Sunday, September 16, 2012

Team Israel’s World Championship quest begins in Florida, because of course it does...

It’s September 2012 and that can only mean one thing… time for the 2013 World Baseball Classic! Two of the final four spots in the 2013 tournament will be awarded by next Monday after the Jupiter, Florida and Regensburg, Germany Qualifiers are completed. I’m a bit partial to the WBC as it bares a striking resemblance to College Baseball; in that both are high levels of competition that pretty much go ignored by most baseball fans. 

With the Baseball World Cup no longer being played and the recent Olympics not including baseball, the WBC is pretty much the last major international baseball tournament left. It’s been slow to catch on here in America but I remain a fan of the tournament (and am still kicking myself for not going to the championship at Dodger Stadium in 2009) and globally it’s been widely popular and has been a great way to advance the sport’s international popularity.

Also there’s a ton of players with ties to the Dodgers involved in these first two Qualifiers, so there’s an extra reason for me to follow it. So for both all of my readers, here’s a quick look at the teams in Jupiter who are vying for the honor of losing to Japan next spring…

 Jupiter Qualifier – France, Israel, Spain, South Africa
(for full rosters click here)

First off, of all the places to play the World Baseball Classic, they pick Jupiter? Anyway, South Africa is the only nation among the group that has played in the WBC before, making quick exists in the 2006 and 2009 tournaments, and returns 12 players from the ’09 WBC. Coached by longtime minor league manager Rick Magnante, the roster is comprised largely of natives to the RSA with most players having spent the 2012 season in South Africa. A handful of players were in the minor leagues or independent ball this year. The most advanced prospect on the team is Gift Ngoepe (.232/.330/.338 with 22 SB this year in Single-A Advanced), who will anchor the infield after being rated by Baseball America as the Florida State League’s best defensive shortstop in 2012. RHP Dylan Unsworth (7-2, 3.90 ERA 67/19 K/BB in 14 starts this year in Single-A Short Season) is the most advanced pitcher of the group.

Israel may have the most interesting storylines of the field. While the qualifier roster is filled largely with minor leaguers, many Jewish major leaguers have expressed interest in playing should the team advance to the main tournament, including all-stars Ryan Braun and KevinYoukilis. If that happens this small nation without much of a baseball history could suddenly become a real threat in the 2013 Classic, which would provide the WBC a great opportunity to promote the sport on a global level.

Even without the big league stars Israel is still the odds-on favorite in Jupiter, fielding a roster full of more MLB-affiliated players than their three competitors combined (most of which spent 2012 playing in Double-A or higher). Leading the way for Israel will be recent big league retirees including Brad Ausmus (manager), Mark Loretta (hitting coach), Shawn Green (who will take the field for the first time since 2007 when he played for the Mets) and Gabe Kapler (also coming out of retirement to suit up for team Israel). Three Israeli natives will be on the squad’s pitching staff as well.

My fellow Dodger fans will want to keep an eye on outfielder Joc Pederson (.313/.396/.516 with 18 HR and 26 SB) who is coming off a strong year in Racho Cucamonga. Dodger shortstop Jake Lemmerman (.233/.347/.378 in Double-A) is also on the team.

Speaking of the Dodgers, the tournament has another former player-turned coach in Cy Young winner Eric Gagne who will be the pitching coach for France. James Stoeckel will manage the team which fields a roster of almost all French citizens, most of whom spent 2012 playing in the French Federation of Baseball and Softball (FFBS). Top performers from the 2012 FFBS season include catcher Ernesto Martinez (.370/.545/.630) and pitcher Owen Ozanich (10-0, 0.40 ERA plus a .342 batting average). Former Triple-A SS Emmanuel Garcia will likely anchor the infield. The roster also includes independent league players infielder Carlos Hereaud (.330/.401/.474 this year in the North American Baseball League) and first baseman Rene Leveret (.361/.413/.494 in CanAm).

Spain fields a uniquely international roster, including players from Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, United States, Venezuela, and yes, Spain. Many players spent the 2012 season playing in either Spain or Italy, but the roster also includes the qualifier’s second largest collection of MLB-affiliated players, after Israel. Included are Double-A stars OF Engel Beltre (.261/.307/.420, 17 triples and 36 stolen bases in 2012), RHP Richard Castillo (7-5, 3.76 ERA, 65/35 K/BB in 19 starts), and LHP Chris Manno (1-1, 2 saves, 3.78 ERA, 51/22 K/BB in 50 relief appearances). Mauro Mazzotti, a native of Italy who managed the Italians in the 2009 WBC, will serve as manager for team Spain.

While most of the tournament will only be available to watch on WorldBaseballClassic.com, the Jupiter Qualifer Championship (which I’ll go ahead and predict will be Israel defeating Spain) on September 23 will be aired on MLB Network.

Up next we head to Regensburg, Germany to find out why Canada will (or should) kick the crap out of everyone.