Location: Hiram Bithorn Stadium, San Juan, Puerto Rico
The U.S. may have the best bullpen in the tournament, but the Dominican Republic's relief corps -- with righties Carlos Marmol, Jose Arredondo (Angels) and Tony Peña (Diamondbacks) and lefties Rafael Perez (Indians) and Damaso Marte (Yankees) -- is a close second. The D.R. also has a strong bench, with Blue Jays utility man Jose Bautista and Rays corner man Willy Aybar adding flexibility. Their lineup is top-heavy due to their talent being clustered in the infield. At shortstop alone they have Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Miguel Tejada, though they can be spread among short, designated hitter, and since Alex Rodriguez's hip has taken him out of the tournament, third base. Their rotation is more talented than good -- Pedro Martinez is old and brittle, the Reds' Johnny Cueto and Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez are young and erratic -- but if the top half of the lineup produces up expectations and one of the aforementioned starters can partner with the Reds' Edinson Volquez to keep elimination at bay, this is a team that should at least reach the semifinals, as it did in 2006, even without Albert Pujols and A-Rod.
Puerto Rico started the 2006 WBC with four straight wins, mercying Cuba and dominating the Dominican Republic in consecutive games by a combined score of 19-3, but the two losses that followed, including a 4-3 loss to Cuba, kept them out of the semifinals. This year, they enter the tournament with a chance to upset one of the presumptive final four of the U.S., Japan, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
The last of those is the team Puerto Rico most resembles. Like the D.R., Puerto Rico has a top-heavy lineup, an underwhelming bench, erratic-yet-talented starting pitchers and a fairly deep and well-balanced bullpen. However, Puerto Rico has slightly weaker versions of each compared to their Pool D rivals. The lineup starts to thin out after Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Geovany Soto. The big names in the bullpen are lefties J.C. Romero, Javier Lopez and Pedro Feliciano. Only the Puerto Rican rotation compares favorably to its Dominican counterpart, with 2006 WBC ace Javier Vazquez being supported by lefty fireballer Jonathan Sanchez of the Giants and righty Ian Snell of the Pirates. Puerto Rico shouldn't have too much trouble keeping opponents from scoring, but it will need one of its stars to put the offense on his back. For that, looks to be Carlos Beltran. The switch-hitting center fielder is a career .366/.485/.817 hitter in 22 postseason games and hit .286/.423/.619 in the 2006 WBC.
Being the most successful national baseball team in Europe is something of a dubious distinction, but one the Netherlands holds nonetheless by virtue of its twenty gold medals in the European Baseball Championship (second-place Italy has eight). Dutch major league baseball was founded way back in 1922 and is known to the locals as Honkbal Hoofdlkasse. The league as well as the national team has long been buoyed by players from the Caribbean territories of Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles, including 2009 WBC participants Sidney Ponson and outfielder Gene Kingsale of Aruba (both of whom were knighted by Queen Beatrix in 2003), first baseman Randall Simon and third baseman Yurendell de Caster of Curaçao.
Curaçao's Shairon Martis, then a Giants prospect, provided one of the highlights of the 2006 WBC when he tossed a seven-inning mercy-rule no-hitter against Panama in Round 1. Unfortunately, Martis, now with the Nationals, is not on this year's squad, nor is fellow righty starter Jair Jurrjens, who had a fine rookie season for the Braves last year. Nor, for that matter, is Andruw Jones, who is trying to revive his major league career as a non-roster invitee in Rangers camp. In fact Ponson, Kingsale, Simon, de Caster and Marlins starter Rick VandenHurk are the only members of the Netherlands team with big-league experience, and of that group only Eindhoven native VandenHurk is currently on a major league team's 40-man roster.
The weakest of the Latin American entries, Panama was winless in the last WBC due largely to an impotent offense. That won't change much this year as Astros left fielder Carlos Lee remains the only big bat on the team and is coming off a season ended early by a broken finger. A Panamanian team without Mariano Rivera is like a Taiwanese team without Chien-Ming Wang, but Rivera wouldn't make this team much better. Closers are of little use on teams unlikely to get many leads, which makes it all the more unfortunate that relievers Manuel Corpas and Manny Acosta are two of the just three other active major leaguers on the roster (weak-hitting Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz is the third).
Biggest difference maker: Pedro Martinez, Dominican Republic.There's a good reason that the 37-year-old Martinez doesn't have a major league contract, but one suspects that with Pedro simultaneously pitching for his country for the first time and for a chance to extend his major league career, he's going to come up big, particularly after having had the winter to mend and with little reason to preserve what's left of his right arm. If he does, he just might pitch the Dominican Republic into the finals. If he doesn't, the D.R. is vulnerable.
Remember the name: Carlos Gutierrez, Puerto Rico.Gutierrez was drafted 27th overall last June by the Twins. He was dominant closer at the University of Miami, but the Twins plan to convert him to starting, hoping his heavy sinker will make him a dominant groundballer.
Remember this name?: Bernie Williams, Puerto Rico.Williams was pushed into retirement by the Yankees after the 2006 season, though the sharp fall-off in his production after the 2002 season made it anything but "early." Williams continues to insist he can still play and, at age 40, he'll get his chance to prove it as Puerto Rico's left fielder. At worst, he'll get to promote his new soft jazz guitar album, the aptly titled Moving Forward.