In a week, stars from all over the world will represent 20 nations that will be hunting the trophy and the right to be called World Baseball Classic champions.
Some of the best players on the planet will be there. Some of them are established stars who just want to represent their country, while others are prospects trying to make an impression.
There is a group, however, with a different reality. Some of them looking to rebound from disappointing or injury-ravaged seasons, while others are playing for their future or about to retire and want a last hurrah.
For one reason or another, these names are going to the World Baseball Classic (WBC) with something to prove.
Javier Báez, Puerto Rico
Discipline+ is a metric that tries to evaluate a hitter’s swing decisions by assigning a value to every pitch based on velocity, movement, location, and count. 100 is considered league average.
Báez has always been known as a free swinger, but his swing decisions in 2022 were… poor to say it nicely. His discipline+ was a shocking 51 (!) for the Detroit Tigers as he had his worst season in recent memory with a .671 OPS and 147 strikeouts.
The lack of walks (just 26 last season) is particularly concerning. Perhaps Báez can get some inspiration by playing with his nation, for his people, and have a nice bounce-back tournament.
The Tigers chose to look past his plate discipline issues when they gave him $140 million before the 2022 campaign and focused on his exciting power/speed combo and excellent defense. Yet he only hit 17 home runs and stole nine bases while also committing an MLB-worst 26 errors. His lack of plate discipline is ruining his career, and the WBC can represent the start of a turnaround for him.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Japan
Yamamoto might not be a household name for the American baseball community yet, but he will be. New York Post’s Joel Sherman reported this month that there is an increasing likelihood that the two-time Pacific League MVP in Japan will be posted by his team, the Orix Buffaloes, after the 2023 season.
The Japanese ace will be a fixture in his country’s rotation during the WBC and it’s a perfect opportunity for him to prove that he can consistently retire top-tier hitters.
The group stage probably won’t represent too much of an obstacle for the talented right-hander. However, if Japan advances, the competition level will start to increase. That’s where the world will see what Yamamoto is made of.
Yamamoto is just 24, but he’s already a four-time All-Star and a two-time Pacific League MVP Award winner. He has a 1.95 ERA, a 0.95 WHIP and a 753/178 K/BB ratio across 733 innings over the last six seasons in Japan. A sub-2.00 ERA in over 700 frames is as impressive as it gets.
Yoán Moncada, Cuba
In more ways than one, Moncada’s inclusion on the Cuban WBC roster is historic. He and Chicago White Sox teammate Luis Robert Jr. are both established big leaguers, and that’s a first.
Moncada, therefore, needs to prove he can actually carry a team to the title or, at the very least, to the later rounds. It’s a big ask for a guy who has alternated good seasons with bad ones throughout his MLB career.
His raw value+ (RV+), a rate stat that determines how good a hitter is relative to the league average by examining the outcome of every pitch and not just the result of the at-bat, was 85 in 2022 – much worse than the league average (100). Injuries were, of course, a factor, but Moncada looks like a shell of the player who looked ready to conquer the league three or four years ago.
He hit .212/.273/.353 last year, so the White Sox also need him to show something. The WBC represents a golden chance for him to get his career back on track with full health. He has the talent.
Ha-Seong Kim, South Korea
South Korea may not be in the same tier as the United States, Japan, or the Dominican Republic, but they always find a way to be competitive. Always.
San Diego Padres infielder Ha-Seong Kim is one of two major leaguers on the roster along with Tommy Edman of the St. Louis Cardinals. Kim was right about average when it comes to offensive performance with a 99 RV+, but Korea will need him to be a leader if the team is to advance far.
Does Kim have what it takes? Don’t be fooled by his .708 OPS in 2022: He had 43 extra-base hits, 12 stolen bases, and has a track record of producing in his country. This is a player who posted a .866 OPS in seven seasons in the KBO prior to playing with the Padres, with campaigns of more than 30 homers and over 30 steals.
Kim is also playing to make an impression and secure his spot as a starter for the Friars. He is penciled at second base at the moment, but things can always change and his team has shown it is not afraid of making changes and big moves.
Miguel Cabrera, Venezuela
Fellow future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols, perhaps inspired by the fact he got to play in front of his beloved St. Louis fans, had a phenomenal walk season after a series of disappointing years. Who is to say Cabrera can’t do the same?
Cabrera had a below-average 86 RV+ in 2022. Evidently, he has declined to the point that his OPS fell to .622 this past season and his power completely evaporated.
A Pujols-like rebound over a full year might be too much to ask. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t have a last big tournament to lift his country to its first WBC title. That’s the magic of a small sample size: For all we know, Cabrera prepared for this event like it was his last – and it is.
He no doubt wants to go out in style. He’s the only player to homer in every edition of the Classic, so why not extend that streak?
United States Pitching Staff
When analyzing USA’s roster, everybody lauds the lineup and for good reason. The Americans have a deep arsenal of options, such as Will Smith, JT Realmuto, Pete Alonso, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Mike Trout, Cedric Mullins, Kyle Tucker, Mookie Betts, and more.
When praising the offense, people tend to identify pitching as a weakness. It might be true, but this group is out to prove that it can lead its country to a second consecutive WBC title.
The Americans won’t have Clayton Kershaw or Néstor Cortés Jr. as previously thought, but there will be some talented veterans like Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Lance Lynn, Kyle Freeland and Merrill Kelly in the rotation, with youngster Brady Singer also contributing. They all have been successful in recent MLB seasons and there is no reason to think they can’t get key outs in the WBC.
The relief corps is sneaky strong. Jason Adam led all pitchers with at least 900 pitches with a stellar 29 RV- last year (for pitchers, lower is better), Devin Williams and his wicked “airbender” represent a huge weapon, as does Adam Ottavino’s slider. Kendall Graveman, David Bednar and Ryan Pressly are proven late-inning stars.
The Americans have length, reliability, experience and an elite bullpen. They do lack an ace, but they can win without one.