Thursday, January 31, 2013

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By Brian Waller - AngelsWin.com Columnist

It’s that time again folks, time for the World Baseball Classic (WBC). The global tournament always gets mixed reactions here in the states. I personally love the WBC. I always enjoyed watching Olympic baseball prior to its dissolution in 2008; players were not only playing to win for themselves or for their teammates, they were playing for their countries. Anytime you factor in that element you are bound to make things a bit more interesting. The one drawback I found with Olympic baseball was that no professional ball players were included. That’s the beautiful thing about the WBC, as fans we get to see superstars from Major League Baseball play for their home countries, specifically the US.

For those completely unaware of what the heck I’m talking about, the World Baseball Classic is an international baseball tournament that is sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation and was created by Major League Baseball. The tournament is the first of its kind to have national baseball teams feature professional players from the major leagues around the world including Major League baseball.  

The WBC was organized in large part as a response to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to remove baseball as an Olympic sport in 2005. Although the WBC has not gained the large fan fare it was originally thought to attract here in the US; globally, it is very popular. In fact, the final series in 2006 and 2009 rank among the highest-rated sporting events of all time in Japanese television history (I’m sure it helps when your home country is playing in the finals). 

The 2006 and 2009 editions of the WBC were contested by the same pre-selected field of 16 teams. Things are a bit different for the 2013 tournament however; this time only the 12 teams that won at least one game in 2009 were guaranteed a birth in the main tournament. The other four spots were contested in a qualifying round at the end of 2012 by 12 additional teams. As a result, two new teams will compete for the first time in the tournament; Brazil and Spain will be replacing Panama and South Africa. For those wondering, Panama and South Africa are a combined 0-10 in WBC play. 

During the month of February we will be previewing each team in the 2013 WBC tournament. There are 16 teams divided into 4 separate pools. We will preview each pool weekly until the WBC begins on March 2nd. This week we will focus on Pool A which includes Brazil, China, Cuba, and the defending 2 time champions Japan. What better way to kick off the preview then to take a look at the champs.

Japan

Japan is the defending 2-time WBC champion and is currently ranked 3rd in the world by the International Baseball Federation. In 2009, there were 12 players that played for Japan signed to professional contracts in the United States including Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish and New York Yankees Outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. Japan’s defensive finesse, quality pitching, and smart base running have been the key ingredients to their dominating run in WBC play.

Some good news for the rest of the world is that Ichiro Suzuki and Norichika Aoki will be sitting out the 2013 tournament. Suzuki and Aoki tied for the most hits (12) in the 2009 WBC and have informed their respective teams (Yankees/Brewers) they will not be participating in this year’s installment. 

In addition to Suzuki and Aoki, pitchers Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakumna will not be playing either. This will definitely be a new look Japanese squad this year as fresh faces look to push Japan’s winning streak to 3. The provisional roster submitted by Japan indicates that 2-time WBC Most Valuable Player Daisuke Matsuzaka will not be participating either. Japanese news outlets have stated Matsuzaka is currently focusing on preparing for the 2013 MLB season and is currently weighing minor league contract offers from the Indians, Marlins, and Mets.

Players to Watch

Takuya Asao is a 28 year old right handed pitcher. Asao currently pitches for the Chunichi Dragons in the Nippon Professional Baseball league and has a career 34-16 record with a 2.14 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. 

Tadashi Settsu is another pitcher to keep an eye out for. Settsu is a 30 year old right handed pitcher who currently plays for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. Settsu is a combined 31-13 the last 2 seasons with a 2.35 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP.  Asao and Settsu should be a very formidable 1-2 punch for Japan throughout the tournament. 

A familiar face to US viewers will be infielder Kazuo “Kaz” Matsui. Matsui signed with the New York Mets in 2003, becoming the first Japanese infielder to sign with a Major League Baseball team. Matsui last played in the US in 2010 with the Houston Astros. Matsui played 7 in the states, hitting .267 with 32 career home runs, 211 RBI’s, 102 sb’s, and a career OPS of .701. Matsui currently plays second base for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in the Nippon Professional Baseball league. 

Third baseman Shuichi Murata will be relied upon to provide the offense for the Japanese team. Murata is 32 years old and is the third baseman for the Yomiuri Giants. Murata led the Central League in home runs in both 2007 (36) and 2008 (46) and despite his production declining the last 3 seasons he is considered one of the few pure home run hitters in Japanese professional baseball today.

201026 hr’s.762 OPS

201120 hr’s.744 OPS

201212 hr’s.690 OPS 

Yomiuri Giants shortstop, Hayato Sakamoto is widely regarded as one of the most promising young stars in all of Japanese professional baseball today. The 24 year old is coming off a very solid season where he hit .311 with an .815 OPS, 14 hr’s, 69 RBI’s, and 16 sb’s.  

Why You Should Care

Why wouldn’t you care!?! Japan has dominated the WBC tournament since its inception. Will this be the year South Korea or another contender finally beats Japan? With veterans such as Suzuki, Aoki, and Matsuzaka not participating, the time might be right for the kings of the WBC to be dethroned. 

The last 2 tournaments have given the world a taste of the stars like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish. What future major league star will be on display this year? I think Sakamoto will have a breakout WBC; he’s young, talented and has been compared to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. 

Interesting Facts

Although Japan is the only team to have been crowned champion, earning the title in 2006 and 2009; South Korea owns the best win-loss record at 12-4, with all four of its losses coming at the hands of Japan. Japan’s win-loss record is 12-5, with four of its five losses coming at the hands of South Korea.

Daisuke Matsuzaka was named the Most Valuable Player in both the 2006 and the 2009 WBC tournaments going 3-0 in 2006 and 3-0 in the 2009.
Love to hear what you think!

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