This year’s World Baseball Classic is set to be the biggest yet. Literally. Twenty teams (the most in WBC history) will compose the field. With that many teams in a tournament like this, one pitch, swing, even one misstep can be crucial.
Here is a look at the teams in Pool A and determine the players to watch in the World Baseball Classic: Pool A.
Luis Robert – Cuba
For the first time in WBC history, Cuba will allow Major League players on it’s roster. That allows former Cuban residents, such as Luis Robert, to represent their country. And with a talent such as Robert, Cuba is one of the favorites of the tournament, not just Pool A.
That talent consists of a unique blend of power and speed. The White Sox outfielder has hit 36 home runs and swiped 26 bases across parts of three seasons. He also boasts a .289 batting average and 122 OPS+ for his career, both excellent marks. But the Major League storyline for Robert has been the parts of three seasons he hasn’t played.
He has yet to top 100 games in a season, coming close in 2022 with 98 games. A left wrist sprain ended his 2022 season, so hopefully it does not linger. While injuries are a Major League concern, his health (at least for the tournament) shouldn’t be worrisome. With the tournament concluding on March 21st, Cuba will hope Robert, and themselves, will make it that far.
Xander Bogaerts – Netherlands
The 10-year veteran made his way across the country this winter, signing a monster deal to play shortstop for the San Diego Padres. But before his friars debut, he will put on the Netherlands uniform one more time. After two fourth-place finishes, Xander Bogaerts will look to guide the Netherlands to the title.
And he definitely has the talent to do it. In his ten years in Boston, Bogaerts slugged 156 home runs. While it may average out to about 15 homers a season, that does not include the 308 doubles he compiled as well. But the five-time sliver slugger has more than just power to offer.
After posting below-average fielding numbers his entire time in Boston, Bogaerts posted a career-best 4 defensive runs saved, hopefully foretelling smooth transition to third base for the Netherlands (Andrelton Simmons is the presumptive starter at shortstop). Bogaerts certainly has the bat to be impactful, but it could be his glove that provides the Netherlands the boost it needs.
Li Lin – Chinese Taipei
One of the few players on this list to not have Major League experience, Li Lin has been a problem for the rest of the Chinese Professional Baseball League for years. And that might be understating it. Lin won the CPBL MVP in 2022, showing a blend of power (.517 slugging) and speed (22 stolen bases) that could change the outcome of the tournament. But this is not the first time Lin has impressed in the CPBL.
From 2019 through the 2020 season, Lin posted a .373 batting average, hit 45 home runs and stole 31 bases. Needless to say, the second baseman has been an offensive force for years. His experience, power, speed, keen hitting ability and MVP experience will be vital for Chinese Taipei to get out of the first round.
Even with no Major League experience, it is evident Lin is an excellent baseball player. His power, speed and hitting skills make him a fit in any spot in the lineup. With the ability to leadoff and bat cleanup, Lin will definitely be one of the more scrutinized players by opposing pitchers
Jaime Barria – Panama
After breaking into the Majors with the Angels in 2018, Jaime Barria has had an up and down experience in Los Angeles (or Anaheim, depending on who you ask). He did flash his potential in his initial season, going 10-9 in 26 starts with a respectable 3.41 ERA. But in 2022 he took it to another level. And Panama is hoping that Major League success translates to the World Baseball Classic.
In 79.1 innings last season Barria posted a 2.61 ERA with 54 strikeouts to only 19 walks. He may not be punching tickets with the best of them, but his 2.2 base-on-balls per nine inning last season will definitely play in the tournament. Having a pitcher like Barria to call on in the late innings could be crucial for Panama.
At 26 years old and coming off his best Major League season, Barria could be coming into his own. A strong performance in the World Baseball Classic certainly would boost Team Panama’s chances. And the Angels certainly wouldn’t mind that at all.
Alfredo Despaigne – Cuba
How could we make a list of players to watch in the World Baseball Classic and not include the all-time home run leader? Alfredo Despaigne is no stranger to international play, and certainly the WBC. He has felt right at home in the tournament, blasting an all-time leading seven home runs across multiple appearances.
But with the all-time homerun record in the tournament comes time, and it has certainly come for Despaigne. He will be 36 years old at the start of the tournament, and it is fair to question how much his age will impact his performance. That is, until you take a closer look at his most recent numbers.
With 110 games played in 2022, Despaigne was able to show his power was still potent. He hit 16 home runs across two different leagues, and posted a respectable .741 OPS. That, and his 2017 performance (3 home runs, .474/.583/.947 slash line) is enough to make him one of the more interesting players to watch in the tournament.
Sal Frelick – Italy
The 15th overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft will look to hold his own in his first taste of international play. Sal Frelick will join Italy as one of the top prospects in baseball (34th according to Baseball America). While his pedigree certainly bodes well, his body of work so far in the minors supports his potential.
In his first full Minor League season in 2022, Frelick absolutely destroyed the competition to the tune of a .331 batting average, 11 home runs, and 24 stolen bases. While those numbers are impressive on their own, a deeper look reveals just how dominant he was.
Frelick soared through the Brewers minor league system last season, compiling 119 games across three different levels (A+, AA, AAA). But it was at AAA where he put up his best numbers , hitting .365 with a .508 slugging, nine stolen bases and 19 walks to 16 strikeouts. If Frelick can come even remotely close to number like that in the WBC, Italy might get out of Pool A.
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