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World Baseball Classic qualifiers open in Sydney

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Previewing all four WBC qualifying rounds, and looking ahead to other events on the international baseball calendar in 2016.

The Australian national team, who played exhibition games against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers in 2014, hosts the first of four WBC qualifiers.
The Australian national team, who played exhibition games against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers in 2014, hosts the first of four WBC qualifiers.
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The qualfiying round of the World Baseball Classic starts today in Sydney with a matchup between the host Australians and the Philippines. Held every four years by the World Baseball Softball Confederation and Major League Baseball, the WBC is the official men's baseball world championship*. The last tournament, held in 2013, was won by the Dominican Republic with a 3-0 championship victory over Puerto Rico.

*-Not to be confused with its "flagship" championship, the Premier 12.

Sixteen teams will compete in the tournament next spring. Twelve of those slots are already filled based on teams' performance in 2013. The last four slots will be decided this spring and fall. Four double-elimination tournaments (each between four different countries) will be contested, with the winner advancing to the next round. A preview of each tournament featuring our Elo rankings is below.

Sydney Qualifier (Feb. 11-14)

Team Elo Avg. W-L Champs Second
Australia 1696 3.0-0.1 96.95 2.8
New Zealand 865 0.3-2.0 0.01 3.8
South Africa 1166 1.3-2.0 1.11 42.2
Philippines 1220 1.4-2.0 1.93 51.2

I'll be honest: I have no intel on the New Zealand team. I know they do the haka before games, and I know "Diamondblacks" is the best nickname in international baseball. But I only have four games from them in my database: their performance in the 2013 qualifiers, when they went 2-2. Don't be surprised if they find themselves in the final again.

I don't have any idea what to expect from the Philippines either. It's not because I don't have enough history, though: I have 181 games, dating back to 1954. The trouble is what they've done lately. Originally slated to host the East Asia Baseball Cup in November 2014, the Philippines bowed out of hosting duties -- but won the tournament after it was moved to Indonesia. Their victory qualified them for the Asian Baseball Championships, but the team dropped out due to financial constraints.

For those in America who want to follow the action, most of the games in Sydney will be available on the MLB Network. All games will also be available on the web at MLB.com and WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Panama City Qualifier (Mar. 17-20)

Team Elo Avg. W-L Champs Second
Panama 1670 2.8-0.4 80.04 16.0
Spain 1475 1.4-1.8 7.89 36.8
Colombia 1517 1.6-1.8 11.77 43.2
France 1245 0.2-2.0 0.30 4.0

Maybe you're surprised to see Panama -- birthplace of Rod Carew and Mariano Rivera -- scrambling to get back in the tournament. But Panama blew a ninth-inning lead (ironically) to Brazil in the 2013 qualifier final, and missed out on the final 16. Despite that, they're far and away the team most likely to advance.

Their biggest challenger will most likely be Colombia. Colombia won two Baseball World Cups (most recently in 1965), and took last spring's South American championship, shocking host Brazil in the final.

Mexicali Qualifier (Mar. 17-20)

Team Elo Avg. W-L Champs Second
Mexico 1742 2.8-0.3 83.35 14.8
Nicaragua 1580 1.9-1.7 15.02 61.6
Germany 1387 1.0-2.0 1.43 18.5
Czech Rep. 1281 0.3-2.0 0.20 5.1

Mexico is the only team in the qualifying round that participated in last fall's Premier 12, making it into the final four before falling to the U.S. team. They'll be heavy favorites on their home turf, especially over the European entrants. But Mexico will be shorthanded: three of their top pitchers -- Marco Estrada, Roberto Osuna, and Aaron Sanchez -- are all in the Blue Jays organization, and the Jays are not expected to allow them to participate.

Of the other three teams, Nicaragua is probably Mexico's fiercest competition. The Nicaraguans upset the Dominican, Panamanian, and Puerto Rican squads at the 2014 Central American and Caribbean Games to qualify for last summer's Pan Am Games.

Brooklyn Qualifier (Sept. 22-25)

Team Elo Avg. W-L Champs Second
Israel 1128 0.9-1.9 2.73 22.5
Brazil 1524 2.8-0.4 84.75 12.0
Pakistan 1128 0.7-2.0 2.21 17.3
Great Britain 1245 1.5-1.8 10.31 48.1

What an odd collection of countries. Between their ranking, their talent in MLB organizations, and their success in the previous qualifying round, Brazil should probably be the favorite. But they lost the South American Championship last year on their home turf to Colombia.

And the Israeli team will be stronger than its ranking alone would suggest. Ordinarily, Israel is in the second tier of the European championship; in last year's B-level tournament, they beat host Austria but lost to Sweden and Lithuania. In the World Baseball Classic, though, the team gets an influx of non-Israeli citizens of Jewish heritage. The 2013 qualifying roster included a number of players in MLB organizations, including Nate Freiman, Joc Pederson, and Josh Zeid*. This qualifier will be held during the MLB regular season. So while eligible major leaguers such as Ike Davis and Ryan Braun won't be available, expect a decent showing of minor league talent.

* - And was skippered by one of MLB's most handsome managers.

Other Events in 2016

The WBC qualifiers are the biggest event on the 2016 international calendar. Beyond that, it's a fairly quiet year. The European championships will be held in the Netherlands in September, with C-level qualifiers scheduled for the end of July. The bottom two teams from the championship join the top two teams from the C-level qualifier in 2017's B-level event. The only major event on the women's side is the Baseball Women's World Cup in South Korea this September.

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Bryan Cole is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score who would really like to cover the Brooklyn qualifiers in person, hint hint. You can follow him on Twitter at @Doctor_Bryan.