Korea’s fate will be decided more by who it doesn’t have than who it does. Seung-Yeop Lee, known as the “Lion King” and one of the greatest hitters in the history of Korean baseball, is back, but ace Hyun-Jin Ryu and top bat Shin-Soo Choo chose spring training over the tournament this time around.
Lee is a five-time Korean Baseball Organization MVP and a power threat in the middle of the Korean lineup (463 career home runs), but he’s 36 years old and on the tail end of his career. Nevertheless, he will solidify a talented group of hitters.
One of those talented is Dae-Ho Lee, a 30-year-old first baseman who is considered the most popular player in Korea even though he left to play in Japan in 2011. Nicknamed “Big Boy,” Dae-Ho is exactly that. He stands 6-feet-4-inches and won the KBO’s Triple Crown during the 2006 and 2010 seasons. He has won three Gold Glove Awards (three at first, one at third).
Rounding out the Korean lineup is the trio of Tae-Kyun Kim, Hyun-Soo Kim and Jung-Ho Kang. Tae-Kyun batted .345 in the 2009 WBC, belting three home runs and driving in 11 runs. Hyun-Soo batted .393 and led Team Korea in hits. Jung-Ho, who will man the shortstop position, batted .515, hit three home runs and racked up eight RBIs for gold medal-winning Korea in the 2010 Asian Games.
Korea was involved in maybe the lone controversy surrounding the WBC when Chinese Taipei was caught spying on them last week. Scouts from Chinese Taipei watched the Korean pitchers throw bullpen sessions in order to time the deliveries in hopes of gaining an advantage.
Ironically, Korea will begin pool play in Taiwan. With most of its players having played together before, Team Korea will rely on team chemistry to avoid distractions.
Outlook: Without its ace Ryu, Korea will have a tough time reaching the finals like it did in ’09, but its power punch in the middle of the lineup will be a force no pitching staff will look forward to facing.
Thanks in large part to Curacao, Netherlands will be one of the more interesting teams to watch in the tournament. Top overall prospect Jurickson Profar (Texas Rangers) was originally slated to play, but recently pulled out of the competition in favor of fighting for a spot on Texas’ Opening Day roster.
Despite Profar’s absence, Netherlands will have no shortage of youth, and top prospects in particular. Xander Bogaerts — top prospect in the Red Sox system and No. 12 overall, according to Baseball Prospectus — will anchor the Dutch infield.
Bogaerts is considered an All-Star talent with above-average power potential at third base. Only 20 years old, Bogaerts is 6-feet-3-inches tall and has raced through the Boston organization to this point.
Evening out the Dutch infield is another prospect to keep an eye on. Jonathan Schoop — third-ranked prospect in Baltimore’s system and No. 80 overall, according to BP — provides some pop at second base. Schoop will likely make his big league debut next season, but Bogaerts could get the call in 2013.
Braves youngster Andrelton Simmons will start at shortstop after making his debut in Atlanta in 2012. Simmons batted .289 in 182 plate appearances (49 games) with the big league club.
The most familiar name is Andruw Jones. The five-time MLB All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove Award winner, is now playing in the Nippon Professional Baseball league in Japan. Jones will team up with Washington Nationals 28-year-old Roger Bernadina, who batted .291 in his first full season with the big league club in the nation’s capital.
On the pitching side, Netherlands will be without flame-thrower Kenley Jansen, was played in the 2009 WBC as a catcher (.077 AVG in 13 at-bats).
Outlook: Netherlands is the favorite to move on to the second round out of Pool B along with Korea, but advancing any further would be shocking. A second-straight second-round exit seems like the best bet.
Entering the tournament with the “spoiler” label doesn’t offer the most auspicious expectations for a team, but that is what Australia is hoping for in Pool B.
Gone are Brett Roneberg and Trent Oeltjen, the top two offensive threats of the 2009 WBC team that was bounced after three games of pool play. Grant Balfour passed up an invite and Travis Blackley (1.59 ERA, ND in ’09 WBC) won’t return either.
The Aussies will look to Chris Snelling to pick up the slack at the plate after belting a pair of home runs in the ’09 Classic – both came in Australia’s 17-7 shellacking of Mexico. Snelling has not played in the bigs since 2008, but he is still only 31 years old.
To state the obvious, Balfour and Blackley would make the Australian pitching staff much more formidable. Unfortunately, Balfour is coming off surgery to repair the lateral meniscus in his right knee earlier this month. As for Blackley, he is understandably more worried about making Oakland’s big league club out of camp.
Shortstop James Beresford will return for his second WBC appearance. Though just 20 years old last time around, he performed well in a small sample size, going 4-for-9 with a double and four RBIs. He and Snelling will provide the most offense from the left side of the plate.
Manning third base will be Major League free agent Luke Hughes. The 28-year-old played sparingly for Oakland and Minnesota in 2012 (3-for-23 in eight games), but is another returner from the Australian ’09 WBC squad. Hughes went 3-for-12 with a double and a home run in the tournament.
Outlook: The only thing that will be spoiled is the Aussies’ attempt to play spoiler. Did that make sense? Bottom line, Australia may head home winless.
The only thing more confusing than Chinese Taipei’s roster (four players named Wang; seven more named Lin) is its attempt to spy on rival Korea earlier last month.
Chinese Taipei had scouts pose as umpire trainees in order to get a closer look at the Korean pitchers. This was done in an attempt to study the deliveries of the pitchers and Chinese Taipei ended up apologizing to the Korean Baseball Organization soon after.
After a disappointing performance in the 2009 WBC — one that saw it score just one total run in two games — Chinese Taipei is looking for any edge it can gain.
Chien-Ming Wang heads a pitching staff that will have its work cut out for it in a pool with hard-hitting Korean and Dutch teams. Wang pitched 32 1/3 innings in five starts last season with the Nationals, but is currently a free agent.
Chinese Taipei will need the 2006-07 Wang (19 wins in back-to-back seasons) if it wants to make it past round-robin play. Achieving that would be an easier task if Wei-Yin Chen had opted to participate. Chen went 12-11 with a 4.02 ERA in 2012 with Baltimore en route to earning fourth place in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.
Former Dodgers reliever Hong-Chih Kuo will anchor the Chinese Taipei bullpen. Kuo has not pitched in the big leagues since 2011, when he posted a 9.00 ERA in 40 appearances (27.0 innings). Kuo was an All-Star for Los Angeles in 2010.
Outlook: One of the better games early on in the tournament will be Chinese Taipei’s matchup with Netherlands on Sunday at 1:30 a.m. ET. This will likely decide which team will advance past pool play with Korea, the odds-on favorite to move out of Pool B.