5: 12 AM UTC
The 2023 World Baseball Classic is just about here, and you know what that means: It’s time for a team draft. MLB.com’s Will Leitch and Mike Petriello have come together to pick their favorite rosters for the upcoming tournament, which starts on March 8. There are 20 teams in the mix, so Will and Mike will draft the top 10, then pick a dark horse among the remaining group.
Mike gets to go first, and he’ll quickly grab …
Petriello: Well, Chris Bassitt just said “it probably will go down as the best lineup ever,” so that’s a pretty good place to start, right? He might not be wrong, even without José Ramírez and Starling Marte, who each will miss the tournament after having offseason surgeries. I mean, just look at this team. Imagine a top of the lineup that reads “Julio Rodríguez, Juan Soto, Manny Machado.” Then imagine following that group with, I don’t know, Rafael Devers, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Wander Franco. Then realize you still have Jeremy Peña, Willy Adames, Teoscar Hernández, Ketel Marte, Jean Segura and Nelson Cruz. You can’t even find enough room for everyone.
Here’s the thing, though. Every look at this team will start with: oh my gosh, that lineup. Which, fair. But also realize that they have reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara ahead of led-a-World-Series-no-hitter Cristian Javier and Johnny Cueto in the rotation. Realize that when those guys don’t last deep into games – as it’s likely most starters won’t early in Spring Training – manager Rodney Linares gets to dip into a bullpen that has, well, too many flamethrowers to name. But know this, if you get to choose from Rafael Montero, Bryan Abreu, Camilo Doval, Diego Castillo, Carlos Estévez, Gregory Soto and Héctor Neris to get through the last few innings … you’re going to be fine. You’re going to be incredible.
Leitch: First off, I’m glad somebody here loves America, Mike. I would argue that it’s a pretty good sign of where baseball is at in the year 2023 that I can construct a lineup that goes Trea Turner/Mookie Betts/Mike Trout/Paul Goldschmidt/Pete Alonso/Nolan Arenado/Kyle Tucker/J.T. Realmuto/Jeff McNeil, and it’s likely the second-best lineup available here. It’s an open question how these games will play out, but the clear weakness of Team USA is its starting pitching. Is the No. 1 starter on this team … Adam Wainwright?
I’m not sure that will end up mattering that much, though; it’s not like anyone’s going to be throwing any complete games in this tournament. The bullpen, led by Devin Williams, is much stronger. Get this team a lead – and it sure looks like they’re going to get some leads – and that bullpen should shut it down. I do think there are clearly two top-tier teams in this tournament, with everybody else a step or two behind. I’d be shocked if anyone other than these top two won. But we should keep drafting anyway.
Petriello: Three, Will. Three top-tier teams. Like everyone else, I’m disappointed to see that Seiya Suzuki got injured and will have to skip the tournament, and yes, that opens up some questions about the length of the lineup. On the other hand, Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani atop your rotation? Ohtani might be the best player on Earth, but he doesn’t even believe he’s the best player on this team.
That’s hard to believe, but Samurai Japan likely has the largest group of high-level non-MLB players, so even though American fans might not be terribly familiar with, say, infielder Munetaka Murakami (who just hit 56 homers) or pitcher Roki Sasaki (who, at 20 years old, threw a 19-strikeout perfect game last season) or pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto (who has won back-to-back Sawamura Awards, a Cy Young-like pitching honor) risks overlooking just how much talent there is here. I’m with you that I take the Dominican and America above Japan, but the gap here isn’t large. There are three great teams.
Leitch: Also, here is your reminder that everybody’s-favorite-fantasy-sleeper Lars Nootbaar is also on Japan! I have perhaps underrated that team. But whether you consider the top tier two teams or three teams, it’s definitely a step down to Puerto Rico, which, yes, let’s get it out of the way here, is in fact part of America. In fact, Team USA could use some starting pitching help from Puerto Rico, including Marcus Stroman, who is the ace here (after pitching for the USA in the last Classic). Francisco Lindor is the biggest star here, and this seems like the sort of event that will fire up Javier Báez.
It may be just as fun to see how manager Yadier Molina handles a call that goes against his team. As we’ve learned from his previous stint as owner of a Puerto Rican basketball team, he has a tendency to get a little riled up!
Petriello: The more I look at this roster, the more I like it. No, there’s no Ohtani, Trout or superstars like you’ll see throughout the Dominican lineup, but on both sides of the ball, there’s just a deep group of good, solid players. You could do worse than Julio Urías, Patrick Sandoval, and Taijuan Walker as your rotation, right? You can get some production out of Randy Arozarena, Rowdy Tellez, Joey Meneses, and Alex Verdugo, can’t you? It’s a solid team. They’ll win some games. But mostly, there’s this: Look at the roster. Look at the pitchers: 41-year-old Oliver Pérez is there. If he gets into a game, this entire tournament is a success.
Leitch: Feeling pretty good they fell this far: This is a good team! Jose Altuve is the obvious leader here, but it will be exciting to see Miguel Cabrera get to play for his home country in his final season. The wild card here is Ronald Acuña Jr., who had to fight for his spot on this roster. Three years ago, we would have all put Acuña on any list of the best players in baseball, but injuries – and the fact that the Braves won a World Series without him – have actually made the phenom fade into the background a bit. Having a huge Classic for Venezuela – which has finished as high as third in this tournament – would be a terrific way to launch what could be a resurgent campaign.
The rotation here — with Pablo López, Martín Pérez, Jesús Luzardo, Eduardo Rodriguez and Luis Garcia is awfully deep — and they’ll be throwing to Salvador Perez, who, hopefully, won’t (gulp) get hurt in the Classic this time. This is my official sleeper team.
Petriello: For the first time, Cuban Major League players are allowed to represent their home country, which makes this a very different looking group from the roster we saw in the 2017 Classic. That means we’ll see Luis Robert and Yoán Moncada – and also, improbably, Yoenis Cespedes – though it’s not quite the powerhouse group you’d have expected to see years ago, particularly with Arozarena representing Mexico and Yordan Alvarez, José Abreu and the Gurriel brothers not participating. We’re excited to see outfielder Alfredo Despaigne, even at 36 years old; he’s hit more than 440 career homers in various international leagues and is the Classic’s all-time home run leader. Did I neglect to mention even a single pitcher? It appears I did.
Leitch: Way back in 2017, during the last Classic, Freddie Freeman was an excellent Braves first baseman who was reliable, consistent and unspectacular — a guy you’d love to have on your team but not someone you’d build that team around. Since then, Freeman has finished in the top 10 in MVP voting in five consecutive years and has established himself as a top-shelf superstar. He’s now the anchor of a Canadian squad that has never made it past the first round.
There is some other intriguing talent here, from Tyler O’Neill to Cal Quantrill to Bo Naylor. But the two best things about the Canadian team? First off, it is managed by Ernie Whitt, one of the most Canadian let’s-remember-some-guys guy of all time. And second: John Axford is on this team! Axford, who has pitched exactly one-third of an inning in the Majors since 2018, turns 40 in April, but he’s here, pitching for Team Canada. I hope he pitches every inning of every game. (Looking at this staff, he may have to.)
Petriello: Should I have let Team Italy stick around until the dark horse section? Almost certainly, yes. Was I going to risk you sneaking in to take Vinnie Pasquantino out from under me, Leitch? I was not. My lone goal from the start was “claim the Italian team,” lest my still-living-nearly-102-years-old-born-in-Sassano-and-noted-Cubs-fan-great-uncle Frank Petriello let me hear all about it. Where was I? Team Italy is a little short on the pitching end, but Pasquantino is a potential 2023 All-Star, and David Fletcher, Nicky Lopez and Sal Frelick add some competency in the lineup. Maybe manager Mike Piazza can take some swings.
There’s also this: Italy plays in Pool A along with Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands, Cuba and Panama. It’s likely the weakest grouping of the first round. It’s not that hard to see them actually making a little early noise here.
Leitch: They’ve run into some travel problems of late – and hey, we can all understand that – but Korea will always be one of my favorite teams in this tournament, if just because I haven’t forgotten how the KBO sated my baseball fix in the early days of the pandemic. There are some Major Leaguers here, most notably the Cardinals’ Tommy Edman and the Padres’ Ha-Seong Kim, but the star attraction is undoubtedly slugger Jung-Hoo Lee, the KBO MVP who likely is going to be launching baseballs in the Majors next year. Korea absolutely could get out of Pool B, which means we could get to watch Jung-Hoo stateside on the biggest stage available.
The first 10 teams are selected. Who, of the remaining 10, are the standout dark horses to watch?
Long live Honkbal! Xander Bogaerts and Kenley Jansen are the headliners, though as far as Dutch names go, catcher Sicnarf Loopstok is the unquestioned champion here.
I am mad that I didn’t get to write Honkbal — though it seems I just did anyway — so instead I’ll go with Colombia, because they have some pitchers you know (Julio Teheran, José Quintana), and a few Major League bats in Gio Urshela, Jorge Alfaro, Harold Ramírez and Donovan Solano. I’ll take it.