After a wait of six years, the World Baseball Classic finally returns to action on March 7. The relatively young event - first held in 2006 - features the most star-studded rosters to date in this year’s tournament. It also features an expanded field, with four pools of five teams each. Several Royals, including both major leaguers and farmhands, will be representing their countries in the tournament.
Royals played key roles for several teams in 2017’s tournament. Two of the most valuable pieces for the champions were Royals. Eric Hosmer was arguably their best hitter, starting all eight games for Team USA and slashing .385/.500/.615. Danny Duffy made two starts on the mound and totaled eight innings with just one earned run allowed. Elsewhere, Alcides Escobar went 9-24 for Team Venezuela and legendary power hitter Drew Butera hit two homers in four games for Team Italy. Will we see any heroic performances from Royals on the world stage? With ten players (one of them a farmhand) across six teams, we just might.
Australia’s roster has precious little major league talent, being composed mostly of minor league journeymen and ABL players. One of their key hitters is Royals farmhand Robbie Glendinning. The Mizzou product spent 2022 in Northwest Arkansas and posted an .813 OPS with 19 homers and a solid walk rate (just don’t look at the K rate). He played mostly first base last year but has experience at every infield position. Glendinning will probably hit in the middle of the order for this team. Given the position player group here, Team Australia will be hard-pressed to score runs in a pool that includes Japan and Korea. It will be an uphill battle for the Aussies.
Team Cuba’s roster will be unprecedented as players that defected will be allowed to play for the national team for the first time. While there isn’t a heavy Cuban presence in the Royals organization, they will feature one of Kansas City’s arms in Ronald Bolaños. I’ve been intrigued by Bolaños for a while, but he just hasn’t been able to put it together at any level over the last few years. It’s hard to say what role he would play given the composition of the roster, though he has experience both starting and relieving. Cuba has a strong history in this competition and a strong baseball tradition in general. That said, it seems like their roster hasn’t kept up with other countries and they don’t strike me as a title contender.
Perhaps no team will be as dependent on Royals as the Italians. One-third of the infielders on the roster play for Kansas City - Nicky Lopez and Vinnie Pasquantino. Pasquantino will be counted on to carry a lot of the weight for this offense. Just five position players on the roster appeared in the majors in 2022 and the rookie first baseman was by far the best hitter among them. Lopez will also likely start as he had more big-league playing time in 2022 than any other position player on the team. Team Italy will stick him at shortstop and hope he can hit like 2021 Nicky for a couple weeks. It’s not ideal to count on a guy like Lopez as a key lineup piece, but such is life for a team full of career minor leaguers. The fact that Sal Frelick is perhaps the second-best hitter on the team says a lot. The good news for Team Italy is they will play in probably the weakest pool in the tournament.
The 2013 and 2017 runners-up will look to finish the job this year with the help of MJ Melendez. The outfield for Team Puerto Rico isn’t especially strong, so maybe they play him in the pasture, but he’s listed as a catcher so I’m assuming that’s his role. The catching unit here is interesting with Martín Maldonado and Christian Vázquez also on the roster. Maldonado is probably the best defensively but won’t give you much with the bat. Melendez is perhaps the best hitter but the worst defender of the three. Vázquez is a fairly balanced option (side note: Melendez and Vázquez both posted a 99 wRC+ last year but I’ll take Melendez and his .332 xwOBA over Vázquez and his .301 mark. Also, look at how their Statcast profiles are basically the inverse of each other).
It’s hard to say how first-time manager Yadier Molina will deploy his catchers, but perhaps he’ll take notes from the 2022 Houston Astros. They just won the World Series with both Maldonado and Vázquez on their roster, and they gave Maldonado the lion’s share of the playing time. That said, I think Houston’s lineup last year was better than Puerto Rico’s so they could afford to have Maldonado in the nine-hole. Molina will really need to get this decision right as Team Puerto Rico is part of the toughest pool in the tournament that also features Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
Team USA will look to defend their title starting in Phoenix on March 11 with perhaps the strongest roster in the tournament. The position player group includes perennial MVP candidates such as Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Nolan Arenado. The Royals don’t have anybody like that, but they do have a player with an MVP ceiling that will be representing the States: Bobby Witt Jr. It’s hard to say where exactly Witt fits on the roster. The middle infield is already pretty crowded, with Trea Turner, Tim Anderson, and Jeff McNeil likely ahead of him on the depth chart. He’s probably not a starter, but he could play a key role as a pinch-runner in late-inning situations. Among Team USA players, only Cedric Mullins stole more bases in 2022 than Witt.
Along with the Royals position player fWAR leader, Team USA will also roster the Royals pitcher fWAR leader in Brady Singer. Where he fits on the pitching staff is an interesting question. Team USA has solid depth with six pitchers that threw at least 100 innings as starters in 2022. However, the pitching staff does not feature the high-end talent that the position player group does. With Clayton Kershaw and Logan Webb pulling out of the event after previously having committed, there isn’t a clear ace of the staff. In fact, those six pitchers are all fairly comparable in terms of their 2022 numbers:
Team USA starters
Singer is absolutely deserving of a rotation spot for this team and based on just 2022 numbers, there’s an argument that he’s the ace of the staff. Even though he wasn’t in the rotation for the full season, he averaged the second most innings per start with the best ERA and FIP among the group. Lynn and Wainwright offer track records of excellence, but in terms of “what have you done for me lately,” Singer is the guy. One fun note: Brady is the youngest pitcher on this staff by almost two full years. Despite his youth and relative inexperience, he is no stranger to pitching in big games, having pitched in the College World Series for Florida in 2017 and 2018.
Team USA will undoubtedly be the favorite in pool play, with Team Mexico the squad most likely to give them trouble.
Team Venezuela has an exceptionally strong roster that also features more Royals than any other team. Max Castillo and Carlos Hernández are both on this pitching staff. Both guys have experience starting, but likely won’t given their poor 2022 showings and the depth of starters on this roster. They could pitch in multi-inning bullpen roles. Alternatively, there are few proven high-leverage relief options on this staff, so perhaps they can find themselves in such a role. I think Hernández is a reliever long-term anyway.
For the third straight tournament, Salvador Perez will suit up for Team Venezuela. Given his experience and ability, he’s probably the nominal starter over Omar Narváez or Robinson Chirinos. Salvy will be one of the main power bats in the lineup alongside Ronald Acuña Jr., Eugenio Suárez, Jose Altuve, and Anthony Santander.
Despite the amount of talent that comes out of Venezuela, they have a disappointing history in the WBC. They’ve reached the semifinals just once, a third-place finish in 2013. They had a strong roster in 2017 as well, but finished in eighth place and allowed a staggering 55 runs in seven games. With a considerably stronger pitching staff this year, Team Venezuela will be looking to make a run.
Who will win the 2023 World Baseball Classic?
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