The World Baseball Classic, the global tournament last played in 2017, begins this week with group play. In all, 20 countries are mounting teams full of faces both familiar and less so. While much of the hype leading up to this week's action revolved around which MLB stars would or would not be leaving their teams to play for their countries, the focus now shifts to the field.
MLB stars are far from the only significant players set to grace your screens. So as this gift of early March baseball (real, competitive baseball!) gets started, let's take a look at 10 names to watch whom you probably already know and 10 names you can learn now to fully enjoy the splendor of the WBC.
Do know: Juan Soto (Dominican Republic) — Soto is on a fun enough team with the San Diego Padres, but now he’ll be one of the biggest bats in an absolutely stacked Dominican lineup. The 24-year-old was the biggest prize of last season’s trade deadline and remains the most patient hitter in baseball, holding a career .424 on-base percentage in MLB. With the likes of Manny Machado, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez behind him, you could be looking at the tournament’s runs leader right here — or it could be someone such as Julio Rodriguez or Wander Franco hitting in front of him.
Don't know: Jung-hoo Lee (South Korea) — A dominant, run-producing outfielder for Korea's Kiwoom Heroes, Lee will be posted to join an MLB organization after the 2023 season. After batting .349 with 23 homers in 2022, he won the KBO MVP award. He also has serious baseball lineage — and an amazing nickname as a result. His father, Jong-beom Lee, is a KBO icon dubbed "Son of the Wind." Yep, that means your favorite team could employ in 2024 a new star known as "Grandson of the Wind." Presumably, Lee will have to square off with Brewers closer Devin Williams' famous "Airbender" changeup to see who truly controls the flow of the atmosphere.
Do know: Shohei Ohtani (Japan) — Tall, expressive face, pitches and hits? Runs really fast? Usually plays for the Los Angeles Angels but can hit free agency after 2023? Heard of him? Yeah, Ohtani is the face of a tremendously talented Japanese team and probably the most famous player in the tournament, period.
Don't know: Roki Sasaki (Japan) — Sasaki, only 21 years old, is the single most intriguing player on the WBC stage who hasn't yet played in front of American audiences. A starting pitcher in Japan's NPB, Sasaki took the baseball world by storm early last season by firing a perfect game with 19 strikeouts and then retiring all 24 batters he faced in his next outing. All told, he retired 52 straight batters — which would best the MLB record — with a dominant fastball-splitter combo and announced himself as the world's most tantalizing future ace. It's not yet clear when he might try to jump to MLB, but the WBC could provide a first look at his arsenal against major-league competition.
Do know: Luis Robert (Cuba) — One of the biggest shake-ups in this year’s edition of the World Baseball Classic is that many MLB fans will be familiar with a number of players on another competitive Cuba team. (In the past, rules forbade Cuban defectors from competing for their country in international play.) Robert might be the biggest of those names right now, but there will also be his Chicago White Sox teammate Yoan Moncada and former All-Star Yoenis Cespedes. The 25-year-old Robert is coming off a season hitting .284/.319/.426 with 12 homers and 11 steals.
Don't know: Yoshinobu Yamamoto (Japan) — Ohtani is arguably the face of MLB right now, and Sasaki has made international headlines. But neither of them has ever posted an NPB season on the mound as good as Yamamoto did last year. At the age of 23, he finished 2022 with a 1.68 ERA, a 0.927 WHIP and 205 strikeouts in 193 innings across 26 starts, winning Pacific League MVP and a triple crown. Those numbers were a slight downgrade from his previous season, in which he also won MVP and a triple crown with a 1.39 ERA. With Yamamoto, Ohtani, Sasaki and, oh right, Yu Darvish, there might not be a team in the WBC that can touch Japan’s rotation. There are also reports that Yamamoto could be posted to MLB by the end of this year.
Do know: Mike Trout (U.S.) — The best player in baseball of the past 10 years is playing in his first World Baseball Classic, and he’s not doing it casually. The 31-year-old three-time MVP will serve as captain for the defending champions, who are among the favorites to win the tournament in 2023. Trout has struggled with injuries recently, playing only 155 games the past two seasons, but he remains nearly untouchable when on the field. And yes, it will be fun to see the Angels star play some meaningful baseball for once.
Don't know: Sal Frelick (Italy) — A speedy Milwaukee Brewers outfield prospect, Frelick will take the field for Italy — thanks to Italian heritage through both of his parents — and get some interesting seasoning ahead of a likely MLB debut in 2023. One of Milwaukee's top prospects, Frelick can really put the bat on the ball, having batted .365 and struck out less than 8% of the time in his first 46 games at Triple-A. If he remains on track, he could be a major factor in the NL Central race by summer.
Do know: Sandy Alcantara (Dominican Republic) — The reigning NL Cy Young winner, Alcantara is probably the most accomplished pitcher in this tournament. It's probably not a surprise that he's the one to buck the trend, but it's worth noting the disparity between pitcher and hitter talent from MLB's ranks. Many top arms, including Clayton Kershaw, expressed interest in playing in the WBC but withdrew for reasons that all mostly boil down to a belief that the WBC's demands on a pitcher create higher injury risk. For his part, Alcantara said he was in from day one, and after 228 2/3 innings of tremendous work in 2022, the Miami Marlins clearly didn't have much reason to object.
Don't know: Munetaka Murakami (Japan) — Japan’s new home run king will likely be in MLB by 2026. The third baseman and back-to-back Central League MVP is coming off his country’s version of the Aaron Judge homer chase. He didn’t break the overall 60-home run record set by Wladimir Balentien in 2013, but Murakami did surpass the meaningful milestone of Sadaharu Oh’s long-standing 55-homer mark among Japanese players (with 56). Now he enters the WBC after signing a three-year extension with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows that requires the team to post him to MLB after the 2025 season.
— 【公式】フジテレビ野球 (@fujitv_baseball) September 2, 2022
Do know: Xander Bogaerts (Netherlands) — The Netherlands, a team that typically features players from the kingdom’s constituent countries of Curaçao and Aruba, will be led by a $280 million man. Bogaerts is playing in his third WBC. He remains one of the best pure hitters in baseball, coming off an age-29 season in which he hit .307/.366/.456. Shortstop is once again a position of strength for the Dutch, with Didi Gregorious and Andrelton Simmons also on the roster, plus names such as Jonathan School and Wladimir Balentien, the star of the previous WBC.
Do know: Nelson Cruz (Dominican Republic) — Designated hitter? Yes. Veteran voice and mentor? Sure. General manager? Yes! The esteemed Cruz is one-upping the whole concept of player-manager and entering the WBC on a loaded DR roster that he is responsible for constructing. But even at 42 years old, he is not the elder statesman of the tournament.
Don't know: Chris Oxspring (Australia) — A 45-year-old, right-handed pitcher who reached the majors for 12 innings with the San Diego Padres in 2005 (!), Oxspring is a well-traveled veteran and one of only three players on Australia's roster with any MLB experience at all.
Do know: Ronald Acuña Jr. (Venezuela) — The dynamic Braves outfielder will try to carry Venezuela's hopes on his very capable shoulders. A threat in the box or on the bases, Acuña was initially unsure if he would be able and allowed to play as he continues to build up strength following his 2021 knee injury, but he is a full go.
Don't know: Livan Moinelo (Cuba) — Cuba has some bigger names than usual this WBC thanks to the defector rule change, but its most feared pitcher will be familiar only if you’ve been following the Japanese leagues. Moinelo has simply dominated NPB the past few years, most recently posting a 1.03 ERA and 0.797 WHIP while striking out 43% of batters faced in 52 2/3 innings last season for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. He’ll be one of the smallest players you see on the mound, at a listed 5-foot-7, 139 pounds, but he dominates with an arsenal based on a low-90s fastball and huge, looping curveball.
Can we put this in the Louvre next to the Mona Lisa? 140 seconds of Livan Moinelo (@LivanMoinelo) throwing curveballs. Left-handed reliever from Cuba🇨🇺 is only 25-years old.
2020 stats: 48 IP, 1.69 ERA, 77K@PitchingNinja @faridyu @beisboljapones #NPB #NPBeng #モイネロ pic.twitter.com/uQsj9qQ7gd
— HinosatoYakyū (@HinosatoYakyu) January 2, 2021
Do know: Edwin Diaz (Puerto Rico) — The unstoppable Mets closer will be a serious weapon for a Puerto Rican team that otherwise lacks impact depth on the pitching front. But beyond strategic implications, this will be fun for the prospect of Diaz working alongside setup man Alexis Diaz, his brother and an ascendant pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds.
Don't know: Jeong Choi (Korea) — Winning the WBC might not be the biggest moment for Choi this year, as the Korean slugger will enter the KBO season 38 homers shy of the league’s all-time home record of 467 held by Lee Seung-yeop. Choi currently sits at 429 home runs, and he already holds the KBO record for HBPs with 313. Entering his third WBC, the 36-year-old Choi will be a leader for a talented team that crashed out of the first round of the past two WBCs after making the semifinals in 2006 and the final in 2009.
Do know: Julio Urias (Mexico) — The Dodgers southpaw is the ace of a strong Mexico rotation that also features José Urquidy, Taijuan Walker and Patrick Sandoval. Urías is coming off a career season in which he led the National League in ERA with a 2.16 mark in 175 innings, delivering on the potential the Dodgers were hoping for since he was a teenage prospect knocking on the door of the majors. Urias, who has dealt with injuries and inning limits for much of his career, “was one of the first to raise his hand” for Team Mexico, according to GM Rodrigo Lopez via MLB.com.
Don't know: Martin Schneider (Czech Republic) — The ultimate underdog team, the Czech Republic's squad will consist overwhelmingly of people who work regular jobs and moonlight as baseball players. A video of the players dishing on their day jobs already went viral. Among them: a literal firefighter who, no joke, might serve as a fireman out of the bullpen. Schneider, 37, pitched the team to a shocking upset of Spain to earn qualification.
Don't know: Harry Ford (Great Britain) — Ford, the 12th overall pick of the 2021 MLB draft, is currently rated by MLB Pipeline as the Seattle Mariners’ No. 1 prospect, the No. 4 catching prospect and the No. 49 overall prospect in baseball. He was born in Atlanta but will suit up for Great Britain, as both of his parents were born there. He brings athleticism you rarely see in a catcher, with plus speed and a bat that saw him hit .274/.425/.439 in A ball last year. That’s good enough to make him the standout on GB’s roster alongside Dodgers outfielder Trayce Thompson. And in case you were wondering, yes, his full first name is Harrison.