U.S., Venezuela cream of Pool C crop
Star-studded teams look for redemption after '06 disappointment
When analyzing the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, it was hard to get past the star-studded American team or the power- and pitching-packed Venezuelans. But somehow, six teams did just that, relegating two of the biggest favorites to mere afterthought status as Japan, Korea, Cuba and the Dominican Republic marched to the semifinals.
This year, the U.S. and Venezuela are back with equally if not more imposing rosters and revenge on their minds. They're also smack in the middle of the same first-round pool, where they figure to meet for a dramatic early game.
Though the late-round fate of these juggernauts is hard to predict after the stunning results of 2006, there's no question that these two front-runners look better than the other two Pool C teams, Canada and Italy, on paper.
Then again, Canada has proven Major League star talent, Italy could pull a few surprises and the World Baseball Classic once again will be played on fields with grass and dirt.
'06 result: Ninth place overall, with 2-1 record, did not qualify for Round 2
MLB players: 24 affiliated with Major League clubs
Key players: Justin Morneau, Russell Martin, Jason Bay
Lost in the impressive list of stars who continue to enter the Major Leagues by way of the Great White North is the hard-working Adam Stern, who led off for Canada in the 2006 Classic and led all tournament hitters in batting by going 6-for-9.
Stern won't get the publicity of 2006 American League MVP Morneau, however, who is capable of hitting any pitch out of the park. Martin, the young Dodgers catcher who's made back-to-back National League All-Star teams, will have to work some extra-special magic behind the plate with a pitching staff that doesn't have its diabolical duo of Rich Harden and Erik Bedard, both of whom are trying to rebound from injuries in Spring Training.
But with Bay, Joey Votto, Matt Stairs, Mark Teahen and, yes, Corey Koskie, maybe there's enough sock in the offense to outslug opponents, eh?
'06 result: 10th place, with 1-2 record, did not qualify for Round 2
MLB players: 15 affiliated with Major League clubs
Key players: Frank Catalanotto, Nick Punto, Lenny DiNardo
Catalanotto and Punto don't bring gaudy power statistics to the table, but they bring some contact-hitting know-how and some grit that should make this Italian team fun to watch, at the very least. DiNardo, a former Red Sox and A's lefty, can be surprisingly crafty, and he might steal a win or two.
Elsewhere, Italy has Major League talent in the form of Rockies reliever Jason Grilli, Oakland A's outfielder Chris Denorfia and a hitting coach you might have heard of by the name of Mike Piazza.
'06 result: Eighth place, with 3-3 record, did not qualify for semifinals
MLB players: 27
Key players: Grady Sizemore, Ryan Braun, Jake Peavy
Sizemore has the opportunity to make a lot of things happen right away from the leadoff spot, bringing a combination of speed, power, outfield defense and youth that should energize the now-hungry Americans.
The same goes for slugger Braun, who should fill the middle of the order nicely, and Peavy, who heard about being traded all winter long, somehow stuck with his San Diego Padres, and has a chance to use his wise-beyond-his-years leadership skills and Cy Young stuff to dominate.
Toss in the wheels of Jimmy Rollins and Curtis Granderson, the veteran combo of Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter, the seemingly indestructible Red Sox duo of AL MVP Dustin Pedroia and All-Star Kevin Youkilis, and a power-arm-crazy bullpen led by Joe Nathan, Jonathan Broxton, J.J. Putz and Scot Shields, and you're looking at a deserving Classic contender for 2009.
'06 result: Seventh place, with 3-3 record, did not qualify for semifinals
MLB players: 22 affiliated with Major League clubs
Key players: Felix Hernandez, Francisco Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera
Hernandez, the young Seattle Mariners ace, has the opportunity to shine in this tournament after a much-improved third season in the Major Leagues in 2008.
Rodriguez, who just signed on with the New York Mets after setting a single-season saves record last year with the Angels, already has a World Series ring, so the pressure won't mean anything to him.
Cabrera has hit all over the world and will be joined by the big bats of Magglio Ordonez, Bobby Abreu, Melvin Mora and Carlos Guillen, to name a few. If this lineup gets hot, it might not matter who's pitching to them.
Doug Miller is reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.