The last time we were able to witness a World Baseball Classic, tournament MVP Marcus Stroman delivered a gem to give Team USA its first title via an 8-0 shutout of Puerto Rico. Little did we know that it would take nearly six years to be back at this stage, with the 2023 edition of the WBC promising to feature more star power and thrills than ever before.
Following the cancellation of the planned 2021 edition, the tournament is now expanded to 20 teams (the 16 teams that participated in the 2017 edition received automatic bids, plus four nations that went through qualifiers) that will play in four different pools spread across the globe – Taichung, Tokyo, Phoenix, and Miami will serve as host cities – from March 7 to 21, with all games airing on FOX platforms. The format remains similar to what we know, with the 20 squads spread across four pools playing in a round-robin format. The top two teams from each pool advance to the quarterfinals, where it all becomes high-drama, single-elimination baseball until the final.
With the tournament running parallel to Spring Training, it is not short on compelling storylines, quests for national pride, and a glimpse of traditional baseball before the 2023 MLB season arrives with all its on-field rule changes. From plucky underdogs like the Czech Republic to juggernauts like Japan and Puerto Rico, we provide a full rundown of everything to expect in the World Baseball Classic, along with our predictions for who will come out on top when it’s all said and done.
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Host City: Taichung, Taiwan
Teams: Chinese Taipei, Netherlands, Cuba, Italy, Panama
This could be the most fun and unpredictable group during the first round, with all five teams having a chance of reaching the quarterfinals.
As a two-time semifinalist, the Netherlands has become Europe’s baseball powerhouse, even if most of its players hail from the Caribbean. Their roster is a smorgasbord of recent MLB history, with current stars like Xander Bogaerts and Ozzie Albies, that-guys such as Wladimir Balentien and Jair Jurrjens, and consensus top-20 prospect Druw Jones probably manning the outfield. So while they may no longer be the underdog darlings of yesteryear, there is still a certain charm to the orange tones in their unis and a team that represents the worldwide appeal of baseball.
Cuba could become the tournament’s X factor, with a roster made up of players that ply their trade in Japan, Mexico, MLB, and its local league, along with a familiar name that does not even have a team: Yoenis Céspedes. While the island nation has not found much success in the WBC (reaching the 2006 final being its best result), this is still a proud team that has thrived in many stages of international baseball. Anchored by two White Sox players looking for a big rebound season in Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert, the Cuban team has enough talent to shock a few people in this tourney.
Panama is the only team in Pool A that needed to advance through a qualifying round to reach the tournament, and in fact, they have never won a WBC game in two previous appearances. However, the Central American team has a roster with a similar build to the Netherlands, a mix of recognizable talent and pipeline prospects that could mesh well in a short-format event. Half of their roster is part of an MLB organization, headlined by Jaime Barría and Christian Bethancourt, but Panama’s streak of not winning in the WBC could prove difficult to break, as they open against the hosts and then have to play Netherlands and Cuba in consecutive days.
Outside of people who closely follow Asian baseball, Chinese Taipei may be the most enigmatic team of the tournament. Its roster consists mostly of players from the Chinese and Japanese professional leagues (including a couple from the incredibly named Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions), even though it boasts former MVPs and homerun kings. For stateside followers, three minor leaguers will be part of the squad, though none of them have played above Double-A ball. Playing at home can certainly provide a boost, though not every host nation has been able to advance past the first round in previous editions.
Rounding out Pool A, Italy takes full advantage of the WBC’s liberal attitude towards affiliation. Now managed by Hall of Famer Mike Piazza (himself a third-generation Italian), the boot nation’s roster is nearly full of American-based players, both well-established and newcomers. With 25 pitchers listed on the roster, it is likely that Italy will try to mix and match as much as possible to make up for the talent gap. It seems quite intriguing to think that Matt Harvey may get a start as an audition to try and get another shot at the majors, and it sure sounds fun to see athletic wonders as David Fletcher and Vinnie Pasquantino roaming the infield, but it will take a lot of breaks to see Italy advancing.
The prediction: Cuba tops the group after a series of tough games, followed closely by the Netherlands. While the time-zone difference makes it hard to follow this pool live, at least try to catch the opening game between the Dutch and the Cubans.
Host City: Tokyo, Japan
Teams: Japan, South Korea, Australia, China, Czech Republic
Pool B should see the most lopsided results during group play. Even the WBSC’s ranking reflects it, with Japan as #1 and China being the lowest-ranked team in the tournament at #30.
Japan has a long history with the WBC, having won the first two editions and finishing third in 2013 and 2017. Their initial formula of highlighting NPB stars and adding a few MLB vets worked wonders and now could see them at a different level via Shohei Ohtani. Japan’s player pool features only four players currently employed by MLB organizations, but their rotation appears to be stacked with Ohtani, the newly-extended Yu Darvish, and Roki Sasaki, who at age 21 owns a career 2.10 ERA in NPB and is fresh off pitching a perfect game followed by eight perfect innings in his next start (Johnny Vander Meer, you are safe). The offense looks balanced and should score enough runs to give the team a chance against any opponent, anchored by reigning NPB MVP Munetaka Murakami.
South Korea’s roster configuration is similar to Japan’s, focusing on talent from their local league and with pitching as a strength. While the player pool only includes two current MLB players (infielders Ha-Seong Kim and Tommy Edman), other key starters have stateside experience and should provide balance to Jung-Hoo Lee, the current KBO MVP who is seen as a future major leaguer. The Koreans reached the final in 2009 and have chased that level of success ever since; while their favorable draw almost guarantees advancement to the second round, they will need a few lucky breaks to go beyond.
As the lone representative from Oceania, Australia has played in every edition and even owns a cool record, with the highest single-game hits total (22 against Mexico in 2009). That outburst has proven to be the high point, as Australian teams have combined for a 2-10 record and a -25 run differential in their WBC history. The current edition can boast a third of the squad playing in the US, though all of them are still in the minor leagues. With Liam Hendriks sidelined, there is no other recognizable face for Australia, and it is hard to predict how they will fare against experienced competition. Battling for third place in this pool can be an attainable goal, while showcasing their talents for players who could someday be part of a major league roster.
If you glance at China’s projected roster for the WBC, something sticks out immediately: only one of their players is listed as being affiliated with a current team. That is Alan Zhang Carter, a veteran of independent leagues who recently signed a minor league contract with the Angels. After showing promise and progress through previous WBC editions and the creation of a professional league, the COVID-19 pandemic all but vanquished the circuit and left the Chinese national team with no chance of consistent competition. Reports indicate that the players have kept in shape and practicing, but having to face host Japan in their opening game seems like a cruel joke from the schedule makers.
After failing to qualify for the tournament in 2013 and 2017, the Czech Republic opened their 2023 qualifying campaign by taking a 21-7 drubbing from Spain that ended after seven innings because of the mercy rule. Notably, they won their next three games to secure a spot in the WBC, ending with a surprising 3-1 win over the same Spanish squad. Being here makes the Czechs the WBC’s cinderella story, with a roster full of semipro players that include teachers, salesmen, real estate agents, and even a firefighter. They also have a couple of MLB minor leaguers and are captained by 11-year MLB vet Eric Sogard, who will probably look for a storybook ending to a fine career.
The prediction: the talent gap in this group is too big to ignore, with Japan and South Korea having easy paths to the quarterfinals. They face each other on March 10, in a game that should decide who advances as the group’s first place. While a few games will certainly be mismatches and invoke mercy rules, storylines like China’s lack of a league or the Czech’s semipros add to the charm and concept of the WBC.
Host City: Phoenix, US
Teams: United States, Mexico, Colombia, Canada, Great Britain
Pool C looks clear-cut on paper, with the defending champ and at least three teams that aspire to join them in the next round. However, in terms of quality of play, it could become the most interesting group in the whole event.
For starters, the United States was able to break through with a championship in 2017 and now have the chance to play as the team to beat—and with arguably their best roster ever to boot. There was a time when players seemed happy to decline opportunities to play in the WBC for Team USA but that appears to be over, as international play has reached new levels of interest. The 2023 version of Team USA could have a starting lineup full of MVPs, All-Stars, and Silver Sluggers, plus home-field advantage at every stage and a comfortable opening draw. However, the late Clayton Kershaw scratch reminds us that pitchers have a harder time getting the chance to play for anyone other than their clubs, making the rotation and bullpen a bit of a question mark for later rounds.
Mexico has been part of every edition of the WBC so far but failed to advance to the second round in both 2013 and 2017, followed by a disappointing participation in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Looking for a reprieve, they have amassed a team that looks ready to surprise in the WBC. With a roster that features only 12 position players and a whopping 21 pitchers (including ageless wonder Oliver Pérez), Mexico appears set to rely on the long ball and use their bullpen extensively. The presumptive middle of their lineup combined for over 65 homers at the major league level in 2022, with Rowdy Tellez, Joey Meneses, and Randy Arozarena being in the prime of their careers. The rotation is top-heavy with Julio Urías and Taijuan Walker, but the rest of the pitching staff is a real wild card, filled mostly with minor leaguers and Mexican League veterans. At the very least, Mexico should expect that something like this never happens again.
Following a solid first WBC appearance in 2017, Colombia will look to build on its proud baseball tradition. Even as their roster looks subpar compared to other mid-tier teams in the tournament, they have enough experience to pose a challenge to any team they face. MLB veterans such as Gio Urshela, Jorge Alfaro, and Donovan Solano headline a contact-heavy lineup, while the rotation has a clear ace in José Quintana, who is almost guaranteed a spot on the Mets’ opening day rotation. They also appear to have a favorable draw, with an inaugural game against Mexico that could prove decisive in their quest to make the second round, and closing group play against a US team that may already have secured first place.
Canada has probably been the WBC’s biggest disappointment in the short history of the event, as they have failed to advance past the first round four times, with a combined 3-8 record that includes a dismal -34 run differential. To make things worse, Joey Votto is not available due to injury, diminishing the team’s fun factor by a significant percentage. And yet, when Votto’s replacement is Freddie Freeman, Canada may have a chance after all. Tyler O’Neill, Nick Pivetta, Cal Quantrill, and Abraham Toro are other names to consider, and they will be flanked by a solid group of players who are at the cusp of the major leagues. If you are looking to root for last-hurrah players, Canada’s roster features John Axford, whose facial hair was once a first-ballot Hall of Famer (he also finished ninth in Cy Young voting in 2011?!).
Just like Nicaragua and the Czech Republic, Great Britain will make its WBC debut in 2023. Unlike these two teams, however, advancing past the first round looks like a pipe dream. Despite making quick work of their opponents during European qualifying, the Brits drew the short end of the stick with the schedule makers and get to face four teams that look far superior on paper. The team’s most recognizable players are Vance Worley on the pitching staff and the Dodgers’ Trayce Thompson, coming off his best year in the majors, at age 31. Britain’s roster features several promising players, such as 2021 first-round draft pick Harry Ford, but opening the tournament with consecutive games against Canada and the US will be hard to overcome.
The prediction: Team USA coasts through a bunch of high-scoring games, advancing in first place. While Canada, Colombia, and Mexico beat up on each other, the edge goes to Mexico and their lineup of beefy sluggers, even with Chase Field’s recent status as a pitching haven.
Host City: Miami, US
Teams: Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Israel, Nicaragua
If history has taught us anything, international competition must always have a group of death. For the 2023 WBC, it all materializes in Pool D, where three powerhouses battle for two spots in the second round, while two hungry underdogs will look to at least play spoiler.
Puerto Rico reached—and lost—the final in the last two editions of the tournament despite having extremely different approaches in both. In 2013, the team barely made it past the first round and was actually outscored overall. In 2017, they steamrolled their way to the final game, before suffering the same fate. Yadier Molina has graduated from on-field general to team manager after his retirement, but Puerto Rico boasts a solid roster with championship aspirations. It sure sounds amazing to miss out on Carlos Correa and still be able to have two All-Star shortstops in the locker room, while the trumpets could make an appearance with Edwin Díaz closing out games. One of the tournament’s major storylines is the aforementioned Marcus Stroman, who will now front Puerto Rico’s rotation after breaking their hearts in the 2017 final.
Despite having several stars in past editions, Venezuela’s best showing came all the way back in 2009, when they reached the semifinal. Looking to finally honor their rich baseball history, the 2023 edition has a solid mix of sturdy veterans and the next generation of Venezuelan stalwarts. It was once feared that Ronald Acuña Jr.‘s recent injuries would keep him out of the roster, but he was cleared to headline a team that features other World Series champions, such as Salvador Perez, Jose Altuve, and Miguel Cabrera, an underrated pitching staff, and probably the best defensive squad in the tournament. Venezuela will be immediately tested, with opening games in back-to-back days against the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. As long as they avoid starting 0-2, they could become a very dangerous team.
The Dominican Republic followed up their 2013 WBC championship (in which they went undefeated) with a subpar showing in 2017 where they could not make it past the second round. Out for revenge, they have assembled what looks like the tournament’s most complete and balanced roster, including the reigning NL Cy Young, Sandy Alcantara, AL Rookie of the Year, Julio Rodríguez, and World Series MVP, Jeremy Peña. If that weren’t enough, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Manny Machado, Rafael Devers, and Wander Franco are the heart of the lineup, while Robinson Canó is there to at least provide a veteran presence. The rotation and bullpen are similarly stacked, and the DR’s calling card in previous tournaments has actually been the pitching, with a team ERA below 3 in their WBC history.
Team Israel surprised in the last edition of the tournament, even inspiring a documentary after making the second round and beating South Korea and Cuba in the process. Their success was rewarded with an automatic berth for the next edition of the WBC, even as they now face much longer odds to advance. The roster has a clear headliner in San Francisco outfielder Joc Pederson, while the coaching staff has a plethora of known ex-major leaguers, with Ian Kinsler managing the squad, Brad Ausmus as bench coach and Kevin Youkilis helping out the hitters. However, many prospective players eligible for Israel chose to play for other WBC squads (Rowdy Tellez and Adam Ottavino) or dropped out of the race entirely (Max Fried and Harrison Bader, among others). This leaves Israel with a squad of question marks and MLB retreads, though the Cubs will at least be happy to showcase Matt Mervis, fresh off his first appearance in top-100 prospect lists.
After failing to advance through qualifiers in 2013 and 2017, Nicaragua finally made it to the WBC after closely edging out Argentina and Brazil to secure a spot. Their reward is to take part in the group of death, where they will look to use pitching as a strength and try to provide a bigger stage for their minor-league prospects. Yankees’rising star Jonathan Loáisiga is the obvious headliner, but the talent level drops off considerably after him. Nicaragua, at least, features one of the tournament’s best names in Washington minor leaguer Rodney Theophile.
The prediction: a rough awakening for Israel and Nicaragua, as the mercy rule comes up a few times in this group. At the top, the Dominican Republic reigns supreme, while Venezuela manages to break through and barely edge Puerto Rico on a head-to-head tiebreaker.
Tokyo, Japan – Pool A and Pool B – March 15 and 16
Miami, US – Pool C and Pool D – March 17 and 18
The prediction: In Tokyo, Japan takes advantage of home field and makes it back to the semifinals, while Cuba shocks South Korea to highlight their experience in international play. While in Miami, the Dominican Republic makes quick work of Mexico and Venezuela provides the biggest upset by beating the US, whose lack of pitching depth ends up being critical.
Miami, US – March 19 and 20
The prediction: In a clash of titans, Japan and the Dominican Republic give us a classic pitching duel that requires extra innings to decide a winner, with Japan coming out on top. The following day, Venezuela’s offense breaks through against Cuba despite a raucous crowd.
Miami, US – March 21
The prediction: Even with the extra travel and a tired squad, Japan’s experience proves overwhelming for Venezuela, as they coast to their third title. Ohtani is named tournament MVP after excelling on the mound and with the bat, as the WBC provides an excellent preview for the 2023 MLB season and reminds us why international competition is a great concept for baseball.
Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter) / Photography by Brian Rothmuller & Joe Robbins / Icon Sportswire