Countdown to Classic on in earnest
7 December 2016
While Australian baseball interest is currently focused very much on our own Australian Baseball League – which is approaching its halfway point marked roughly by the All-Star Game at Melbourne Ballpark on 22 December – momentum is rapidly building for the World Baseball Classic scheduled for March of 2017.
Qualifying for its fourth Classic by dispensing with South Africa, New Zealand and Philippines in Sydney during February, Australia failed to progress past the first round in 2006, 2009 and 2013, although early indications are that we will field our strongest possible squad when the Classic gets under way at Tokyo Dome on 8 March.
With international prestige, rankings point and substantial prize money on offer, the Classic has attracted dozens of world-class players against whom our own stars will compete, under long-serving Head Coach Jon Deeble – who has been following developments with interest.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that this may be the last World Baseball Classic to be held, although no-one of any authority is saying that publicly – especially with the event just a few months away.
Should the rumour have any credence, it would be a terrible pity for an event that has consistently drawn many of the very best baseballers from across the globe to an elite and high-profile sporting event that has been a more than adequate alternative to Olympic Games competition – which was suspended after Beijing in 2008.
The World Baseball Classic was established in 2006, with the initial winner being Japan over Cuba in second placing. Japan was successful again in 2009 – beating South Korea in the final – before Dominican Republic flexed its baseball muscle in 2013 with a strong win over Puerto Rico.
The 2017 World Baseball Classic will be a sixteen-team event. Twelve teams earned automatic selection from 2013, while four others needed to qualify through series held during 2016. Australia qualified for inclusion by winning its series against New Zealand, Philippines and South Africa in Sydney earlier this year, with Mexico and first-time participants in Israel and Colombia also successfully negotiating their Qualifying Series.
Of the four groups scheduled for the first round of play, Israel, South Korea, Chinese Taipei and Netherlands have drawn in POOL A. POOL B comprises Cuba, China, Japan and Australia, while POOL C is made up of Canada, Dominican Republic, Colombia and United States. POOL D has drawn Italy, Mexico, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.
From each of the four first-round pools, the top two teams will advance to best of two second-round pools that will be hosted at Tokyo Dome and Petco Park in San Diego. Two teams from each of the second-round pools will subsequently advance to a single elimination and medals-round finals series at Dodger stadium.
Australia’s first-round games will all be played at Tokyo Dome, a magnificent baseball facility with seating for 46,000 fans. We will play Japan on Wednesday 8 March 2017, followed by China on Thursday 9 March and Cuba on Friday 10 March – with Saturday 11 March set aside for deciding pool games. All games at the Classic are expected to attract massive international media interest, with games streamed live.
Followers of Australian Baseball League will no doubt have noticed the playing or impending playing presence of so many of our current Major Leaguers, recently-retired Major Leaguers, highly-performed minor league players and emerging young players. That is no coincidence, given that the World Baseball Classic is such an attractive opportunity for players from all competing nations to display their wares to an enormous world-wide audience.
While rosters will not be finalised until the first week in February, many outstanding baseballers have already flagged their intention to be at the Classic – including at least 30 current MLB players in groups other than Australia’s Pool B, between them boasting 25 MLB All-Star appearances.
The list of already committed players reads like a who’s who of Major League baseball.
Russell Martin will be playing for Canada, while Jose Quintana and Julio Teheran will suit up for new team Colombia. Reigning champion Dominican Republic has already signed Adrian Beltre, Dellin Betances, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Manny Machado.
Qualifying for its fourth appearance at the Classic, Mexico has attracted Adrian Gonzalez, Oliver Perez and Roberto Osuna as early members of its squad. The Netherlands roster will include Xander Bogaerts, Jonathon Schoop and Andrelton Simmons, while Puerto Rico will trot out – among other stars – the likes of Javier Baez, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Yadier Molina.
Venezuela will base much of its campaign around a core of players that includes including Jose Altuve, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Gonsalez, Felix Hernandez and Salvador Perez, while United States – shooting for its first title in this event - has already listed Chris Archer, Nolan Arenado, Adam Jones, Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey and Max Scherzer.
Early roster developments have not been lost on Australian Head Coach Jon Deeble, who expects more big names to commit over the next several weeks.
“Yes, I have been following news on the MLB guys who have been committing to play,” Jon Deeble told Australian Baseball Alumni this week.
“These teams will obviously do very well. Any time you add MLB talent to your roster you are going to immediately be better.”
“Japan will be tough for sure in our group,” he said. “However, we have beaten Japan in the past and we will go into every game expecting to win, so there is no reason at all why we cannot be competitive.”
“I know that China have some really good players, including some MLB guys with Chinese descent,” he said. “They will be tough opponents also, even though China is still a developing baseball nation.”
“Cuba is the unknown as they have had lots of defectors. But as we know they have a baseball factory down there – and they just keep producing stars.”
For Australia, it is going to be a tough assignment – one requiring us to come up with what will potentially be our strongest senior side since the Athens Olympics.
“We will be going into this World Baseball Classic with the view of getting to the second round, although we want to move on even further from there,” Deeble said.
“It won’t be easy, but any game in the WBC is not easy – and that goes for all games and all teams.”
While the Australian Baseball League season has already produced numerous eye-catching performances from players expected to be in consideration for selection on the Australian squad, there are others who are yet to see ABL action in proving - or reaffirming - their credentials.
“There is a stack of guys across the ABL who will be starting to play in January,” Deeble said. “That includes experienced guys like Peter Moylan, Ryan Rowland-Smith and Trent Oeltjen – all major leaguers. I saw Stefan Welch last week and he looked great – as did Mitch Dening.”
“It is going to be very competitive for pitching positions, with an abundance of players vying for fourteen spots on the roster,” he said.
In conjunction with Baseball Australia, the Head Coach and High Performance staff have appointed a selection panel that will leave no stone unturned in putting the team together.
“We will take the best twenty-eight to Tokyo,” said Deeble. “No matter where they are from.”
“Of the younger crop of players, Aaron Whitefield would be one with a good chance of selection, although Jarryd Dale, O’Loughlin and many others have performed really well in the ABL – which will definitely help our Under 18 team for next year at the World Championship, regardless of whether they make it to the Classic or not.”
“The better they play, the more Premier 12 points we will earn,” he said.
Aside from the intrinsic challenges of competing against some of the very best baseball talent on the planet, Australia – as always – is somewhat behind the eight ball, as a minor national sport, in readying itself for an event that is elsewhere very generously funded and resourced.
“One of our main concerns is always about preparation,” Deeble said. “Japan is spending millions in getting its squad ready for the Classic and we know that countries like United States and South Korea will always find the funding to have their campaigns well-resourced for months beforehand.”
“We don’t have any money to throw at our preparation, but we will have strategies in place to make us confident that we have the best team that is available and ready to play that first round,” he said.
“Our players will be spending time in the ABL over summer. Once the league season is finished we will require the players to get to work at our academies before we join up as a team and go on to play some games in Korea, on our way to Japan.”
“We will be ready,” he said.
“No excuses. We will be going there as prepared as we can be, trying to win every game, every time we take the field.”
Australian Baseball Alumni thanks Australian Head Coach Jon Deeble for his assistance in the preparation of this story, which is likely to be the first of several as momentum builds for the 2017 World Baseball Classic.