MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Japan set to once again be force in Classic

Japan set to once again be force in Classic

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Shohei Ohtani apologized last week because he won't be able to play for Team Japan in the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic. But no apology was necessary. He is out of action with a sore right ankle.

Ohtani, 22, is an immense talent, a right-handed power pitcher who's also a prodigious left-handed hitter. He will certainly be missed when Japan opens Pool B play against Cuba on March 7 in Tokyo Dome. China and Australia are the other two nations in the bracket.

But according to international scouts whose job it is to watch the Asian teams, Japan will field another formidable club even without the player who struck out 174 batters and added 22 homers last season for the Japan Series-winning Nippon-Ham Fighters. Ohtani is such a prolific batter that he's utilized as the team's designated hitter for three games in between his starts on the mound.

Ohtani must be replaced on the Team Japan roster, and that's why he told manager Hiroki Kokubo he needed to bow out.

"Me being out means that they have to find somebody else to play, and that takes some time," Ohtani said. "I thought this was the right moment for me to make a decision, so I did."

Japan is still very dangerous and always a threat to win the entire tournament, even though their most notable player is Norichika Aoki, an outfielder who has played five seasons in the Major Leagues and will go to camp with the Astros.

Astros claim Aoki off waivers

"They are clear favorites over there," one scout said about the Japanese. "But these are all tough teams, so I could see them losing to one of them."

Aoki -- a .286 hitter with 88 stolen bases for Milwaukee, Kansas City, San Francisco and Seattle -- is a rare position player to make it this long in the U.S. The standouts, of course, are Ichiro Suzuki, who last season became the 30th player to amass 3,000 or more hits in the big leagues, and Hideki Matsui, the slugger who was MVP of the 2009 World Series when he batted .615 (8-for-13) with three homers and eight RBIs for the Yankees in their six-game triumph over the Phillies.

Must C: Ichiro reaches 3,000

The Japanese won the first two World Baseball Classics in 2006 and '09 with legends in the dugout -- Sadaharu Oh and Tatsunori Hara. Oh has the all-time record with 868 homers. Both men played for and managed the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's equivalent to the Yankees.

Kokubo may be one of Nippon Professional Baseball's most potent hitters with 413 homers in 18 seasons, but he has no managing experience.

Oh and Hara had the luxury of managing some of Japan's greatest recent players in the Classic.

Right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka starred for both men, throttling the mighty Cubans in the first two tournaments. Three years later, add Yu Darvish to Matsuzaka. At the end of the 2009 Classic, Ichiro had the game-winning two-run single against Korea in the top of the 10th of the championship game at Dodger Stadium.

That might have been the best international baseball game in history as Korea came from behind to tie its archrivals with two out in the ninth off Darvish, only to lose in the 10th to the most famous player on two continents Japan has ever produced. Ichiro has 4,308 hits and counting, 1,278 of them during his nine seasons playing in Japan.

"I believe that Ichiro's hit is something I'll never forget," Hara said at the time. "It's an image that will forever be imprinted in my mind."

In 2013, the Japanese were led by Koji Yamamoto, another NPB Hall of Fame player and manager, but were eliminated in a semifinal game by Puerto Rico at AT&T Park. The Dominican Republic ultimately defeated Puerto Rico to complete a 7-0 sweep of the tournament.

The semifinals and finals are back at Dodger Stadium again this year from March 20-22, and if the Japanese again make it, it will be without any household names beyond their own country.

Sans Ohtani, the Japanese still have front-line and back-end pitching. Shintaro Fujinami, 24, of the Hanshin Tigers and Tomoyuki Sugano, 27, of the Giants, are expected to step up and replace Ohtani. Yoshihisa Hirano, a 32-year-old reliever for the Orix Buffaloes, throws hard and probably will close.

As far as the offense goes, Tetsuto Yamada, a 24-year-old second baseman for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, is the first NPB player to ever achieve what the Japanese call the "Triple Three" in consecutive seasons. That's hitting over .300, with at least 30 homers and 30 stolen bases. He's done that in the last two seasons.

The fact that Japan is hosting Pools B and E this year at its own home dome gives it a big advantage. Two teams ascend from each pool as the tournament advances. Pool B should provide an easy draw for Japan.

China has been evolving, but began playing organized baseball again in preparation for the first Classic and subsequent hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Australia has won only one of its first nine games in the Classic and has never made it out of the first round.

Cuba lost the 2006 finals to Japan at Petco Park and hasn't been back to the last bracket since. Once the world's preeminent international baseball power, Cuba is much diminished with many of its top players -- Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Kendrys Morales, Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig -- in the Major Leagues.

Otsuka gets the final out

Likewise, two teams will move out of Pool A in Seoul, Korea, to compete in Tokyo's Pool E. Korea, the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei are all strong. The Netherlands stunned the baseball world by making it to the Final Four in 2013, losing to the Dominicans in a semifinal game. Israel, which won the qualifier over Great Britain in Brooklyn this past September, is in the Sweet 16 for the first time and could also be very competitive with a roster of former and current Jewish Major League players.

Still, Japan and Korea are the Asian baseball powers, and barring a major upset, they have to be favored again to travel to Los Angeles.

Team Japan is planning on gathering for a camp during the last days of February. They will spend a week to prepare for the big tournament and then hit it hard as they always do. They take the Classic very seriously.

"There's a lot of talent there that could probably play in the big leagues right now," said another scout. "They have plenty of arms, plenty of position players. I think of them as an All-Star team. They're pretty good."

Even without Ohtani.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.