Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images Sports

The 2017 baseball season will get off to an early start by featuring some lively international rivalries. The World Baseball Classic is about to commence, with the first pitch thrown on March 6th and the finale ending at Dodger Stadium on the 26th. So get ready for some hard core patriotism and spirited wild flag-waving. Check your family tree and join the fiesta!

A total of 16 teams have qualified to compete, including the United States and Latin American clubs from Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. The Dominicans, led by Hanley Ramirez (headline photo) are the defending champions, finishing undefeated when this extravaganza was last held in 2013. This time around however, Team USA has emerged as the early Las Vegas favorites. It’s a unique event that promotes national pride, and the players themselves get pumped up just like their fans. With all the political unrest and hate going on these days, sports seem to be the ultimate equalizer that brings everyone together.

All you need to know about the World Baseball Classic can be found right here on HispanicHorizons.com, so let’s get started.

GROUPS, TEAMS AND VENUES

Group A, March 6-10, Gocheok Sky Dome, Seoul, South Korea (two teams advance from each pool to the semi-finals)

South Korea, Israel, Netherlands and Taiwan

The host team and Taiwan should move on. But the Dutch squad, bolstered by players from Curacao and Aruba, will present a challenge.

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Group B, March 7-11, Tokyo Dome

Japan, Australia, China and Cuba

Obviously, Japan and Cuba will move on. The only question here is how many kids from Raul Castro’s group will defect before the next round?

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Group C, March 9-13, Marlins Park, Miami Florida

USA, Canada, Colombia and the Dominican Republic

The Americans and the defending champion D.R. are set to punch their tickets and possibly meet again for the championship trophy.

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Group D, March 9-13, Zapopan, Jalisco, Mexico

Mexico, Italy, Puerto Rico and Venezuela

Venezuela will leave with the top seed, but expect a dog fight between the Mexicans and Puerto Rico.

BIG NAMES TO WATCH

Former Detroit Tiger and current Team USA skipper Jim Leyland, 72, will be like a kid in a candy store when he selects his lineup of super stars. The sluggers include Giancarlo Stanton, Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones and Cuban-American Eric Hosmer. Buster Posey will handle a pitching staff anchored by Sonny Gray, Chris Archer and Marcus Stroman, plus a bullpen led by Andrew Miller. The American pitching isn’t great, but they should score tons of runs.

Addressing the Hispanic teams in alphabetical order, Colombia looks to gain some experience this time around and look to the future. Although considered Venezuela’s “little brother” baseball-wise, this club was good enough to qualify and they’re better than some of the other lower ranked countries like Australia, China, Israel and Italy. The Colombians have some quality pitching with the Braves Julio Teheran and Jose Quintana, the new staff ace for the White Sox. The Solano brothers, Donovan and Jhonthan, plus Reds infielder Dilson Herrera bring big league credibility. Manager Luis Urueta has done a good job with the kids just beginning their careers. Conspicuously missing in leadership roles are Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria. But politics aside, baseball is on the rise in this South American republic.

The team from Cuba will not have the services of MLB notables like Aroldis Chapman, Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Yulieski Gurriel or Yeonis Cespedes. They are blackballed and that’s unfortunate. However, 19 year old Yoelkis Cespedes is the half brother of Yeonis and definitely legit. Alfredo Despaigne, who was approved to play in Japan by Raul Castro, can hit the ball over the moon and should be a fan favorite at the Tokyo Dome. The rest of the team is an enigma stacked with promising kids and crafty veterans. Vladimir Garcia Escalante, 34, will be the main guy on the hill along with 27 year old Freddy Alvarez. Both men have 11 seasons under their belt on the ever-rotating Serie Nacional group. The general consensus is that Cuba will be competitive but with not enough offense to survive the second round.

The Dominican Republic, defending champions from 2013, are well-stocked again and probably the deepest team in the tournament. The pleasant problem for manager Tony Peña is to find a spot in the lineup for all his star players. In the infield, you’ve got Manny Machado (or Adrian Beltre), Jose Reyes, Robinson Cano and Hanley Ramirez. The designated hitter? How about Nelson Cruz or Carlos Santana (the slugger, not the musician)? The outfield features Jose Bautista, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. Want pitching? How about Johnny Cueto, Carlos Martinez, Ivan Nova, Edinson Volquez, Wily Peralta or Luis Severino? Long relief is covered by the ageless Bartolo Colon and the pen has Fernando Rodney, Fernando Abad and Dellin Betances to slam the door. Wellington Castillo isn’t the greatest catcher in the world, but he’ll blend in perfectly with this group of terrific performers.

Home team advantage will be key for Mexico in the first round, because this bunch needs all the help they can get. The pitching staff is among the best in this event, with a rotation featuring Julio Urias, Marco Estrada, Yovani Gallardo, Jaime Garcia and Jorge de la Rosa. The closer will be the Blue Jay’s Roberto Osuna, with a supporting cast of Joakim Soria, Sergio Romo, Fernando Salas and Oliver Perez. The bad news is that novice manager Edgar Gonzalez will only have his brother, Adrian Gonzalez, to lead a weak offense. It’s our guess that the Dodger all-star first baseman will never get a decent pitch to hit, take a walk and then clog up the bases. For that reason, we don’t see Mexico advancing. Hopefully, our crystal ball is not functioning properly.

Future Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina and iconic veteran Carlos Beltran should mix well with budding young talent for the scary squad from Puerto Rico. The infield will be rock solid with Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Javey Baez and Kennys Vargas around the horn. Angel Pagan, Eddie Rosario, Beltran and Dodgers super utility Kike Hernandez should shore up the outfield. What seems certain is that Puerto Rico will go as far as their pitching will take them. Jose Barrios, Jorge Lopez, Jose DeLeon and Seth Lugo head up and assembly of quality but inexperienced arms.

Finally, the “wild card” of this event would definitely be Venezuela. This is 49 year old Omar Vizquel’s first crack at piloting his home country’s team, and many experts think the future Hall of Fame shortstop will he auditioning as the big league’s next Hispanic manager. This was also a team that was shockingly eliminated in the first round of the 2013 tournament, and revenge will be on their mind. An aging Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez will mentor a host of all-stars that include Carlos Gonzalez, Jose Altuve, Martin Prado, Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar. And out to prove their worth will be underrated players like Ender Inciarte, Freddy Galvis and Yangervis Solarte. Like the Americans, pitching is a question mark beyond Felix Hernandez. But the pen will be capable with Francisco Rodriguez along with Bruce and Hector Rondon.

T.V. COVERAGE AND MEMORABILIA 

The MLB Network will cover the tournament from start to finish, with Matt Vasgersian and John Smoltz handling the first string chores in the booth. If you prefer to watch all the action in Spanish, ESPN Deportes will also carry every game.

The MLB Shop is your best bet to buy World Baseball Classic merchandise like T-shirts, jerseys and jackets. If your only interested in purchasing a cap from a favorite team, Lids.com has you covered with the best prices.

TICKETS

StubHub is a good source for all games played here in the States. For example, the USA vs. DR game on March 11th at Marlins Park, you can still score tickets in the Vista box seats for as low as $36. For the semi-final round at San Diego’s Petco Park, prices are higher in the $60-65 range. Fans who reside in the local Miami or San Diego area would be better advised to get tickets at the venue box offices.

-Esteban “Steve” Randel       Headline photo of Hanley Ramirez courtesy: boston.cbslocal.com

 


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