Classic in the Making
"...this will be huge. There's no doubt in my mind, the more I watch it. There are so many good subplots here, so much going on. So far it's maybe been better than I thought. I admit I went in believing it would be good, but this has really, really been good."
-- Bud Selig
When it's all said and done, a history lesson on Selig's tenure as commissioner will reveal a very rocky road. Selig is infamous for his blemishes, still hated in so many circles for the 1994 strike among other problems. Yet his influence on the game has also resulted in numerous positives; his legacy is more positive than many of us can admit.
I'm willing to say that in a few years, Selig's most substantial imprint on the game will be his ability to instill March Madness into the national pastime. As we spend Monday filling out our brackets and arranging office pools, it is as good a time as ever to review how we have reached the new Elite Eight.
The second round began on Sunday as all eight teams played, beginning to shed light upon which teams will be advancing to the Final Four. Korea won a well-fought pitching battle 2-1 over Mexico thanks to a (who else?) Seung Yeop-Lee first inning home run. Puerto Rico is the only other squad still undefeated, as the team capitalized on mistakes by the Dominican Republic to win 7-1. These teams are, realistically, just one win from the Final Four.
After those two, many would agree the next two talented are the United States and the D.R. The Americans wake-up call came early in the tournament, and the team has played much better since losing to Canada. If the American starters can work 4-5 innings, few teams are more difficult to score against in the late innings. With a win over Korea today, one has to believe the Americans will advance to San Diego.
The most dramatic game of the tournament should be at 2 p.m. eastern today, as the 3-1 Cubans take on the Dominican Republic players with the same record. One has to favor the loaded Dominican lineup in the match-up, but the lack of a deep pitching staff could come back to hurt them. The subplots that this game will, without doubt, produce are exactly what Selig was talking about in the opening quote.
Officially, though I'm hardly going out on a limb, my (current) Final Four prediction is the United States, Korea, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Cuba is really the only bracket buster left, barring a dramatic Mexican finish.
With Monday set to be the most exciting day yet in the tournament, here are a few notes I have had thus far...
The first question statheads will likely have after this tournament's completion is whether successful participants are more likely to continue playing well early in the season. If true, fantasy owners should be pushing up the likes of Adrian Beltre, Ken Griffey Jr., Carlos Beltran and Derrek Lee on their draft boards. All have been fantastic thus far.
Furthermore, if the Twins had any question whether Francisco Liriano was ready for the Major Leagues, his tournament thus far should answer such qualms. The Dominican southpaw has struck out six batters and showcased the power arsenal that led to such a dominant 2005 season. Finally, for those that doubted the resumes of Jae Seo, Javier Vazquez or Bartolo Colon, their tournaments should change your mind. Seo in Dodger Stadium is particularly intriguing.
In the category of 'Surprising Breakouts,' the first name that must be mentioned is Adam Stern. The Canadian that famously led to their upset over the Americans was sensational in the nine at-bats he was given. I still doubt that Stern is good enough to succeed over 500 Major League ABs, but this tournament certainly didn't calm the fears of Red Sox fans who wish Andy Marte was still in Fort Myers.
No bandwagon has gained in size during this tournament like Chan Ho Park, the sudden tournament leader in saves. The Korean has allowed just one hit while striking out five in three innings, surely making the Padres consider alternate roles for Park. With Akinori Otsuka out of town, the bullpen is a little more thin in San Diego, and Chan Ho could (shockingly) be the answer to such problems.
Tournament jeers thus far most notably go to Carlos Lee. The most talented player on the Panaman roster had a horrendous tournament, hitting just .182. Personally, I will always remember Lee striking out in the bottom of the ninth (with the bases loaded) against Cuba, when his team was just a sacrifice fly from an upset. Cuba not making the Elite Eight would have been the shock of the tournament.
Instead, those honors went to the Canadians, who beat up on the fearsome American threesome of Willis, Al Leiter and Gary Majewski. I was most frustrated with Willis, who looked awful despite facing a lineup with EIGHT left-handers. Given every chance to succeed, Willis failed, which certainly can't put Larry Beinfest -- whom is centering his rebuilding around Willis and Miguel Cabrera -- at ease.
The WBC MVP thus far is Lee, who currently has two game-winning home runs, and four overall to his name. The powerful Korean first baseman has been to two Spring Trainings in America, never catching onto an American roster. He has played poorly in Japan for each of the last two seasons, however, posting OBPs of .328 and .315, respectively. His power seems to be his most substantial strength, and in the end, it might make Lee a few extra million.
My favorite Far East player so far is Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the Japanese second baseman. After reaching base three times against the U.S. on Sunday, Nishioka kept his tournament average at .500 while his OBP crept towards .600. His mix of patience (4 walks against 14 at-bats), speed (4/5 on the basepaths) and a bit of power (1 triple, 1 home run) has surely raised a few heads.
Thanks to Japanese Baseball, we can identify Nishioka as a very good prospect. 2006 will be the switch-hitter's age 21 season, as well as his third with the Chiba Lotte Marines, after having become their number one draft pick. His numbers so far -- which average out to about .263/.315/.395 in two years -- aren't great, but bear in mind his fantastic fielding (.994 F%) and speed (41 steals).
His numbers bear a lot of resemblance to those of Tadahito Iguchi when the White Sox second baseman was five years older. Any maturity at the plate -- and the WBC indicates it is coming -- should make Nishioka as anticipated as any Japanese player in the next five years.
Finally, I want to close things out with a few noteworthy performances from the least noteworthy teams. One of the tournament's most impressive pitchers was Italy's Jason Grilli, who allowed just one baserunner against 7 strikeouts in just 4.2 innings. The former fourth overall pick was in danger of becoming a Triple-A All-Star prior to his performance, but left likely garnering a little more interest from the pitching-hungry Detroit Tigers.
In the coming weeks, I promise to release another set of breakout prospects to supplement my article already posted at Baseball Prospectus. However, one of the players I'm already on record for backing -- Brad Harman -- was the Australian shortstop in the WBC. He left the team's best hitter, which I'm hoping translates to a big sophomore season in the minor leagues.
I'm off to Arizona this week in what is becoming an annual tradition. With four or five games in tap for four days, I promise to have a full report next week. While I'm gone, please spend your time watching the World Baseball Classic. Whether you hate to do so or not, do your part in making Bud Selig look like a genius.