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World Baseball Classic Qualifier pools prioritize international rivalries

The upcoming World Baseball Classic Qualifiers will provide the opportunity for strengthening international rivalries and growing baseball in developing countries like South Africa, Pakistan, and New Zealand.

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In preparation for the 2017 edition of baseball’s biggest international tournament, the World Baseball Classic (WBC) has announced the teams, host cities, and dates for the upcoming qualifiers.

The four qualifiers will decide the final four invitations to the 16-team World Baseball Classic. The winners of the qualifiers will join the 12 nations that earned automatic bids to the 2017 Classic by winning at least one game in the 2013 edition of the tournament.

There are many items to consider in choosing the host cities and team groupings of the qualifiers. In the words of the WBC: "The composition of the pools was determined after venues were selected, with consideration given to competitive balance, existing rivalries, and each national team’s geographic location."

With so many factors to keep in mind (not to mention the almighty dollar), it is easy to see why the WBC opted to handpick the groupings instead of simply seeding countries based on the IBAF (International Baseball Federation) world rankings. There is no perfect way to strike such a delicate balance, and the final result evokes both questions and excitement for what is objectively my favorite baseball event.

Let’s break down the host cities, invited countries, and pools one by one.

Host Cities

Four host cities have been chosen, each to host a pool of four teams. These cities are:

Sydney, Australia

Mexicali, Mexico

Panama City, Panama

Brooklyn, USA

A few things stand out at first glance, namely that three of the four host cities have changed. Only Panama City, which hosted the famous qualifier that saw Brazil upset the heavily-favored home team to earn a bid to the 2013 Classic, will host again this time.

Sydney is no surprise as a global city accustomed to hosting major international sporting events including at Blacktown International Sportspark (BISP). The current home of the Australian Baseball League’s Sydney Blue Sox, BISP (or as the locals call it, BOP--former name Blacktown Olympic Park), was constructed for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Those Olympics saw Dave Nilsson, a young Grant Balfour, and the host Southern Thunder (Australian Senior National Team) take silver as the Americans led by Ben Sheets, Roy Oswalt, and manager Tommy Lasorda won gold. In the wake of the massively successful 2014 Opening Series between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, bringing major international baseball back to Sydney is a logical move that could also bring welcome exposure to the MLB-backed Australian Baseball League.

Mexico, as the highest ranked baseball nation in the qualifiers and a nation with a rich baseball culture, also makes sense as a host city. The home field for the Aguilas de Mexicali, Estadio B Air seats 19,000 people and looks like a quality Triple-A field with a bit more capacity. This was an easy choice that will be extremely popular locally.

The biggest surprise of the host cities is the inclusion of Brooklyn, New York. MCU Park, home of the Mets’ Short Season Class A Brooklyn Cyclones and located on Coney Island, earns rave reviews for its location and aesthetic appeal, but it is still a Short Season park on the same continent as exactly none of the four nations travelling there. Another US location, Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, FL, typically shared by the Cardinals and Marlins for both Spring Training and their High-A Florida State League affiliates, was used in the previous set of qualifiers, although that does not change the merits of the Brooklyn selection.

With two good selections already in the Americas, another in Australia covering the South Pacific region, and seven combined nations in Europe and the Middle East, a selection in Europe or the Middle East would have made more geographical sense. Perhaps WBC officials were unwilling to return to Regensberg, Germany, home of a qualifier for the 2013 Classic, and were unable to find another suitable European option. Perhaps they also did not feel that any of the seven Eurasian teams rank high enough or have the facilities necessary to deserve a hosting opportunity. Alternatively, it is possible that the US is simply the best market for the qualifiers, even qualifiers involving four visiting teams. Finally, one cannot in good conscience rule out the possibility of Jay-Z getting involved to bring even more sports to Brooklyn. The selection of Brooklyn is not necessarily a bad one, but it is a curious one.

Invited Countries

The 16 countries invited to participate in the qualifiers are fighting for the last four spots in the 16-team main event. The 12 teams that have qualified by winning at least one game in the 2013 edition of the Classic are (numbered by IBAF ranking):

1. Japan

2. USA

3. Cuba

4. Chinese Taipei

5. Kingdom of the Netherlands

6. Dominican Republic

7. Canada

8. South Korea

9. Puerto Rico

10. Venezuela

11. Italy

21. China

China is the only surprise here. The top 11 countries, which along with Mexico will compete in the upcoming Premier 12 tournament this November, have the best teams in the world and are the usual suspects competing for global baseball dominance. It should be noted that these rankings reflect all international competitions, not just those involving the senior national teams. The United States, for example, stands to gain on Japan after recently winning the 18U World Cup.

With those elite countries having already secured a spot in the Classic, the rest of the world is left to fight for bids through the qualifiers. There is no known formula for deciding the 16 countries selected to participate in the qualifiers, although they largely follow the IBAF rankings. To start, the four participants in the 2013 main event who did not receive an automatic bid to the 2017 event were easy choices to invite to the qualifiers. These nations in order of ranking are:

12. Mexico

14. Australia

15. Brazil

17. Spain

Mexico and Australia are stalwarts on the international stage and arguments could reasonably be made that they are just as good as the top 11 countries listed above. Mexico features star power on par with some of the other top 11 nations, including Dodgers slugger Adrian Gonzalez. Australia lacks a current star player, but there is plenty of quality young talent in the US minor leagues and former affiliated players staying sharp in the ABL and other international leagues.

Brazil and Spain were the two surprise qualifiers to the 2013 Classic. Brazil has continued to rise, produced more major and minor league talent, and would be a surprise not to qualify this time around. Spain, on the other hand, would have to follow in Brazil’s footsteps and beat Panama on their own soil to earn a second consecutive qualification.

For the next set of invitations, as 28 teams participate and with the sharp dropoff from 30 to 40 in the IBAF rankings, it seems that the rest of the top 20 should be consensus picks to receive invitations. These teams include:

13. Panama

16. Nicaragua

18. Germany

19. Columbia

20. Czech Republic

Here we have three second-tier Latin American countries along with two of the best countries in Europe (after top dogs and WBC regulars Kingdom of the Netherlands and Italy). Panama, participants in the inaugural 2006 edition and the 2009 edition, are the best bet to return to the main event. Czech Republic does not get the press of the other clubs in Europe, but a strong academy system could see them continue to rise.

That brings us to nine teams for 16 spots. The final seven spots could get a bit arbitrary, but the WBC followed the rankings in all but one instance. I’ll describe that below but the short of it is that their decision to look past the rankings in this instance makes sense. The final seven teams are:

22. Israel

23. Philippines

24. Pakistan

25. Great Britain

26. New Zealand

27. France

29. South Africa

The final group contains a mixed bag of countries from all over the world. Israel is the most accomplished on this stage and is the biggest threat of the group to qualify, but surprises always happen in events like the WBC. New Zealand will be looking for a strong follow-up to their near-qualification last time, while Great Britain will look to make a run on the back of a few of their quality affiliated arms.

The new entrant, who can hardly be called a surprise after their victory in the West Asia Baseball Cup, is Pakistan. A top-ten nation in all three versions of cricket, this war-torn country will again look to a bat and ball sport as a source of national pride. Their rise to an easy qualifier invitation is one of the best stories of the tournament.

All other countries invited to these qualifiers received invitations to the qualifiers for the 2013 Classic. However, the deserving addition of Pakistan means that someone had to be left out, and the unlucky country was number 30 Thailand. Grouped with Chinese Taipei, the Philippines, and the upstart DiamondBlacks (New Zealand) last time, Thailand was eliminated after losing their first two games.

The only other selection dilemma was for the final spot, where 29 South Africa received an invitation over 28 Argentina. It seems likely that the reasons for this include South Africa’s continued rise coupled with Argentina’s continued fall, plus MLB’s commitment to growing baseball in South Africa (MLB and WBC are technically different entities, but as the WBC initially began as the brainchild of former head of MLB International Paul Archey, ties remain strong). Since the purpose of the tournament is to spread baseball around the globe, it seems that that goal could be better achieved by inviting a nation on the rise as opposed to one on the fall. An argument could be made that an invite could reignite Argentinian baseball, but it seems appropriate to continue to reward a country where baseball continues to grow.

Furthermore, MLB has a much stronger presence in South Africa than in Argentina. MLB runs an annual Elite Camp in South Africa that has featured impressive names such as Rays’ righthander and Cy Young candidate Chris Archer and Pirates closer and current MLB save leader Mark Melancon. On top of that, MLB has sent multiple ambassador tours to South Africa, including player-ambassadors C.J. Wilson and Curtis Granderson. If MLB goes to that sort of effort to promote baseball in a certain country, and keeping in mind their connection to the WBC, it makes sense that South Africa is included in the event.

The Pools

The geography of the host cities makes examining the pools objectively an imperfect exercise, but using the hand that has been dealt, we can see how it has been played. The complete pools are listed below. The asterisk denotes a 2013 qualifier while italics indicate a host.

Sydney Mexicali Panama City Brooklyn
14. Australia* 12. Mexico* 13. Panama 15. Brazil*
23. Philippines 16. Nicaragua 17. Spain* 22. Israel
26. New Zealand 18. Germany 19. Columbia 24. Pakistan (debut)
29. South Africa 20. Czech Republic 27. France 25. Great Britain

Geography and rivalries are evident in the grouping of Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines. South Africa is a bit of a lone wolf geographically, but logistically it makes sense to keep them in the same hemisphere where the seasons align (the Sydney qualifier will be played in the warm southern summer month of February). Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa are also frequent opponents in cricket and rugby, where each nation ranks among the best in the world. Bringing those existing rivalries to baseball would be a massive win for the WBC, and by placing these three countries in the same pool, they are giving sporting rivals another sport to develop a rivalry. Well done.

The Mexicali qualifier makes perfect sense with the first two names, as the Central American Nicaraguans will have a chance to knock off big fish Mexico, and a win for the underdogs would be instrumental in creating a natural geographic rivalry. If Panama were ranked a bit lower it would make sense to include them here as well. Instead, we are left with a stark contrast in the pool, as European rivals Germany and Czech Republic will join Nicaragua looking to knock off the Mexicans. With their proximity in Europe and constant jockeying to become the premier European country below the Dutch and Italians, this matchup could be discussed for years afterward throughout baseball communities in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Panama City qualifier is very similar to the Mexicali qualifier. There is a clear favorite in Panama, a relatively local rival in Columbia, and two European rivals. Grouping France and Spain was a great choice, as they are two of Western Europe’s political powerhouses, massive basketball rivals, and among the class of European football (soccer for the rest of you). Linking these neighbors again makes sense in another contrasting pool.

This leaves us with Brazil, Israel, Great Britain, and Pakistan in the final qualifier. A mixed bag of nations without a clear hosting nation in the bunch, this seems to be a grouping of those nations that did not fit well in the other pools. Apart from Israel and upstart Pakistan as Middle Eastern competitors and potential rivals, these countries are geographically different, politically different, and have national team programs at various stages of development and success. Contrasts in styles can lead to interesting results, so this will be a pool worth monitoring closely.

Entirely Too Early Predictions

With this all in mind, it is time for the entirely too early predictions for the qualifiers. For each pool, I’ll pick a winner and a top challenger. Then I’ll list a few upset alerts and dark horses for the qualifiers as a whole and finish with a few must-watch games (assuming they match up in the double-elimination tournament). I’ll list a confidence ranking (1-5, 5 is best) for each projected winner and a threat alert for each challenger.

Sydney Mexicali Panama City Brooklyn
Winner Australia (4) Mexico (5) Panama (4) Brazil (5)
Challenger New Zealand (3) Germany (2) Spain (3) Israel (2)

Upset Alerts

1. South Africa over Australia – South Africa may be the lowest-ranked team, but they aren’t the least-talented team. Australia is in a bit of a transition between their older, declining players and young minor league players. The Australia v New Zealand game will get the headlines, but an up and coming South African team could steal the show.

2. Pakistan over Israel – I don’t see Brazil losing this group, but new entrant Pakistan could debut in style by knocking off the established Israelis. Pakistan is the great unknown to most of the international baseball world, dominating a relatively weak western Asia but not matching up against the world’s best very often.

Group Difficulty

Group of Death: Mexicali

Easiest Group: Sydney

Best Games to Watch (in order)

1. Australia v New Zealand – New Zealand baseball has been exploding recently, and the DiamondBlacks will look to continue their dramatic rise up the rankings by knocking off their Trans-Tasman rivals. The DiamondBlacks’ John Holdzkom is the best pitcher on either team, and if he starts this game it will be a lot more difficult than Australia would like.

2. Panama v Spain – Perhaps the most significant matchup for qualification results, Panama will look to prove that their loss in the last qualifier was an aberration while Spain will look to prove that their victory in the last qualifier was not an aberration. This game is likely to feature the highest quality of baseball in the qualifiers.

3. Brazil v Israel – Brazil will be one of the most interesting and exciting teams to follow at the qualifiers. Israel, always tough at international events, will be their toughest competition.

4. Mexico v Nicaragua – Underdog Nicaragua will look to upset the group of death by beating Mexico on its own soil.

5. Israel v Pakistan – An unusual matchup of two Asian countries, Pakistan could make a major statement by knocking off Israel.

6. France v Spain – Spain has hopes of advancing far beyond their European neighbors, but France is a good squad in their own right and will be eager to knock off their rivals.

7. Czech Republic v Germany – A tough game could strengthen a growing European rivalry.

8. South Africa v New Zealand – New Zealand has and will continue to receive attention as upset candidates against neighbor Australia, but to knock off the Southern Thunder the DiamondBlacks will need to take care of business against the improving South Africans.

. . .

Dan Weigel is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and Sporting News. He has spent the last year involved in international baseball, specifically working with MLB International in Sydney, coaching with the Great Britain national and club youth teams, and pitching as an import player for club teams. Follow him on Twitter at @DanWeigel38.