Pool: A, Japan
'09 finish: Won second straight World Baseball Classic title with win over Korea in final at Dodger Stadium.
First game: Saturday, March 2 against Brazil.
Biggest star: Shinnosuke Abe is a 32-year-old catcher for the Yomiuri Giants. He was named MVP of the 2009 Japan Series and hit .340 with 27 homers and 104 RBI en route to the team's 2012 Japan Series title.
Name you might not know, but should: Now that Darvish pitches for the Texas Rangers, Masahiro Tanaka is the best pitcher in Japan. The 24-year-old righthander has been a national hero since his high school days and won the Nippon Professional Baseball's equivalent of the Cy Young award in 2011. He appeared sparingly in the 2009 WBC but will be a leader of Japan's staff in this tournament.
Can the country maintain its monopoly on WBC titles? It's tough to predict the outcome of any baseball tournament, especially one that ends with a one-game semifinal and finals. Japan will have to survive a bracket that includes Korea and Cuba to reach San Francisco and they'll have to do it without any current major leaguers on their squad. Still, Japan benefits from a lineup that features a lot of national pride and a commitment to team over self. The national squad has already been practicing together for almost a week and features a solid crop of 13 pitchers. The arms alone could be enough for title No. 3.
What happened with that threat of a boycott from Japanese players? Water under the bridge. NPB players had originally threatened to sit this WBC out because they weren't getting a decent cut from the WBC revenue. Their slice of the pie wasn't fair given that Japanese fans have really gotten into the tournament and contributed a lot via television revenues and turnstile counts. A new agreement was fortunately reached, though, and Japanese players were satisfied.
Will Japan miss its major leaguers? It's hard to say. While the average American fan won't be able to recognize any of Japan's players, the country is still bringing the best of its NPB rosters and a solid pitching staff. It'd be really nice to have Darvish atop their rotation, but his absence doesn't remove Japan from the short list of favorites.
Was Daisuke Matsuzaka really named MVP of the first two WBCs?: Would we lie about such a thing? Dice-K won't be around this year, however, as he's busy trying to convince the Cleveland Indians to upgrade him from the minor-league contract he entered camp with.
Are there any former major leaguers on Japan's roster? Ladies and gentlemen, Kaz Matsui!