Danville, Kentucky -- Folks, baseball is a uniquely American game: made for Americans, by Americans. Baseball is a game played in cornfields and on blacktops across our great nation; sometimes with sticks and stones where bats and balls aren't available. But like anything truly worth treasuring, it is the sacred mission of all Americans to spread the great game of baseball across God's green Earth. America saved Europe from the scourge of fascism and war. We brought capitalism to the satellite states of the Soviet Union that were trembling from behind the Iron Curtain. We guided Iraq along the path towards democratization. Now, thanks to the World Baseball Classic, America has brought the greatest game ever played to nearly every corner of the globe.
It wasn't an easy job, folks. The primary driver of historical development is the ongoing antagonism between the forces of capitalism and communism. Just as the battle between capital and labor for control of the means of production has animated all conflict since the dawn of industrialization, the battles between America and its socialist opponents like Cuba, Venezuela, and China will be the most fiercely contested match-ups of this year's World Baseball Classic.
In this article, I preview the 2017 World Baseball Classic and 8 of its 16 competitors. Lots of folks are dismissive of the WBC. Critics have a point: the field of teams is very limited. It is nothing short of a travesty that Max Kepler, the Minnesota Twins slugger who hails from Berlin, will not get to participate in this spring's events, due to the lack of a German national team. But let's be honest, the last thing Angela Merkel's re-election efforts need right now is for Germany to get embarrassed on the global stage by Trump's America.
It is also unfortunate that many national teams fail to entice their country's best players into playing in this globally significant event. There is no reason for so many great players to be sitting on the sidelines. The fire of patriotism does not burn brightly enough these days, folks. But until President Trump implements compulsory conscription of all eligible young men into the WBC, it's what we're left with. But folks, it ain't so bad. The competition looks to be stiff. Here are my power rankings of the top 8 World Baseball Classic teams:
1. The United States of AmericaI can't pick against the good guys this year. They have finally put together a team worthy of the red, white, and blue. The management will be top-notch, led by Jim Leyland, one of the wisest skippers in the game. This team can do it all. They can pitch. Led by Kansas City Royals ace Danny Duffy, a gnarly bearded man who embodies the pioneering spirit of the American frontier, this team will be able to hurl with the best of them.
They also boast Andrew Miller, the man who almost single-handedly won the World Series for Cleveland last fall. If I'm Leyland, I'm using Miller aggressively. No need to hold anything back: the pride of our country is on the line. Use the starting pitcher for 6 innings then immediately turn to Miller to close out the last three innings. If Miller is a true patriot, he should be willing to sacrifice the health of his elbow just as our men in uniform make sacrifices for our nation every day. Country first, arm health second.
The U.S. team also boasts an excellent pool of position players. Eric Hosmer: the reigning All Star Game MVP. Matt Carpenter: one of the best looking guys in the game and greatest underdog stories around. Ian Kinsler: a gritty as heck guy who bruises and bleeds for his team. Daniel Murphy: a man unafraid of being politically incorrect, and precisely the kind of guy we want to represent the U.S. in the era of Trump. These are just a few of the All Star talents that in my opinion will put Uncle Sam's team over the top.
Player to watch: A.J. Ellis
Folks, I know Buster Posey is a sure-fire Hall of Famer and looks like he could play Captain America on the big screen. But the U.S. national team has a secret weapon behind the dish: A.J. Ellis, the man who was once Clayton Kershaw's best friend and personal catcher. Look for him to call a nice game and make some great blocks on pitches in the dirt if called upon by his country.
Player to ignore: Chris Archer
Folks, I was disappointed to see Chris Archer made the team. He's always been more style than substance. Instead of watching tape, he spends his free time tweeting at the Obamas. He spent all winter criticizing his own front office for not pursuing a more aggressive offseason strategy. Folks, nobody is more sympathetic than me on this front: the Tampa Bay Rays are indeed an incompetent organization who are squandering the prime years of their young players. But a young man should know not to attract attention from the crooked media by speaking out on these issues. The team needs a leader, not a whiner. Keep that stuff within the family, Mr. Archer.
Folks, Venezuela has a scary team this year. They are America's greatest competition. The baseball genius of Jim Leyland is matched only by that of superstar shortstop Omar Vizquel, Venezuela's skipper. Their team is absolutely packed with talent: Miguel Cabrera, Jose Altuve, Salvador Perez, Victor Martinez, Francisco Rodriguez, Felix Hernandez, and many more. The baseball bonafides of this crew are beyond reproach.
But I can't pick this team over team USA. Venezuela's horrific experiment with socialism has wrought unimaginable suffering upon its people. Venezuela's economic success has proven to be nothing more than a mirage: the recent decline in international oil prices has been absolutely devastating to their resource-dependent economy. Their failure is our gain: Venezuela's hyper-inflationary turmoil ensures that baseball players bring their talents over to the United States as fast as they can.
There is an argument that Venezuela's team is more talented than America's, but there is no argument that the Venezuelan team's hearts are filled with more love of country than that of the American team's.
Player who might surprise you: Hernan Perez and Alcides Escobar
I have always been high on Hern, super-utility guy from the Milwaukee Brewers. The Detroit Tigers nearly ruined this 25 year old kid's development by rushing him to the major leagues in 2015. When they put him on waivers in the middle of the 2015 season, the Brewers snatched him up and haven't looked back. In 2016, little Hern hit 13 bombs with 50 RBIs and notched a whopping 34 stolen bases. Look for this kid to make an unexpected impact for the Venezuelans.
Alcides Escobar is another Venezuelan to watch. I know he's attracted lots of scorn lately, mostly from irate Royals fans who don't understand how the game of baseball is played.
Trying to go to sleep, but all I can think of is why Yost keeps batting Escobar lead off.— Chris (@belleisleasylum) February 28, 2017
1st Spring Training game. Escobar lead off batter. My hair just grew back from pulling it out last year, Ned. #Royals— Jackson Manship (@JacksonManship) February 25, 2017
If Omar Vizquel is half as sly as Mr. Yost, he'll bat Escobar first. I've already written about why, contrary to fangraphs, Escobar is the ideal leadoff hitter. With Escobar in the leadoff spot, the Venezuelan national team could become the most serious challenger to U.S. hegemony since the Soviet Union.Is there any particular reason that Alcides Escobar is still batting second for the Royals, aside from the fact that Yost is an idiot?— Rob Pizzola (@robpizzola) June 16, 2016
After 8 years of abandonment and betrayal by Obama and Clinton, things are looking up for the Israelis. Prime Minister Netanyahu knows he has a true friend in the White House these days. The Jewish state has a nice mix of fine young men playing for them, along with a new sense of confidence thanks to the imminent repeal of the awful Iran nuclear deal. Better yet, team Israel may actually stand a chance this year without Dartmouth nerd Brad Ausmus at the helm. This team is on the upswing, folks.
Player who might surprise you: Ty Kelly
Perhaps the greatest "Ty" in baseball since the legendary Cobb, Mr. Kelly is a truly underrated player. Ty Kelly is a toolsy utility guy from the New York Mets; a team that every bit as much of a staple of Jewish culture as pastrami and Seinfeld. With better defensive skills than an IDF officer, Ty Kelly is a slick defender anywhere on the infield or in the outfield. Mark my words, he will make more noise than one of Hezbollah's scud missiles with team Israel this spring.
4. ItalyItaly is my dark-horse team for 2017. Italy is a country on a mission these days: a mission to escape the clutches of the treacherous European Union via an Italexit. I can't bet against the country that brought us Olive Garden, DiGiorno Pizza, and proto-Trumpist strongman Silvio Berlusconi. I know the Italian team isn't as stacked as some of the teams lower on this list. But they've got heart where it counts, namely in Drew Butera. Drew is the backup catcher for the Kansas City Royals, a World Series champion, and has James Bond levels of suave. His resume is impressive. Aside from admirably spelling Salvador Perez from time to time, he caught the game-winning strike from Wade Davis to clinch the Royals' first World Series win in two decades back in 2015. Not to mention, he might have the best hair in all the WBC.
Folks, I know I'm supposed to call this team "Chinese Taipei." But I won't. The Taiwanese deserve the right to organize as their own nation, the right of self-determination, and their right to independence from Chinese suppression. The Chinese think of Taiwan as a renegade province that will inevitably be absorbed back into the mainland, but Taiwan is its own democratic nation; it is a pinnacle of freedom in a sea of authoritarianism, a capitalist success story just a stone's throw away from the brutal communist Chinese regime.
Things were looking bleak for Taiwan prior to 2017. But with Trump having reversed the "One China" policy and the pro-secession DPP party now in charge, Taiwanese independence looks closer than ever. You can bet they'll be motivated to prove themselves at the WBC.
You can always expect the Cuban team to be packed full of talent, folks. But they're always fighting with one hand tied behind their back because they won't allow defectors to play on their team. That means no Yasiel Puig, no Yoenis Cespedes, no Jose Abreu, no Kendrys Morales, no Jose Iglesias, no Aroldis Chapman and even more tragically, no eternally-smiling Brayan Pena. Hate to say it, but it's hard to see this team going anywhere until the Castro regime inevitably collapses under its own contradictions. But until then, they'll still be great entertainment. Keep an eye on Yoelkis Cespedes, a budding superstar and half brother of Yoenis. If he has half the swagger and arm-power of his brother, we could be in for a bigger treat than a fat, freshly rolled Partagas cigar, folks.
7. Puerto Rico
I like this Puerto Rican team quite a bit. They have a great mix of young kids and wily veterans. Any team would kill to have Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, and Francisco Lindor on their roster; though I'd get more excited about Frankie if he hadn't taken sac-bunting out of his game last season. On the pitching side, they have exciting young closers like Edwin Diaz of the Mariners and Joe Jimenez, the Tigers' closer of the future and rare bright spot in a farm-system more barren than the Democratic Party's depleted bench. That being said, the Puerto Ricans also have some serious veteran presence: namely the eternally smooth pure-hitter Carlos Beltran and catching maestro Yadier Molina, one of the only men to wear a St. Louis Cardinals uniform I will ever respect.
But I can't get fully behind this team. Look, I love West Side Story and its bunch of salsa-dancing Puerto Ricans as much as the next guy. But their country is going bankrupt. It's like a miniature Greek debt crisis just a few thousand miles from Florida. Until Puerto Rico gets their fiscal act together, it's hard for me to take them seriously.
Player who could surprise you: Mike Aviles
Folks, I know lots of people were counting Mike Aviles down and out after the Atlanta Braves cut him last summer. But you can't keep a multidimensional guy like Aviles down for long. Look for him to prove his doubters wrong with team Puerto Rico this spring. Keep an eye out for his 80-grade batting stance. Unlike Lindor, this guy isn't afraid to lay down a wicket sac-bunt.
8. The Dominican Republic
I hate to put the Dominican Republic this low, because they have a hell of a team, folks. They can pitch. They can hit. And with Jose Bautista on their team, they could very well spark an international crisis if one of his bat-flips is poorly received in a foreign capital. They might have the best pitching of any team here, folks. What other pitching staff is led by Bartolo Colon and boasts such arms as Fernando Rodney, Edinson Volquez, and Dellin Betances? Not to mention they have mashers like Nelson Cruz and Adrián Beltré.
However, there are some serious headwinds facing the Dominican Republic's team. Johnny Cueto, one of the most electric pitchers around, might not be available to pitch for them. Losing Cueto would be the biggest blow taken by a Caribbean country since Teddy Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American war.
Other aspects of their roster worry me. Manny Machado and Hanley Ramirez are talented, but perhaps destined for some sort of dramatic incident that will distract the team and take their eyes off the prize. This team has too many hot heads for my taste. Not to mention they are carrying Carlos Santana: the OBP-obsessed base-clogger who strikes out like 11 year old Will Hart at a Danville Middle School dance. I can't believe in this team.