The World Baseball Classic is almost here. The tournament starts March 2 and runs through March 19 with 16 teams hoping to rule the baseball world. Since international baseball brings new players and storylines, Big League Stew is helping you get ready this worldly clash with previews of each team.
Pool: A — Fukuoka, Japan
'09 finish: Eliminated by Japan in Round 2
First game: Sunday, March 3 against Brazil
Biggest star: Jose Dariel Abreu has already earned a fair amount of attention in the United States after his insane Serie Nacional numbers earned him the title of the "Cuban Barry Bonds" and a feature by Grantland's Jonah Keri. The 26-year-old first baseman has an amazing amount of power, but the world is eager to see what he will do against a higher level of competition in his first WBC appearance.
Notable absences: Yoenis Cespedes? Aroldis Chapman? There are 18 Cuban-born players currently drawing paychecks in the major leagues but the country's political situation robs us of seeing them on the international stage. From a still-in-the-country standpoint, Cuban catching legend Ariel Pestano, a 17-year veteran, announced his retirement after the disappointment of being left off the WBC roster.
Odrisamer Despaigne (AP)Name you may not know, but should: Odrisamer Despaigne is a righthanded pitcher who throws for the Industriales team in Havana. He's a veteran of seven Serie Nacional seasons but this will be his first appearance in the World Baseball Classic. He could be a difference maker as the next generation of Cuban pitching looks to make its mark.
Important questions for Cuba:
Can it finally get by Japan?: Cuba lost to Japan in the title game of the inaugural WBC in 2006 and was ousted again by their rivals in the second round of the '09 tournament. Will the third time be a charm? Possibly. Cuba's national team is currently ranked first in the IBAF rankings and Japan's roster doesn't feature any current big leaguers. But reaching the semifinals in San Francisco is far from a given as Korea also poses a strong challenge once Cuba advances past pool play.
Does Frederich Cepeda have another big tournament in him? The 32-year-old outfielder has shone on the World Baseball Classic stage with a .385/.500/.731 mark with two homers and eight RBI in 2006 and a .500/.538/.958 effort with three homers and 10 RBI over six games in 2009. Now that Yoenis Cespedes has taken his game to Oakland, Cuba will need Cepeda to keep producing at the plate.
Will Fidel Castro weigh in?: One of the more memorable things from the '09 tournament was when the former Cuban leader got his inner Red Smith on (pun intended) and wrote a baseball column in the wake of Cuba's elimination. Castro didn't miss much in his critique. He slammed the WBC organizers for making Japan, Korea and Cuba fight each other in the same pool, Cuban batters for being too patient at the plate and the United States for using the evils of capitalism to poach his country's best players. Castro is still said to be in poor health, but there's no way he's not going to be fired up about the results of this tournament.
Will any players defect during the WBC? No Cuban players have defected during either of the first two WBCs. But there's a first time for everything.
PREVIOUS WBC TEAM PREVIEWS: Brazil