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The 2013 World Baseball Classic is now officially underway, and there have already been some fantastic contests. Still, many of the tournament favorites will not be taking the field until this coming weekend, when Pools C and D begin competition in San Juan and Phoenix, respectively. Pools C and D are comprised of: The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Spain, Venezuela, Canada, Mexico, Italy, and The United States. One primary reason why these pools should be so entertaining to watch is the quantity of star-power, particularly at the plate. Three of these lineups, in particular, stand apart from the others in the tournament. I rank them as follows.
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There is a whole lot of depth and flexibility here. It’s not just quantity, though, there’s quality as well. Miguel Cabrera and Pablo Sandoval will be manning the corners, while some combination of Asdrubal Cabrera, Elvis Andrus, Marco Scutaro, and Omar Infante will fill in the middle of the infield.
The Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera was the best offensive player in the MLB this past season, going by wRC+, while the Indians’ Asdrubal Cabrera was top 5 among Major League shortstops. Coming off an MVP season, Miguel Cabrera doesn’t need much introduction. Asdrubal Cabrera’s offensive prowess, on the other hand, may not be quite so well-known. In 2012, the only full time shortstops who put up better seasons with their bats were Derek Jeter and Ian Desmond. It wasn’t an isolated occurrence, either, as only Troy Tulowizki and Jose Reyes have been better offensive shortstops in the last three years combined.
The one player in the Venezuela infield who should be most interesting to follow, though, is Giants’ 3B Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval is coming off a down season that saw him miss significant time due to injury as well as posting an AVG/OBP/SLG line below his career averages in each category. Then there is the weight issue. Sandoval has struggled with his weight in the past, and those problems have reportedly resurfaced again this Spring. When healthy and in-shape, Sandoval is a great offensive third baseman. It will certainly be interesting to see how he looks when he takes the field for Venezuela this weekend.
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Despite the Venezuela infield possessing the best offensive player in the tournament, Miguel Cabrera, there isn’t much of a dropoff when it comes to the hitting capabilities of its outfield. The starting three will likely be Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez and Arizona’s Gerardo Parra and Martin Prado, all of whom had batting averages and on-base percentages above major league average for outfielders in 2012. Parra (the only player of the three to not to slug above league average) is not quite the offensive threat that Gonzalez and Prado are, but he mitigates some of his shortcomings in the power department by excelling on the basepaths.
Martin Prado possesses an offensive skillset which falls somewhere between Parra and Gonzalez. He is well-rounded offensively, possessing good contact and power tools in addition to adequate speed. Prado has good plate discipline as well, walking at a rate that was almost equivalent to that which he struck out, which helped contribute to a robust .359 OBP (32 points above league average).
Gonzalez was also significantly better at reaching base than league average, getting on base at a clip of .371. Where the Colorado Rockies’ LF really separated himself from the pack, though, was in the slugging department. Gonzalez slugged .510, a healthy 84 points above league average for outfielders. It should be noted that Gonzalez plays his home games in hitter-friendly Coors field, but even so, his park-adjusted numbers were still fantastic. Carlos Gonzalez’s offensive abilities are for real.
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Venezuela has the luxury of having two exceptional offensive catchers. In 2012, the Diamondbacks’ Miguel Montero put up a slash line of .286/.391/.438, while Kansas City’s Salvador Perez posted one to the tune of .301/.328/.471. Both catchers dwarfed the major league averages for catchers, .247/.319/.399.
It is worth noting that one could nitpick each of the two players’ performances, Montero accumulated his numbers while playing half his games in an extreme hitter’s park, while Perez impressed for only a fairly short amount of time, after beginning the season in the minors. Still, the performances remain impressive. Montero’s park adjusted offensive numbers last season were still above league average, and the young Perez should only continue to improve upon his fantastic half season as he continues to mature. Having two offensively gifted catchers will be of significant benefit to the Venezuelan squad.
#2 Dominican Republic
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The DR infield is stacked. It consists of the Jays’ Edwin Encarnacion at 1B, the Yankees’ Robinson Cano at 2B, and the former Miami Marlins duo of Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez at SS and 3B.
Of all qualified 1B, only Prince Fielder had a better offensive season (again, using wRC+) than Edwin Encarnacion last year. At second base, nobody was better than Robinson Cano, and at shortstop, only three players put up better offensive seasons than Jose Reyes (though none of those three came close to the 40 steals Reyes added).
Third baseman Hanley Ramirez is the primary questionmark in the DR infield. After being one of the better overall players in baseball from 2006-2010, Ramirez has seen his production decline in a hurry. This past season, Ramirez posted his worst walk rate since 2007 and the worst strikeout rate of his big league career. The eroding plate discipline, combined with a dropoff in overall power, led to a subpar season by his standards. It will be interesting to see if Ramirez can recapture some of his old offensive ability, but even if he can’t fully return to form, the DR infield still remains the best in the tournament.
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The dearth of outfield talent is the primary reason why the DR lineup landed at #2 on this list rather than #1. Though the Rangers’ Nelson Cruz and the White Sox’s Alejandro De Aza are good offensive players, they aren’t necessarily stand-outs with the bat. Furthermore, the lack of a legitimate third outfield option to tie it all together makes it difficult to rate the DR outfield highly. The final spot in the outfield will be given to either Ricardo Nanita, Moises Sierra, or Eury Perez, none of which possesses a significant amount of offensive talent. The DR outfield is not quite an offensive liability, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the immense talent possessed by the team’s infield.
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The DR is going with two catchers on their roster, but in reality, it is likely that only one will see any significant playing time. That man is Cleveland Indians backstop Carlos Santana. Despite what seemed like a disappointing 2012 because of a semi-low homerun total (18) and batting average (.252), Santana actually put together a very good offensive season. He walked at an extremely high rate, leading to a .365 OBP, and hit for some decent pop as well, finishing with a slugging percentage 26 points better than league average for catchers.
Because of his size, Santana will likely never have a great batting average on balls in play, which will likely mean low batting averages. Still, with his exceptional ability to draw walks in addition to his raw power potential, Santana remains a great offensive catcher who should only get better in years to come.
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The USA infield is a pretty intriguing bunch. It consists of Mets 3B David Wright, Phillies SS Jimmy Rollins, Yankees 1B Mark Teixeira, Reds 2B Brandon Phillips, and Rays all-around-everything Ben Zobrist. The USA infield is interesting in this sense, David Wright is the best offensive player in the bunch, but not by much. Why — one might ask — is this interesting? Well, because the only other USA infielder who is right there with him, Ben Zobrist, likely won’t even be starting.
With a slash line of .270/.377/.471 last season while playing his home games in an extremely pitcher-friendly ballpark, Ben Zobrist amassed an offensive season that equated to a wRC+ 37% better than league average. The men who will likely be starting over him at 2B and SS (Zobrist can play a little of each), for comparison’s sake, were only 1% better offensively than league average (again, using wRC+). That is not to say Rollins and Phillips aren’t great all around players — they are — but it does go to show how truly underrated Ben Zobrist consistently is.
One USA infielder who should be particularly interesting to keep an eye on is first baseman Mark Teixeira. Teixeira, despite still posting a good offensive season last year, has seen his numbers decline in each individual season since 2008. Much of this decline has to do with a consistently eroding batting average on balls in play. Teams have begun utilizing the shift to neutralize the pull-heavy Teixeira, and the power hitting first baseman hasn’t yet been able to find an answer. In addition to the struggles on balls in play, Teixeira only managed to hit 24 homeruns in 123 games last season. Because he’s on the wrong side of 30 years old, it may be too much to ask for Teixeira to recapture some of his vintage form, but if fully healthy, he should still be able to provide solid offensive value.
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This is where the USA team separates itself offensively from the other lineups in the competition. The unit consists of Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton, Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, Baltimore’s Adam Jones, and Boston’s newly-acquired Shane Victorino. The three men who will see the lion’s share of the playing time are Jones, Braun, and Stanton.
Since 2008, Adam Jones has gotten consistently better each year in both WAR and, more pertinent to this offense-based discussion, wRC+. In 2012, his best season to date, Jones saw a significant improvement in the slugging department. He had both his best line drive rate and home run rate since becoming a full time player, leading to a robust .505 slugging percentage. Offensively speaking, Adam Jones is the worst starting USA outfielder, and that speaks volumes to how good the USA outfield is.
Ryan Braun, since the day he became an everyday player in 2007, has been a force at the plate. His career slash line is an obscene .313/.391/.595, and he’s only getting better, besting all three of those career averages in each of the last two seasons. In fact, according to wRC+, over his career, Braun has been exactly 50% better than league average at the plate. Throw in his back to back 30 steal seasons in ’11 and ’12, and it’s safe to include Braun in the discussion of best all-around offensive player in the game.
Now we get to the player whom I consider the main event when it comes to entertainment value at the plate, Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton, as a 22 year old, led the majors in both slugging and isolated power (SLG – BA). He hit 37 homeruns in only 123 games, an extremely impressive feat in MLB’s current, low run-scoring environment. The huge HR and K rates that Stanton puts up might lead a person to believe that he is merely a hacker, and might not provide much in the way of offensive value aside from his massive homeruns. Don’t be fooled, though. Stanton’s .290 batting average last year as well as his .361 on-base percentage were both well over league average. Make sure you keep an eye on the big boy, he can do it all.
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Team USA’s group of catchers consists of Minnesota’s Joe Mauer, Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy, and Toronto’s J.P. Arencibia. More than likely, Mauer will see the strong majority of the playing time, while Lucroy will be first in relief. Mauer is coming off a quietly terrific offensive season. Though his numbers didn’t quite compare to his extraordinary 2009 campaign, his slash line still managed to read .319/.416/.446 — elite numbers when it comes to catchers.
Mauer walks more than he strikes out, and consistently enjoys great on-base numbers as a result. His slugging percentage has never returned to the lofty .587 mark he put up in ’09, but his .446 mark last season was still good enough for roughly 50 points above league average. Mauer plays his home games in a very tough offensive environment and still manages to hit for good power. There are many good offensive catchers in this tournament (Santana, Montero, Molina), but Joe Mauer is likely the best among them.
All three of these lineups (Venezuela, Dominican Republic, and USA) possess a wealth of talent at the plate, and are separated only by a thin margin. Venezuela has great depth, but aside from Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Gonzalez lacks the amount of truly elite bats that the Dominican Republic and United States have. The Dominican Republic’s stacked infield/catcher combination is what positions it just ahead of Venezuela, but its lack of impact outfielders is what keeps the team’s offense from being quite as talented as that of the United States.
Team USA has no real weak spots on offense, and its multitude of elite bats coupled with great all-around depth is what earns its lineup the top spot on this list. However, strange things happen in small samples, so don’t discount any country’s potential for an offensive explosion or drought. Still, if I could choose one lineup to manage out of any competing in the World Baseball Classic, I’d go with Team USA.