Qualifier Dundee: WBC competition gets underway

Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, South Africa vying for spot in 2017 tournament

Qualifier Dundee: WBC competition gets underway

The first leg of the 2017 World Baseball Classic is underway with the first of four qualifying tournaments taking place at Blacktown International Sportspark just outside Sydney. Australia, the favorite, hosts New Zealand, the Philippines and South Africa.

The modified double-elimination tournament is scheduled to be played over four days. Sunday's finale, however, will be a winner-take-all game rather than part of the double elimination. The team that wins on the first two days gets an off-day on Saturday. Four of the six games, including the final, will be aired live on MLB Network, and all of the games will stream live on MLB.com and WorldBaseballClassic.com. ESPN Pac-Rim will broadcast games across the Oceania region, and the games will also appear on Solar Sports in the Philippines.

Each qualifying winner from Sydney; Mexicali, Mexico; Panama City; and Brooklyn, N.Y., respectively, will advance to the main draw of the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

• Get hyped for the 2017 World Baseball Classic Qualifiers

For teams that are accustomed to playing in round-robin tournaments, it will be an adjustment.

"We have been talking about that a lot," said Jon Deeble, Australia's manager. "Where do we use [top starter Travis Blackley], or save him for the final game? The ideal thing is to save him for the second game, but the tough part is we're not used to it. ... Basically, it comes down to one game."

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Here is a look at each of the four teams:

Australia is the most experienced team in the group, with 26 of its 28 players having at least played in the Minor Leagues, representing a little more than half of the 50 affiliated players in this qualifier. The team also benefits from having players in the Australian Baseball League, which operates from November through February. Deeble, a scout for the Red Sox, managed Australia in each of the first three Classics. Australia is 1-8 in three Classic appearances, going 0-3 in 2013, which forced them to have to qualify for the 2017 Classic.

"The game has been growing, but we're in need of a bit of a wallop and we need to revamp it a bit," said Deeble. "I don't think this is going to be as easy [as people think]. It's going to be one of the tougher tournaments we've played in."

Australia has talent at second base in Twins prospect James Beresford, who is coming off an International League All-Star season, hitting .307 for Triple-A Rochester. Another Twins prospect is right-hander Sam Gibbons, who excelled down the stretch in the Midwest League, producing a 1.61 ERA for Class A Cedar Rapids over his last 10 starts. Gibbons posted a 2.89 ERA for the season.

Blackley's quality start

The left-handed Blackley is a well-traveled former Major Leaguer who at 32 pitched for the Marlins' Triple-A New Orleans affiliate in 2015 and has also pitched in Korea, Mexico and Japan. Blackley made 15 starts for the A's in 2012, going 6-4 with a 3.86 ERA.

Deeble envisions a heavy workload for Tigers Minor League right-hander Warwick Saupold, who finished last season with Triple-A Toledo, and left-hander Steven Kent, who was re-signed by the Braves in January after being released by the organization in 2011.

"Blackley is our No. 1 pitcher, and he has been throwing the ball really well," Deeble said. "Saupold has a really good arm and he's going to be a big part, as well as Steven Kent, who can throw in the low-to-mid 90s."

Blackley's Rangers debut

Catching depth will not be a problem. The team's top catcher is 27-year-old Allan de San Miguel, who was second in the Australian Baseball League in homers (10) and was listed as the best defensive catcher in the Twins organization by Baseball America in 2005 and '06. Trent D'Antonio was second in the ABL this past season, batting .344 for Sydney, while 26-year-old Matt Kennelly was a 2014 Southern League All-Star and was once a Top 20 prospect for the Braves.

"It's a pretty good problem to have," said Deeble on his catchers. "San Miguel is our No. 1 catcher. He's a very good leader and leads the pitching staff well. It is tough, these 28-man rosters; someone is going to play for three games and it is hard to get everyone in."

Blackley is one of four seasoned 30-something arms for the Australians. Peter Moylan has appeared in 80 or more games three times, all with the Braves, in his nine Major League seasons. Left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith has pitched in parts of five big league seasons and Wayne Lundgren, another righty, has appeared in 138 Minor League games.

Rowland-Smith's solid outing

Also featured are two top arms from the ABL: Brisbane right-hander Ryan Searle, who led the league with a 0.40 ERA and 17 saves, and Adelaide left-hander Josh Tols, whose ERA of 2.23 ranked fourth.

Veteran Brad Harman was once one of the best defensive infielders in the Phillies organization. He has 37 homers in his ABL career.

Also of note is third baseman Mitch Nilsson, the nephew of former Major League All-Star David Nilsson. The younger Nilsson, who played in the Minors before a shoulder injury slowed his career, was among the ABL leaders in RBIs (39) and homers (9) and hit .284 this past season. He can also catch.

Team Philippines will only be together for a few days prior to the tournament, but manager Tim Hulett, also the skipper of the Rangers' Short-Season Class A Spokane affiliate, is used to it.

"All I know right now is what I've read in reports," Hulett said. "It's a great opportunity and challenge with only four days to evaluate and bring a team together. This is similar to what I do with the Rangers' Short-Season team. We get three days of practice when the season starts, and I've been doing this for the past nine years, so it has given me some good experience."

The Philippines will feature three players with Major League experience and seven players with experience in the Minors. There are two former Top 30 organizational prospects and four current Minor Leaguers. The Philippines went 1-2 in the 2013 qualifiers, its only World Baseball Classic appearance.

Outfielder and former Marlins Top 20 prospect Chris Aguila, now 36, has 149 Major League and 1,400 Minor League games on his resume. Another veteran, 34-year old left-hander Clay Rapada, had a 2.96 ERA in 497 Minor League games and pitched in parts of seven big league seasons. He plans to retire after the qualifier.

Left-handed-hitting first baseman Angelo Songco was a Top 30 prospect for the Dodgers in 2010 and '11, and he showed some power in the Minors, hitting 44 homers in those two seasons. He hit 16 homers for independent St. Paul last year.

Center fielder and leadoff hitter Eric Farris, who has played in 962 Minor League games and spent the past two seasons with Triple-A Rochester, is a former fourth-round Draft pick out of Loyola Marymount University. He has a .281 career average in the Minors.

Right-hander Taylor Garrison, seventh-round Draft pick out of Fresno State in 2012, has a 2.88 ERA in 120 Minor League games.

Alfredo Olivares, a catcher from National University, was the first Filipino to play in the Japanese minor leagues in 2014. Vladimir Eguia showed promise as a reliever in the 2013 qualifier, as did Jennald Pareja, who has shined defensively at shortstop but is now listed as a second baseman.

New Zealand
New Zealand has searched far and wide for players for manager Chris Woodward, who joined Dave Roberts' staff with the Dodgers in the offseason after being the Mariners' infield coach the past two years.

The roster includes three players who have played in Canada's professional Western Major Baseball League; players from U.S. colleges in California, New Mexico, Texas, Georgia, Washington, Kansas, Hawaii and Missouri; and players from the European and Australian pro leagues. New Zealand also had a professional softball and BMX rider in its unique mix.

"Our roster is a wide mixture of players throughout the world, which is a testament to [New Zealand chief executive] Ryan Flynn and his team of staff members to find all those players with Kiwi blood," said Woodward. "Our biggest strength is our deep and balanced lineup, one through nine."

New Zealand features eight affiliated players and two current Minor Leaguers. New Zealand was 2-2 in the 2013 qualifiers in its only Classic appearance.

Top pitchers include left-hander Scott Cone, who was 8-2 with a 4.20 ERA for West Texas A&M in 2014, and former Major League left-hander Nick Maronde, a onetime organizational All-Star for the Angels who had a 4.76 ERA last year for Triple-A Columbus. Cone was 3-2 with a 4.60 ERA in his first ABL season in 2015-16.

Former MLB All-Star Futures Game participant Scott Campbell, a third baseman, was a 10th-round Draft pick out of Gonzaga in 2006. The 30-year-old Campbell had a .287 Minor League career average through 2009 and came out of retirement to join New Zealand for this tournament.

Prior to baseball, first baseman Boss Moanaroa finished sixth at the 2003 BMX World Junior Championships. He and his brother Moko, an outfielder, were signed by Deeble to play for the Red Sox.

Max Brown, the D-backs' 37th-round Draft pick last year who hit .265 in Rookie ball, will patrol center field. He was also a part of the 2012 New Zealand team. Missouri Baptist's Daniel Bradley, a 23-year old, will also be in the outfield.

One dynamic of New Zealand is the crossover of softball to baseball players. One is shortstop Tyron Bartorillo, a two-time world softball champion whose father, John, is enshrined in the Queensland Baseball Hall of Fame. Another is outfielder Daniel Lamb-Hunt, a two-time Euro League batting champion.

"The dynamic of softball and baseball in New Zealand is very intriguing," Woodward said. "We have a number of players who come from a softball background and there are some significant difficulties in the culture, technique, attitude, in making the switch from softball to baseball ... it provides young players with more opportunities ... and [to] excel to a much greater extent on the worldwide stage."

The team has faced tragedy, as former Pirates Minor League pitcher Lincoln Holdzkom was killed in a car accident in December. His younger brother John, who had a 3.22 ERA for Triple-A Indianapolis, is unavailable. The players will wear Lincoln Holdzkom's initials on their sleeves.

"Lincoln was going to be our main leader, as he represented the fight and attitude that baseball should stand for," Woodward said. "His spirit and personality will always remain with those who were fortunate enough to be around him for any amount of time."

South Africa
Aside from Australia, South Africa's players might be the most familiar with one another. Many of them were together for the 2006 and '09 World Baseball Classic and the qualifier the last time around. Alan Phillips, who played for the 2000 Olympic team, is managing one of his Olympic teammates -- right-hander Carl Michaels -- and will benefit from the overall long-range experience on the club.

Nine of South Africa's players have been a part of affiliated baseball, and with the growth of the game in that country, 22 of the 28 players play in the South African professional league. South Africa is 1-8 all-time in the World Baseball Classic.

Four players remain from Major League Baseball's first 40-man academy in Cape Town in 2011: outfielders Kyron Bibis and Rowan Ebersohn and right-handers Kyle Gaddin and Callan Pearce.

Others have additional experience from the MLB European Academy in Italy (now the MLB International European Baseball Elite Camp), none more than Gift Ngoepe, a 26-year-old middle infielder who is on the Pirates' 40-man roster. Noted as the best defensive infielder in Pittsburgh's system in 2012 and formerly ranked among the team's Top 20 prospects by MLBPipeline.com, he befriended Hall of Famer Barry Larkin at one of the camps in Italy. Ngoepe hit .257 at Double-A and Triple-A last season, and he once stole 22 bases in the Minors, initially learning the game by living in a small clubhouse and playing at the ballpark where his mother worked.

Ngoepe's nice stop

Another former Top 30 prospect is 22-year-old right-hander Dylan Unsworth, who went 4-7 with a 4.34 ERA in 13 starts for the Mariners' Double-A team last season.

First baseman Shannon Ekermans, who has been a part of all three World Baseball Classic teams, slugged his way out of North Dakota State and set the single-season home run record in South Africa in 2013-14. Catcher Kyle Botha, 28, has been a part of South Africa's senior program since 2005.

Another international veteran, infielder Jonathan Phillips, has been a part of all three World Baseball Classics. Younger brother Anthony is a shortstop in the Angels' system. Their father is the manager. Veteran second baseman Brett Willemburg, a former Royals Minor Leaguer and European pro, is looking to help grow the game with his own baseball academy.

Gaddin and Kieran Cree are both noted top pitchers in South Africa's professional Easterns Baseball Association, which plays September through March.

Qualifier schedule

South Africa vs. New Zealand
Local time: 1 p.m.
ET: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Watch: Live on MLB.com, WorldBaseballClassic.com and ESPN Pac-Rim

Philippines vs. Australia
Local time: 7:30 p.m.
ET: 3:30 a.m.
Watch: Live on MLB Network, MLB.com, WorldBaseballClassic.com and ESPN Pac-Rim

Philippines * vs. TBD
Local: 1 p.m.
ET: 9 p.m. Thursday
Watch: Live on MLB.com, WorldBaseballClassic.com and ESPN Pac-Rim

Australia * vs. TBD
Local: 7:30 p.m.
ET: 3:30 a.m.
Watch: Live on MLB Network, MLB.com, WorldBaseballClassic.com and ESPN Pac-Rim

Local: 6:30 p.m.
ET: 2:30 a.m.
Watch: Live on MLB Network, MLB.com and WorldBaseballClassic.com (ESPN Pac-Rim delayed to 12:30 p.m. local)

Finalist 2 vs. Finalist 1
Local: 2 p.m.
ET: 10 p.m. Saturday
Watch: Live on MLB Network, MLB.com and WorldBaseballClassic.com (ESPN Pac-Rim delayed to 11 p.m. local)

* Teams will play at listed game time regardless of whether they win or lose their opening game.

Niall Adler is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.