The four teams playing in Japan are Japan, Cuba, China and Brazil. Brazil qualified with their upset win in the qualifier while China was fortunate not to have to qualify as a result of their surprising win over Taiwan in the 2009 WBC. Unless we see a major upset the two teams to advance to the second round will be Japan and Cuba.
Japan has the pitching but will struggle to score runs. Cuba has the bats but their pitching is rather ordinary as a 20-10 exhibition victory over Taiwan will tell you.
The key for Japan will be the health of Kenta Maeda, who is scheduled to start the second game. He has yet to pitch with his normal velocity and there is some concern with injury. Masahiro Tanaka will pitch the opener and Toshiya Sugiuchi is scheduled to follow him. If Maeda can not go in the second game Japan may turn to Hirokazu Sawamura to replace him. The big bat on offense may have to come from their catcher and captain Shinnosuke Abe, but this team will for the most part manufacture runs with sacrifice bunts, stolen bases and moving runners over, sacrificing so many outs Billy Bean would cringe.
Cuba is just the opposite of Japan. They have a big three capable of going deep at any time in Frederich Cepeda, Jose Abreu and Alfredo Despaigne. In exhibition games Despaigne has hit five homeruns in three games. Yulieski Gourriel is another bat that can also be dangerous. So Cuba is not going to have any trouble scoring runs. Ismel Jimenez will be asked to be their ace. He has a career winning percentage of over .700. You look at their pitchers and none of them stand over 6′2″ or throws 95.
The big game will be March 6 when Cuba plays Japan in the finals. Both teams will enter the game undefeated with the winner becoming the number one seed. Japan has eliminated Cuba from this tournament in 2006 and 2009. Their pitching seems to tame the Cuban bats who are used to hitting against what is considered inferior Cuban pitching. Japan should come out of the first round as the first seed with Cuba being the second seed.
Brazil has lost Yan Gomes their best hitter and only major leaguer to the Cleveland Indian training camp. Their only hope is for Andre Rienzo to pitch lights out against Cuba in the opener, pull off the upset of the WBC and have Japan beat Cuba on March 6 to advance to back into the second round as the second seed by beating China for their second win. The chances of that happening are about as likely as the experts thought the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics would both make the playoffs in 2012. It would be a nice feel good story if Brazil can advance.
China has had difficulty beating United States junior college teams in exhibition games in Arizona. They were also manhandled by the Netherlands in exhibition games. They may be able to hold teams close with their pitching, but their only hope for winning a game would be against Brazil. They have little chance of generating big scoring opportunities.
Myworld’s predicted order of finish: 1) Japan, 2) Cuba, 3) China, 4) Brazil