Friday marks the opening game of the 2013 World Baseball Classic. With 16 teams in the mix, some loaded with MLB stars and some loaded with their respective country's biggest stars, the WBC should prove to be a greater worldwide success than it has been in its first two years, 2006 and 2009.
The World Baseball Classic was born after baseball was cut out of the Olympics in 2005 by the International Olympic Committee. Japan has won the first two WBCs, defeating Cuba in '06 and South Korea in '09, and it is no surprise that the international tournaments were the highest rating sporting events in Japan's television history.
This year, the pool is just as diverse as ever, with some heavy favorites and a few underdogs. These are the odds according to VegasInsider.com.
Dominican Republic - 2/1
United States - 5/2
Japan - 5/2
Korea - 10/1
Venezuela - 10/1
Cuba - 12/1
Chinese Taipei - 12/1
Canada - 15/1
Mexico - 18/1
Puerto Rico - 20/1
Panama - 35/1
Field - 15/1
The Dominican Republic is once again a powerhouse, and they will look to get past their best finish of fourth place from the inaugural year. The United States is also a big favorite, and boasts the only roster with nothing but MLB players, but just like the DR, the Americans have never finished better than fourth. Two-time winners Japan are right in the mix again, given the same odds as the US.
Pool A features Japan, China, Cuba and Brazil. Two pretty easy picks here with Japan winning and Cuba as the runner-up. Brazil has a fairly young team that beat Panama twice and Columbia in their qualifier to get into the tournament, but cannot compete with two teams who have three combined medals.
In Pool B, the Netherlands, Australia, Chinese Taipei and Korea will face off. Korea has medaled in '06 and '09, and I believe will continue their success. As for the runner-up, I'm going with the Netherlands here -- if nothing else, they'll be exciting to watch with players like Xander Bogaerts, Andrelton Simmons and Roger Bernadina.
Pool C will play their games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico, where the Expos played a few "home games" in 2003 and 2004. Venezuela, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Spain will do battle, providing some serious games and some serious scoring. In four qualifying games, Spain put up 32 runs, but figures to be the odd man out in these matchups. The Dominican Republic, featuring names like Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz could be the runners-up in this one, because something tells me that Venezuela is locked and loaded this year. With offense coming from Miguel Cabrera and Pablo Sandoval, pitchers like Anibal Sanchez and Henderson Alvarez will be able to get right to work.
Pool D will be fun to watch, with all three North American countries going head-to-head with Italy tossed into the mix. The United States should win this one, but the runner-up spot is interesting. Mexico has its fair share of stars like Adrian Gonzalez and Sergio Romo, but they don't appear to be all that deep. Canada has a good mix of young stars and talents like John Axford and Brett Lawrie. Canada scored 38 runs in three qualifying games, so I'm gonna give them the momentum to make it into the second round.
First games are played on Friday, starting at 5:30am on MLB Network. Stay tuned this weekend for my second round and championship picks and winners.