The World Baseball Classic kicked off Monday in Seoul and it included a pretty big upset in Pool A, as Israel beat host Korea 2-1.
The other three four-team pools get going from Tuesday until Thursday with games in Tokyo, Marlins Park in Miami and Jalisco, Mexico.
This is the fourth iteration of the 16-team baseball world championship, last won by the Dominican Republic in 2013. They beat Puerto Rico 3-0 in the final. Otherwise, the only other country on the championship trophy is Japan, who won it the first year, 2006 and again in 2009. The Japanese team beat Cuba 10-6 in the ’06 final and South Korea 5-3 in 10 innings in 2009.
The MVPs of the three tournaments are recognizable names. Japan’s Daisuke Matsuzaka, who took the major leagues by storm and won a World Series, was a back-to-back winner in 2006 and 2009. The best player at the 2013 tournament was current Seattle Mariners superstar Robinson Cano.
There are some very familiar, and not so familiar, names dotting the 16 line-ups at this year’s tournament. We’ve focused on very young — and one not so young — talents who could one day wow us all at the big league level.
10. Brandon Nimmo – Italy
Nimmo, who was actually born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, is competing for the Azzuri at the WBC. The 23-year-old outfielder is New York Mets property and has 32 games of MLB experience. Drafted 13th overall by the Mets in 2011, Nimmo moved up the minor league ladder fairly quickly. The 6’3″ left-hand hitting centerfielder had his best season at AAA with Las Vegas in 2016, hitting .352 with 11 homers and 61 RBI in 97 games. He also had 25 doubles, eight triples, a .541 slugging percentage and .964 OPS. He earned a call-up with those outstanding numbers and in his 32-game stint, he had 20 hits in 80 plate appearances (.274 average), a double, a homer and six RBI. In the field, where he played all three positions, Nimmo made one error on 30 total chances.
9. Edwin Diaz – Puerto Rico
The kid from Naguabo, Puerto Rico that they call “Sugar” is a lanky fireballer who just got his feet wet with Seattle last year. Drafted in the third round of the 2012 draft by the Mariners, Diaz made a heck of a debut in 2016. In 49 games, he logged a 2.79 ERA, 18 saves and an incredible 88 strikeouts in 51.2 innings pitched (15.3 SO/9). Diaz didn’t touch that strikeout per nine rate in 89 minor league games, which makes his prolific arm even more remarkable. And Diaz didn’t even start his baseball career as a pitcher, but rather an outfielder on a team that included future MLB star Carlos Correa. Most remarkable about the 22-year-old’s 2016 coming-out party was the franchise record he set for most consecutive outs via the strikeout — an eye-popping 11 — between June 28 and Jul6, 2016.
8. Jose Alvarado – Venezuala
There are a few trucks that aren’t built as solidly as Venezualan pitcher Jose Alvarado. And the Tampa Bay Rays are certainly awaiting his considerable bulk on the mound (6’0″, 240 lbs.) at the Trop, sooner, than later. The native of Maracaibo was added to the Rays’ 40-man roster at the end of a very good 2016 season, split between ‘A’ ball clubs Charlotte Stone Crabs of the Florida State League and the Midwest League’s Bowling Green Hot Rods. In 37 combined games, he posted a 4-1 record, 3.06 ERA, two saves and 85 strikeouts in 70.2 innings pitched. At 21, he is still a work in progress, but his numbers in spring training — before heading to Jalisco for the WBC — were fairly impressive. In three appearances, he allowed just one hit (no runs) in three innings pitched and fanned three batters.
7. Yoshitomo Tsutsugo – Japan
In terms of the Japanese Baseball League, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo — great baseball name — is that loop’s version of Mark Trumbo. Tsutsugo, an IF/OF with the Yokohama BayStars, topped the NPB (as it’s known across the Pacific) with 44 homers and 110 RBI, just a year after slugging 24 HR and 95 (his highest totals up until then). Trumbo, who hit just 22 in 2015, stroked a MLB leading 47 dingers last season. There’s where the similarities end, though, as Tsutsugo is just 25 and Trumbo 31. With Team Japan, it is expected that Tsutsugo will power the baseball power’s offence. In a game against Cuba Tuesday, he was true to form, smacking a two run homer and RBI single as Japan beat the Caribbean giant 11-6. Unfortunately for North American fans, Tsutsugo is at least a year away from coming over, as he signed a brand new one-year salary of $2.6 million to play in Yokohama.
6. Ha-seong Kim – South Korea
For a fairly small guy, there is a lot of pop in 21-year-old Ha-seong Kim’s bat. Kim has been an offensive and defensive dynamo with the Nexen Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization and may follow in the footsteps of former heroes star Jung-ho Kang, who has played two seasons as a shortstop/third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Kim, also a shortstop, hit .283 in 138 games for the Heroes last season, including career highs in homers (20), RBI (81), and stolen bases (26). As a point of reference, Kang posted those kinds of numbers (minus the stolen bases) as a 22-year-od with Woori of the KBO. Kim draws into the Korean line-up Tuesday in a key game against the Netherlands, as regular shortstop Jaeho Kim is injured. Korea was upset 2-1 by upstart Israel on Monday in their WBC opener.
5. Tayron Guerrero – Colombia
There is no missing Boca Chica, Colombia born Tayron Guerrero. At 6’8″, the 26-year-old righthanded hurler stands out in a crowd. The giant relief pitcher will get to strut his stuff in front of Miami Marlins fans who venture to Marlins Park for the WBC, as Colombia plays their round robin games there in a powerful group that includes the U.S., Dominican Republic and Canada. Originally signed by the San Diego Padres as an international free agent in 2009, Guerrero’s ascent to the major leagues has been slow and methodical. Guerrero is on the Marlins 40-man roster after being traded to the south Florida team in a deal that included Andrew Cashner going to San Diego. In 44 games last season split between AA (Jacksonville and San Antonio) and AAA (El Paso), Guerrero had a 1-4 record, 4.71 ERA, four saves and 51 strikeouts in 49.2 innings pitched.
4. Alex Verdugo – Mexico
His uniform will say “Mexico” but Alex Brady Verdugo is all-American, born in Tucson, Arizona. Verdugo, selected in the second round of the 2014 draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers, will be one of the youngest players to compete at the WBC at 20 years old. Verdugo is a fleet centerfielder who has impressed at every step in the Dodgers’ organizational ladder, from Rookie Ball in Arizona to the AA Tulsa Drillers in 2016. In 2015, Verdugo was named the Dodgers’ minor league player of the year after hitting .311 with nine homers and 61 RBI in 124 games split between the Great Lakes Loons of the Midwest A league and A+ Rancho Cucamonga of the California League. Last season, his first in AA, Verdugo hit .273, with 13 HR and 63 RBI in 126 games.
3. Eric Gagne – Canada
We said that we would chronicle one not-so-young guy competing at the World Baseball Classic, and he is 41-year-old former big league closer Eric Gagne. No one should take the former Cy Young (2003) and NL saves leader’s appearance at the tournament as a joke. He is pitching for Canada in hopes that scouts will see he still has enough zip on the ball to get a contract and make a comeback. He hasn’t pitched in the major leagues since 2008 with Milwaukee and left baseball with a 33-26 record, 3.47 ERA, 187 saves, and 718 strikeouts in 643.2 innings. Gagne was a three-time all-star who won the 2003 NL Cy Young when he posted a 1.20 ERA, NL high 55 saves and an incredible 137 strikeouts in 82.1 innings pitched. At 41, we wish him the best of luck.
2. Alex Bregman – USA
Houston Astros fans were given a brief glimpse of just how great third baseman Alex Bregman might be in the future. Picked second overall out of LSU by Houston in 2015, Bregman’s climb to the big leagues has been meteoric. A phenom since his sophomore year of high school in 2010, Bregman blasted his way up from exclusively A ball in 2015 to AA-AAA-MLB in 2016. Barring a horrible performance in spring training or a complete no-show at the WBC, Bregman should be the Astros starting third baseman this year. In 80 games between Corpus Christi of the AA Texas League and Fresno of the AAA Pacific Coast League last year, Bregman hit .306, with 20 HR and 61 RBI. He was a late season call-up for Houston and in 49 games hit .264 with eight homers and 34 RBI. One certainly to watch.
1. Yoelkis Cespedes – Cuba
The surname is unmistakable. Yoelkis Cespedes is the younger half-brother of New York Mets’ superstar Yoenis. The comparisons between the 19-year-old Yoelkis and 31-year-old Yoenis are inevitable, given that both started their pro careers in Cuba at age 16 with Alazanes de Granma. The younger Cespedes has been told by scouts that he is a “five-tool” player and is working hard on making a name for himself, without riding his big brother’s coattails. Yoelkis, a speedy centerfielder, hit .304 with five home runs, eight doubles, six triples and 25 RBIs in 45 games in the first half of the season for Granma in 2016. He posted a .362 on-base percentage and slugged .525 with an .887 OPS. He has no plans at present to make a jump to the big leagues, but if he keeps on posting big numbers like that, it won’t be long.