Location: Foro Sol Stadium, Mexico City, Mexico
The runners-up in both the Beijing Olympics and the 2006 World Baseball Classic -- when they were led by current White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez -- Cuba is sure to go deep into the tournament once again. Round 2 could deliver a rematch of the 2006 final with Japan, or give the Cubans an opportunity for revenge upon Korea, who handed them their only two loses in Beijing, including a 3-2 defeat in the gold-medal game. Eleven players return from the 2006 WBC squad, including right-hander Pedro Luis Lazo, best remembered for his 4 2/3-inning save in the semifinals against the Dominican Republic, and talented slugger Frederich Cepeda.
It was Mexico's 2-1 victory over the USA in Round 2 of the 2006 WBC that eliminated the Americans from the competition (though Mexico also failed to advance, having previously lost to both Korea and Japan). That sort of moral victory is likely Mexico's best hope this year, as well. Other than first-baseman Adrian Gonzalez, closer Joakim Soria, and left-handed starter Oliver Perez, the Mexican roster is comprised principally of part-time players from the major leagues (like brothers Scott and Jerry Hairston Jr., whose mother was Mexican), a few minor leaguers and a handful of reclamation projects such as Erubiel Durazo, Rodrigo Lopez and Karim Garcia. Gonzalez and his brother Edgar, who lost his second-base job when the Padres signed David Eckstein, are both coming off strong showings in the Caribbean Series, but Mexico will be in over its head in Round 2.
The Aussies went winless in the last WBC and were actually mercied by the Italian team in seven innings, but they didn't have South Africa to pick on in 2006. The Australians look to be the rough equivalent of a Class AA team and are comprised almost entirely of current or recent minor leaguers. Among those who have seen some major league action are perpetually injured outfielder Chris Snelling, lefty starter Travis Blackley (who will return to Arizona next week to try to break into the Diamondbacks' rotation), righty reliever Rich Thompson (who has been knocking on the door of the Angels' bullpen the last two years) and Brad Harman (who could see some time at second base for the Phillies this year if Chase Utley isn't able to return for Opening Day). Unfortunately for them, potential Rays closer and Sydney native Grant Balfour is not on the roster.
Other than Cuba, South Africa is the only team in any of the three non-Asian pools that has neither a current nor former major leaguer on its roster. Just four of South Africa's hitters have played in the US, none of them advancing past A ball. Of those four, two are brothers who will fill the left side of the infield: Anthony and Jonathan Phillips. Anthony Phillips, a shortstop in the Mariners' organization, is the only member of the South African team to have played at a level above rookie ball since outfielder Paul Rutgers (who was actually born in Melbourne and played for Australia in the 2006 WBC) reached A ball in the Twins organization in 2005. If the Aussies are a Class AA squad, the South Africans are no better than a college team. Their primary goal in this tournament will be to avoid a humiliation like their 17-0, five-inning mercy loss to the U.S. in 2006.
Biggest difference maker:Frederich Cepeda, Cuba. The stocky, switch-hitting left fielder was among the top sluggers in the inaugural WBC, hitting .385/.500/.731 with half of his ten hits going for extra bases. In Cuba's silver-medal run at the Beijing Olympics, he hit .308/.500/.654, again with half of his hits going for extra bases. He combines power and patience and, just a month shy of his 29th birthday, is in his prime and ready to lead Cuba deep into the tournament once again.
Remember the name:Drew Naylor, Australia. The hard-throwing 22-year-old righty from Brisbane compliments his heater with a put-away curve. He'll start the 2009 season in Class AA and could find himself in the Phillies' rotation as soon as next year.
Remember this name?:Erubiel Durazo, Mexico. He hit .281/.381/.487 in his seven major league seasons, but his production vanished in 2005 and he disappeared from the majors following Tommy John surgery that July. Last seen Stateside playing 25 games for the Yankees' Class AAA team in 2007, the Sonora native is still an on-base machine at 35 and will DH for Mexico.