The wait is finally over and the first leg of the 2017 World Baseball Classic will be underway shortly.
Qualifier 1 will be hosted by Australia at the Blacktown International Sportspark, home of the ABL’s Sydney Blue Sox. Joining Australia will be 2 time WBC participant South Africa, New Zealand, and Philippines.
Australia is by far the most experienced team both at the International level, ranked 14th in the WBSC World Rankings, and at the professional level. 26 of the 28 roster spots are filled by players with at least some Minor League experience.
The offense will be led by Twins standout prospect James Beresford, who was an International League All-Star in 2015, hitting .307.
The pitching depth will be the key to success for Australia, led by former big leaguer Travis Blackley. Blackley is accompanied by Twins prospect Sam Gibbons, and Tigers prospect Warwick Saupold.
In a tournament where pitch count is key, having multiple pitchers who can eat innings is crucial.
Australia’s first game will come against the Philippines. In 2012, the Philippines played in the qualifier in Taipei City, going 1-2.
The Philippines are probably more experienced then one would think, having 3 players with MLB experience, and 7 with minor league playing time.
Chris Aguila and Clay Rapada have the most experience, but at 36 and 34 respectively, may be past their primes. The offense will be led by power hitting first baseman Angelo Songco, who was once a top 30 prospect for the Dodgers.
Another key offensive piece is Milwaukees Brewers 4th round pick and speedy outfielder, Eric Farris. He has spent the last 2 seasons in AAA in the Twins organization and has a career .281 average and 233 stolen bases in 8 minor league seasons.
The first game of the night will be between New Zealand, who almost shocked the baseball world by making the finals of the 2013 qualifier, and South Africa, who is coming of a disappointing finish in their 2013 qualifier.
South Africa competed in the first 2 WBC main events, albeit before there was qualifying, and went a combined 0-5, losing by a combined score of 60-16. They were finally able to get their first WBC win, knocking off France 5-2 in the 2013 qualifier, before losing the eventual winner Spain.
Hopes are higher than ever though as they enter this years qualifier. South Africa comes into the tournament with 9 players with MILB experience, including Pirates prospect Gift Ngoepe. Ngoepe is the only player in the tournament currently on an active 40-man roster. Although known for his defense, Ngoepe will have to be an offensive sparkplug for this team if they hope to make it back to the main tournament.
The ‘ace’ will most likely be 22 year old Dylan Unsworth, who has a career 4.46 ERA in the minors. Unsworth was once a top-20 prospect for the Mariners.
New Zealand will be trying to build off their 2-2 record at the 2013 qualifier. Both losses came to the eventual winner, Chinese Taipei. Of all team, New Zealand is the least experienced. Many of their players are coming from colleges, indy leagues, or local leagues.
Ex-MLBer Chris Woodward will be the manager for the Kiwis. Only 2 of the players are currently playing affiliated baseball. Scott Campbell who retired in 2009, has agreed to play for the team as well.
The team will also be without its two main pitchers from the 2013 qualifier, Lincoln and John Holdzkom. Lincoln was tragically killed in a car accident in December, while brother John, who plays in AAA, is unavailable.
Although there is not a lot of experience, New Zealand may have the perfect mix of youthful exuberance and veteran leadership to make a run in a short tournament like this.
Australia is the clear favourite to come out of this group but the other three teams are all equally matched. Winning the first game will be key for South Africa in order to set up their pitching matchups in their favour.
The Philippines and New Zealand may be able to squeak a win out but will be an uphill battle all the way.
It should be Australia vs South Africa in the finals.
Game 1: South Africa vs. New Zealand — Feb. 10, 9 p.m. ET
Game 2: Philippines vs. Australia — Feb. 11, 3:30 a.m. ET
Game 3: TBD vs. Philippines — Feb. 11, 9 p.m. ET
Game 4: TBD vs. Australia — Feb. 12, 3:30 a.m. ET
Game 5: TBD vs. TBD — Feb. 13, 2:30 a.m. ET
Game 6: TBD vs. TBD — Feb. 13, 10 p.m. ET