be billed similarly to football World Cup opening rounds which also pit lower-level nations against each other.
The notion of expanding the qualifiers (WBCQs) could take several forms. There are three that are the most likely: 1) add an additional team to each pool, making for four groups of five countries fighting for one spot, 2) create more pools, meaning five or possibly six pools of four teams, or 3) something that has been suggested by Dan Glickman (who runs a terrific site called Baseball Continuum): make a two-tiered qualification system.
The first option is probably the least likely, though it poses the fewest logistical problems. It is unlikely that the more powerful nations in the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), which is technically in charge of the WBC, would agree to this because every tournament a highly-ranked team has finished last in their group and it would make it all that much harder for them to make the main tournament.
The second might happen, though there are two good reasons not to do it. The first is that it would mean revamping the pools in the main Classic draw (unless there was an intermediate play-in round). Secondly, it would make much more sense to simply commit to the third option.
The most plausible strategy would be to create a two-tiered system, which would be similar to the early stages of continental qualification for the football World Cup. This could take several forms. It could be a duplicate of the present qualifiers, with the winning team advancing to the second qualifying group and the winner of that group moving on to the Classic. It could also mean four sub-qualifiers that have between three and five teams.
Another option would be to only guarantee two spots in the top-level WBCQ and host four sub-qualifiers in which the top two nations both move up to the higher level. This would place eight teams in the top level and 16 in the bottom, which would be more competitive than having 12 at the top and 16 below, making for a whopping 40 nations in the WBC. Consider that Nos. 39-41 are Afghanistan, Honduras, and Guam, and it is obvious why that number is not very feasible.
Participants in previous WBCQs are not guaranteed a spot in future ones unless they won and then were promptly relegated back to them, so the only guaranteed nations for the 2015 or 2016 pools will be Australia, Brazil, México, and Spain.
Unless MLB decides that México will host the Latin American bracket, Panamá City would probably welcome the same four teams. It is doubtful even with all the spending on sport by Brazil that they would be ready to host a WBCQ.
With Chinese Taipei having secured a spot in 2017, Australia might be the site of an Asian bracket with its relative proximity to most of the teams in Asia. New Zealand would play in that bracket, and the Philippines would join them.
Although Spain has the Olympic facilities outside Barcelona, Germany has worked much harder to grow the sport within its borders and would be upset if they lost their WBCQ.
The final pool is a mystery, though the well-attended games in Phoenix involving México suggest that a bracket in the southwest might be a good choice. México might insist, and quite rightly, on a qualifier hosted by the Mexican League and point to the poor attendance in Florida in their reasoning.
Extra Innings will revisit the subject of potential teams for the next World Baseball Classic qualifiers with an introduction the WBCQs and profiles of each country. Stay tuned for those and for other news related to the WBC and international baseball.