Japan team to beat in the World Baseball Classic

Updated: March 5, 2009

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

David Ortiz and the Dominican Republic are one of the teams to keep an eye on at the WBC.

JAPAN THE CLASS OF THE WBC

I'm a big fan of the World Baseball Classic because it's great to see the pride and passion that guys play with for their countries. It's wonderful and I wish that more players embraced it because I would have loved to have had a chance to play for the United States in this competition.

The other reason I enjoy the WBC so much is because it's great to see these "video game" lineups playing together and playing hard. This isn't like the All-Star Game, where you see great players playing together in a game that doesn't mean as much. These guys want to bring this championship home.

My favorites this time around are the defending champions Japan, the Dominican Republic and Team USA. Let's take a look at each one of these squads.

I love this Dominican team even without the presence of Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. This is one of those squads that you see in video games after a person has made biased trade after biased trade. David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes are going to get most of the ink because they are the biggest names, but this team's chances hinge on the pitching of Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto and Pedro Martinez. If those three guys can get out there and give six strong innings each time out, then this team could very well walk away with the trophy. In a tournament like this one, it is extremely important to get big outings from your top guys. No team can afford to watch its aces flounder because it's going to be too easy to lose a shootout with all the offensive firepower featured.

Speaking of pitching, I think that's Team USA's major flaw. I would put its lineup against any other teams out there, but the rotation is a concern. I love Roy Oswalt and Jake Peavy, but I'm not sure if Team USA's No. 3 is going to match up well with some of the other top-tier teams' No. 3 guys. Still, the bullpen looks fantastic, and I believe it'll weather Jonathan Papelbon not playing this year with Scot Shields and J.J. Putz back there locking up leads.

My favorite to win it this year is Team Japan, which opened the tournament with a 4-0 victory over China in the wee hours Thursday morning. This team may not get the publicity that the other teams in the WBC get, but it prepares for the WBC better than any other team. In a tournament like this one, pitching and defense are vitally important and Japan has good pitching and excellent defense. This team isn't going to give away any outs through errors or mental mistakes. It is going to play tight throughout the tournament and I believe that's what will make Team Japan a two-time champion.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: March 4 | March 3 | March 2 | March 1

BEST OF THE BLOGS

Each day, ESPN.com's contributors offer a wide array of thoughts and analysis in their blogs. On this day, it was hard to avoid Alex Rodriguez. Jayson Stark was at Yankees camp to witness the madness:

TAMPA, Fla. -- Shouldn't we just assign Alex Rodriguez his own personal cable network at this point?

ALEXSPN?

MSA-ROD?

Something like that?

He's the broadcasting gift that never stops giving. Without him, I'm not certain how ESPN would continue to make it through the programming day. We'd have to go to full-time T.O. coverage, I guess. And who could survive that?

All I know is that here at George M. Steinbrenner Field, life is one giant Alex-fest. It's all-A-Rod, all the time, day after day after day.

Just when one A-Rod crisis begins to quiet down, there's always another one ready to roar in right behind it. And now this man has proved he doesn't even have to be in town to rock the house.

The Yankees' third baseman was 1,500 miles away in Colorado on Thursday, but his shadow was draped all over his bosses, his buddies and his franchise back in Tampa.

All it took was the sound of the words, "torn labrum," and the Yankees were right back in A-Rod crisis-intervention mode. At least they know the drill.

What they don't know, however, is what Rodriguez's uncertain hip prognosis has just done to their season. And they may not know for days, or weeks, or months.

Here's their best-case scenario:

A-Rod is their Chase Utley.

Utley had a torn labrum in his hip, too, this past season. But he gutted through the discomfort and kept on playing, kept on chugging.

For the rest of this entry from Jayson Stark's blog, click here.


Rob Neyer examines the impact of the A-Rod inury:

From ESPN colleague Stephania Bell:

    Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez will have surgery to remove a cyst from his right hip and will be out 10 weeks, Rodriguez's brother told ESPNdeportes.com on Thursday.

    Joe Dunand, Alex Rodriguez's older brother, told Enrique Rojas of ESPNdeportes.com during a phone interview that immediate surgery was recommended, and that rehabilitation would take about 10 weeks.

    A source close to the situation told ESPNdeportes.com that the surgery is scheduled for Monday in Colorado.

My first thought upon hearing the news: "And so it begins."

Wishful thinking, perhaps. Not that I'm rooting for Rodriguez's career to go in the toilet. But a few bumps along the way are more interesting than an easy cruise to 800 home runs. And I can't escape the feeling that A-Rod's steroids issue naturally is followed by a serious injury and then will be followed by the Yankees essentially eating a big chunk of the $178 million they still owe him.

Not that I'm hoping for that. Not exactly.

For the rest of this entry from Rob Neyer's blog, click here.


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BBTN ON THE AIR: FRIDAY

TIME WHO'S ON?
3:30 p.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Steve Berthiaume

WBC PREPARATIONS

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Well, ask away here, at the Baseball Tonight Clubhouse mailbag. Each week, our experts will answer your questions.

BORAS: A-ROD'S HIP

SIMON SAYS

Simon Says ESPN researcher Mark Simon digs deep, looking for the night's best baseball numbers.

Tonight, he looks at how the Yankees have fared without Alex Rodriguez. It's a life the Yankees will live again given A-Rod's hip issues:

Yanks with and without A-Rod
Plays Doesn't play
2008 80-58 9-15
2007 91-67 3-1
2006 91-63 6-2
2005 95-67 0-0
2004 99-56 2-5

THURSDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
Mariano Rivera• Not all the news the Yankees got was bad. Yes, there were non-Alex Rodriguez happenings at Yankees camp. Closer Mariano Rivera threw off a mound for the first time since undergoing shoulder surgery this offseason. "Every day is getting better and better," Rivera said.
WORST
Ken Griffey Jr.• OK, it's a sentimental story, Ken Griffey Jr. returning to Seattle. And who knows, he might homer in his first regular-season at-bat with the Mariners. But he wasn't all that successful in his first exhibition game with the M's, going hitless in two at-bats. On the bright side, his knee, on which he had offseason surgery, held up just fine.

NUMBERS TO KNOW

The Minnesota Twins missed the playoffs in 2008 for the second consecutive year, their first two-year drought since 2000-01. One of their biggest issues last season was putting hitters away when they were ahead in the count, and their inability to generate swing-and-misses is part of the problem.

They were among the league's worst in batting average, slugging and on-base percentage when their pitchers had the advantage, a trend they'll have to reverse if they want to return to the postseason in 2009:

Minnesota Twins
Pitcher ahead Twins AL rank
BA .225 12
OBP .227 11
SLG .338 12
Miss pct. 20.0 13

-- ESPN Stats and Information

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