Parma, Italy – The gauntlet for five European places at the Europe-Africa Olympic qualifier has been run and the end result netted no real surprises: European champions the Netherlands, plus Italy, Israel, Spain, and the Czech Republic. That quintet will be joined by South Africa which, for once, actually had to qualify rather than represent Africa as its de facto champion. Each of the teams features several prominent names and, below, we break them down.
Headlining the roster for the Czech Republic [link] is the Norfolk Tides’ Martin Červenka. Červenka had a breakout year in 2018, when hit .258 with 15 home runs and excellent defence. This year, he earned a promotion to the minors’ top level despite a mixed season at the plate, though his arm was better than ever (48% caught stealing). Červenka hit .290/.353/.419 at the Euros.
The Czechs in recent years have sent more and more players to U.S. universities, and Wake Tech’s Martin Mužík [link to news] was arguably the best European hitter at a U.S institution in recent years. After two monster seasons, which he capped off with our 2018 JuCo Player of the Year and a second-team All-American, he returned to play in his home league in 2019. Mužík slashed .310/.394/.414 last week and is joined by former Eagles’ teammate and 2018 Universities All-Star Martin Červinka [link to news].
Also on the list are top prospects Lukáš Hlouch, Daniel Padyšak, and Ondřej Furko from the Elite Tournament at Farnham Park. The team’s leading hitter at the Euros was Petr Čech at .321/.375/.571.
Israel’s roster [link] certainly has the most name recognition, with big leaguers Danny Valencia, Ty Kelly, & Ryan Lavarnway on the squad. The latter pair were on the WBC, while Valencia has been a huge first-time member. Another interesting player tabbed is Jon Moscot, who is coming back from post-Tommy John retirement to help Israel try to qualify for Tokyo.
Shlomo lipetz returns for yet another tour of duty as the only native Israeli. Interestingly, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece subtitled ‘Now starring actual Israelis’, which glosses over the fact that one becomes an ‘actual Israeli’ by…applying for citizenship.
By far the team’s hottest hitter in Bonn was Blake Gailen, who hit three dingers and three doubles while slashing .355/.412/742. Valencia homered in the last three games of the tournament. The team’s top pitcher was Joey Wagman, who tossed 10.2 innings without an earned run, striking out eight. The team’s bullpen had a 2.93 ERA in the tournament.
A big miss from the roster is Dean Kremer, born in Israel, who we tabbed as a player to watch after the Brooklyn qualifier and has since broken out with two huge seasons.
Unlike most of the other nations, Italy [link] added several big names after the European championship: four-time squad member Pat Venditte and former top prospect Gavin Cecchini. Alex Liddi is still not with the team as he is a key bat in Yucatán’s drive for a Mexican league title.
Returning for the first time since the 2017 WBC is John Andreoli, who has since made the majors with seattle in 2018. Andreoli was a lightning rod at the top of the order in Guadalajara, with a penchant for momentum-setting home runs and great defence in centre. In last week’s tournament, he hit .304/.414/.652.
The biggest name on Italy’s squad, however, is likely former major leaguer Chris Colabello, now a veteran for the team. Colabello mashed five home runs in the Euros and hit .364. Alex Maestri had a rough European championship (6.30 ERA) but has been a stalwart for le Azzurri for years. A big name and minor league veteran (despite starting this season at 24) is Alberto Mineo, who continues to advance up the Blue Jays’ system after coming over from the cubs after the 2017 season. The backstop slashed .304/.448/.783.
Italy also features former University of Texas and current Eugene Emeralds pitcher Matteo Bocchi, who we scouted in 2018. Bocchi tossed three scoreless innings and is joined in the bullpen by Alex Bassani (5.2 scoreless, 12 Ks) and Michael Johnson (6.2 IP, 0R, 9Ks).
The Netherlands [link] dipped into its prospect pool for the Euros while bringing its standard veteran core. A loaded roster delivered a continental title despite an early slip against Czech Republic and several young players shone, none more so than Ademar Rifaela. Rifaela is on the borderline of post-prospect status after hitting triple-a at 24-years old, but destroyed European pitching en route to a .407 average with a whopping six home runs (1.111 slugging).
Entrusted with a championship game start was Minnesota’s Donny Breek at only 19 years old. The RHP had a 0.74 ERA & 1.10 WHIP in 36.1 for the GCL Twins, striking out 38, with similar numbers in ’18. Breek delivered 10.2 innings of one-run ball scoreless with 14 whiffs and only six baserunners in his two starts.
Two other solid Dutch prospects include Cincinnati’s Hendrik Clementina the Tigers’ Tom de Blok plus one of the top Dutch prospects. Clementina has a chance to be the first Netherlands superstar prospect since Xander Bogaerts and has put up excellent numbers in the low minors. He delivered a .412/.476/.895 line with flawless defence.
Meanwhile, de Blok battled injuries this year, but finished with an ERA under four in the second half. The 24-year old had a 2.89 ERA and held opponents to a .171 average in Germany.
Otherwise, it’s a typical Dutch roster that includes Yurendell de Caster, Roger Bernadina, Curt Smith, Kalian Sams, Rob Cordemans, Diegomar Markwell, Tom Stuifbergen, Dwayne Kemp, and Dashenko Ricardo. Sharlon Schoop, Calten Daal, and Kemp all hit over .400, while Bernadina, Sams, Smith, and Daal all hit two home runs.
Orlando Yntema was the top pitcher, allowing one earned run in 11 innings on only six hits and two walks. Lars Huijer had similarly impressive numbers, with one run in 6.2 and 11 strikeouts.
It is a fairly typical roster for Africa’s representative in Olympic Qualification. The team breezed through two rounds of continental tournaments and was not tested at all despite missing all of its current professional and collegiate players. The squad is filled with veterans, including seven with minor league experience, led by headliner Dylan Unsworth, who returns to the team for the first time since 2016.
Unsworth had a 5.75 ERA in Triple-A this year (4.17 career in 773.1 frames). The other top player is long-time pro Anthony Phillips, who has played in 12 minor league and independent league season. Rowan Ebersohn destroyed Under-23 World Cup and French pitching in the latter months of 2018 and Brandon Bouillon and Brett Willemburg will join the above and captain Jonathan Phillips in anchoring the lineup.
Top options on the bump after Unsworth will be Robert Lewis-Walker, who was solid against France, and Garth Cahill, who wrapped up a NCAA Division I-career this spring. South Africa is, unfortunately, missing Tayler Scott and Kieran Lovegrove, the latter of whom struggled with injuries this year. Also missing are Pirates’ minor leaguer Victor Ngoepe and older brother Gift Ngoepe, whose wife will give birth any day now.
It’s a veteran roster for Spain [link], with former major leaguers (Jesús) Fernando Martínez, Rhiner Cruz, and Éngel Beltre returning once more, with the only prospect a good one, 17-year old Omar Hernández, who recently signed with the Royals. Beltre slashed .296/.321/.444 and Martínez hit .333/.429/.583. The team’s top offensive weapon was vetern Jesús Ustariz, who dropped three bombs and hit .333. The team had multiple big games at the plate and finished with a .305/.380/.463 mark.
Other than Hernández (3-for-7), the other interesting young player was the Cubs’ Jhonny Bethencourt, who suited up for Spain for the first time. The 22-year old is a career .267 hitter with a .701 OPS in five minor league seasons and hit .348 with rangy defence at short. The roster also includes a variety of other long-time players like Óscar Angulo, Ricardo Hernandez, Leslie Nácar, and Blake Ochoa.
Jorge Balboa was impressive in two starts, surrendering one earned run in 10 innings, with nine hits, no walks, and 14 punchouts. Lowuin Sacramento (3.07 ERA, 1.02 WHIP), Antonio Noguera (3 IP, no baserunners, 5 K), and Cruz (4.2 IP, 0 ER, 8 K) showed well.