Loaded WBC Qualifier Roster for South Africa: Unsworth, Lovegrove, Ngoepes

South Africa is the first federation to name its roster for the 2020 World Baseball Classic Qualifiers and it reads like a who’s who of SA Baseball. Included are Dylan Unsworth, Kieran Lovegrove, Gift Ngoepe, Jonathan Phillips, and Rowan Ebersohn. Joining the team as well are minor leaguers Brendan Venter and Victor Ngoepe, plus university players Garth Cahill, Brandon Smith, and Tyler Smith.

South Africa has benefitted from increased competition in the last 18 months, with a World Cup at every level, a seven-game series with France, the first African Championship in 18 years, and the Europe-Africa Olympic Qualifier. With the exception of the U.S.-based players, the rest of the team has played multiple tournaments together in that time. Plus, as three-time national team member Garth Cahill pointed out when the roster was released, for the first time since the last WBC will the team be in peak season form.

By virtue of its second-place finish in Qualifier 1 in Australia in 2016, South Africa earned a first-round bye in this year’s WBC Qualifiers. This benefits the team enormously as it will need one fewer game’s worth of pitching. The addition of Lovegrove might be even more important than the return of Unsworth, as the late innings in recent tournaments have been difficult, with an extra-inning loss to Italy in the 2019 Europe-Africa Olympic Qualifier (the teams were knotted at six through regulation) and a 12-5 loss in the 2016 WBCQ Final (South Africa led 4-3 going into the bottom of the sixth). This time, however, Head Coach Neil Adonis  (left) is in charge of what is likely the best South Africa team to play in the WBC.

Rotation
Unsworth (right) will undoubtedly start game one on Mar. 13 against the winner of Germany and France. The right-hander had an incredible 2019-20 winter season for the Perth Heat, recording a 2.28 ERA in 10 starts and striking out 75 against only five walks in 71 innings. Unsworth will debut in the Mexican League this year after topping out in Triple-A in 2017 and 2018.

Jared Elario is the likely Game Two starter, though Robert Lewis-Walker and Dean Jacobs will be under consideration. Given previous tournaments, Head Coach Neil Adonis will ride Unsworth as long as he is hot, but will preserve him for a second game if either team scores a few.

Dylan Unsworth
P
Pericos de Puebla (LMB)
Jared Elario
P
Western Cape
Robert Lewis-Walker
P
Retired
Dean Jacobs
P
Western Cape

Bullpen
The southpaw Lovegrove is likely to come out of the bullpen in any tight spot during the tournament. Unfortunately, Tayler Scott declined his spot to focus on spring training with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of NPB. He would have made an ideal right-handed partner to Lovegrove after his 2019 callup by the Mariners made him the first African-born pitcher in the big leagues.

Garth Cahill, Kevin Townend, Kieran Moore, and Darryn Smith will be potential choices in the middle innings and potential starters Lewis-Walker and Jacobs could be called into pitch as well.

Derek Bayliss
P
Western Cape
Garth Cahill
P
Jackson State University
Kieron Cree
P
Gauteng
Kieran Lovegrove
P
Dodgers (MiLB)
Kieran Moore
P
Western Cape
Brandon Smith
P-IF-OF
Grand View University
Darryn Smith
P
Western Cape
Kevin Townend
P
Western Cape

Lineup
South Africa’s lineup can hit, as shown best against France in November 2018 (82 runs in seven games) and against during last year’s African Championship (86 runs in five games). Somewhat overmatched at the Europe-Africa Olympic Qualifier, held in the South African pre-season, the offence could strike for significant runs against teams in the WBC qualifier.

The team’s most accomplished professional, Gift Ngoepe, will likely anchor the infield at shortstop, though he could also play third or second. Jonathan Phillips is the captain and should man the hot corner. Victor Ngoepe (right) should start at second despite only recently turning 22.

A debutante to the national team, Brendan Venter, will be expected to provide significant offence and infield presence given his recent background. The 23-year old was drafted in 2018 out of Auburn University, a top NCAA Division-I university and has played 127 games in Single-A, with another nine in the Appalachian League.

Rowan Ebersohn (right) has shown prodigious power in recent tournaments, blasting nine doubles and 10 home runs in only 119 at bats in his six tournaments with the senior and Under-23 National Teams. The former Twins minor leaguer has a .345/.423/.672 line in those games, driving in an incredible 37 runs. Ebersohn could see time in the outfield or at first base.

The outfield is likely to consist of Adrian Blount, who plays at the provincial level in Australia, the equivalent of a second-tier European league. Blount has hit .300/.441/.412 over the past three seasons, swiping 41 bases and scoring 78 runs in 83 games. He will likely play centre and could see time as the leadoff hitter.

Brandon Bouillon should get most of the reps in right field after a strong showing in six tournaments on the national team. The catcher-outfielder has a .326/.434/.523 line in the three most recent senior level events. Our projected starter in left field is Benjamin Smith, South Africa’s centrefielder in the series with France and at the Europe-Africa Olympic Qualifier. For a more offensive lineup, Ebersohn could slot in to left and one of the club’s reserve infielders could step in at DH.

Kyle Botha was MVP of the African Championship and has played for the national team since 2005. The long-time backstop played in Germany for two years in 2011-12 and has appeared at every major tournament for South Africa since 2013, usually hitting second or fourth.

Adrian Blount
CF
Morley Eagles (Australia)
Brendan Venter
1B
Braves (A)
Jonathan Phillips
3B
Western Cape
Gift Ngoepe
SS
Sydney Blue Sox (ABL)
Rowan Ebersohn
DH
Rouen Huskies (France)
Kyle Botha
C
Western Cape
Brandon Bouillon
RF
Gauteng
Benjamin Smith
LF
Western Cape
Victor Ngoepe
2B
Pirates (A)

Bench
Most of the bench has played in at least one World Cup or international tournament, but lacks professional experience. Tyler Smith has a chance to crack the starting lineup as a corner infielder or designated hitter after back-to-back excellent performances at the Under-23 World Cup. In total, Smith has hit .351/.422/.491 in 64 plate appearances at the event.

Smith is in his final season as a four-year starter at Grand View University (Iowa), a NAIA programme. In 143 games, he has a .280/.387/.408 line and is off to a 7-for-17 start with five walks thus far. Younger brother Brandon Smith has pitched in six games for Grand View over two seasons, while going 2-for-5 at the plate.

Darren Boltman and Dayle Feldtman are the most likely bench players to see significant time and either could challenge Smith for his starting spot. Boltman was 2-for-7 with a double in the Olympic Qualifier and an incredible 10-for-13 with five doubles in the Africa Championship. Feldtman was 0-for-9 in Italy, but 5-for-12 against France and 7-for-11 with two doubles and a homer against African nations.

Dayle Feldtman
C
Western Cape
Tyrone Baglione
IF
Western Cape
Darren Boltman
3B
Western Cape
Jason Ripepi
IF
Western Cape
Brandon Smith
IF-OF
Grand View University
Tyler Smith
IF
Grand View University
Haydn Matthee
OF
Western Cape
Andrew Norman
OF
Western Cape

You may enjoy our series of roster projections on fellow World Baseball Classic Qualifier nations:
Introduction [Link]
Czech Republic [Link]
Nicaragua [Link]
Pakistan [Link]
Panama [Link]
Philippines [Link]

Several official rosters have been released:
Brazil [Link]
Pakistan [Link]

All photos copyright Extra Innings. 

About Gabriel Fidler

Extra Innings UK covers baseball around the world, focussing on the sport at the national team level, with features on prominent players, scouting reports, and occasional breaking news. We are fully credentialled by MLB and have covered the World Baseball Classic, continental championships, and the U.S. minor leagues.
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