MLB.com Columnist

Jon Paul Morosi

Infield gives Netherlands strong chance to advance

Infield gives Netherlands strong chance to advance

The Netherlands will begin 2017 World Baseball Classic play against host Korea on March 7. First pitch time: 4:30 a.m. ET.

We promise: It's worth setting an early alarm -- or staying awake -- simply to watch the Dutch infield.

The Netherlands' infield was a major reason for their best World Baseball Classic finish in 2013, a semifinal loss to the eventual champion Dominican Republic. The group remains a marvel four years later and will be a major storyline in an unpredictable Pool A at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul.

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Andrelton Simmons, the two-time Gold Glove Award winner, returns at shortstop after posting a 1.016 OPS and tying for team leads in home runs (two) and RBIs (six) during the 2013 Classic.

That means Xander Bogaerts will play the same position -- third base -- that he did four years ago, notwithstanding his two Silver Slugger Awards and one All-Star selection as the Red Sox's shortstop.

"I've already talked with John Farrell," Dutch manager Hensley Meulens said Sunday in a telephone interview with MLB.com. "The reason Xander played third base for the Red Sox in the 2013 postseason was that he had the experience there in the Classic. That goes a long way in helping us now.

"Xander called me in the offseason and said, 'I know I can't play shortstop for this team with Simmons on it, so you can put me at third.'"

Baltimore's Jonathan Schoop, who hit 25 home runs while playing in all 162 games for the Orioles in 2016, is the primary second baseman, allowing Didi Gregorius to back up at second, third and shortstop while getting at-bats as the designated hitter. Curt Smith, a Dutch international veteran playing in his third Classic, is expected to return as the everyday first baseman.

Jurickson Profar started at second base in the 2013 semifinal and -- as one of the sport's most celebrated prospects -- seemed destined to remain a standard-bearer there for years to come. But he has a .652 OPS in 175 Major League games over the last four seasons, due to injuries and underperformance. Once Rangers manager Jeff Banister told Meulens that Profar could make Texas' Opening Day roster in left field, Meulens decided he would play there in the Classic as well.

Wladimir Balentien, who hit 60 home runs for the Yakult Swallows in 2013 to break Sadaharu Oh's single-season record in Nippon Professional Baseball, will start for the Netherlands in the opposite outfield corner.

In all, eight of the 10 players who started in the 2013 semifinal -- including left-hander Diegomar Markwell -- also are on this year's roster, making the Dutch a favorite to finish among the top two in Pool A and advance to the second round.

But Chinese Taipei, Israel and Korea all have credible reasons to believe in their chances, too. Chinese Taipei reached the second round in 2013 after defeating the Netherlands in pool play. Israel, in its first Classic, is riding the momentum of a 3-0 performance in qualifying last year. And Korea will benefit from playing on home soil after uncharacteristically failing to advance out of pool play in 2013.

Israel's roster includes 11 players with MLB service time -- but no current 40-man roster players. In one sense, that is an asset for manager Jerry Weinstein, who won't need to worry about additional provisions placed on prized arms by MLB general managers.

2017 World Baseball Classic rules

In fact, Israel ace Jason Marquis -- a former 15-game winner for the Cardinals and Rockies -- is a free agent who hasn't pitched in the Majors or Minors since 2015. So no front office will object if Marquis starts Israel's first and third game with two days of rest in between, just as he did in the September qualifier; that is permissible under World Baseball Classic rules, as long as he does not exceed 50 pitches in the first game.

Corey Baker, a 27-year-old right-hander in the Cardinals system, is one candidate to start Israel's second game, as he did in the qualifier. And if Marquis and Baker are the team's only starters, Weinstein will have a 14-man bullpen -- including MLB veterans Craig Breslow and Josh Zeid -- to use aggressively in the 27-out relay race. For Weinstein, distinctions between starters and relievers disappear once the tournament begins.

"Because of our schedule, with a day off after two games, our tentative plan is to staff all three games so we can use our better guys as often as possible," Weinstein said this week. "I don't think we necessarily have a designated starter. The goal is to match up according to the situation. I think a short series allows you to do that."

Weinstein developed that philosophy by competing in state and national tournaments over his 23 seasons as the head coach at Sacramento City College.

"Leveraged situations could come early in games," he said. "You may not be able to win games early, but you surely can lose them. I wanted to have our best possible arms in those situations. I think that we saw that approach surface to a greater degree in [last] year's playoffs and World Series."

Weinstein's first opportunity to apply that approach in the Classic will be against host Korea, which reached the semifinal in 2006 and final in 2009 before losing to Chinese Taipei in a first-round tiebreaker four years ago.

Among the nine South Korean-born players in MLB last year, only Cardinals closer Seung Hwan Oh and former Mariners first baseman Dae-Ho Lee are on the host country's 28-man WBC roster. Left-handed ace Hyeon-Jong Yang and outfielders Ah-Seop Son and Byung-Hun Min are among Korea's top players, and the double play combination of Geon-Chang Seo and Ha-Seong Kim should be among this Classic's best.

Meanwhile, Chinese Taipei's roster has been diminished by political discord between Taiwan's national baseball federation and the Chinese Professional Baseball League. As a result, the CPBL's Lamigo Monkeys have barred their players from participating for the national team in the World Baseball Classic. That means the exclusion of stars Po-Jung Wang, Hung-Yu Lin and Chun-Hsiu Chen, according to Josh Inglis of CPBL English, an authoritative website on Taiwanese baseball.

Inglis said Chinese Taipei's lineup will be the team's greatest strength in the tournament, but the pitching staff has major questions. Kuan-Yu Chen, of NPB's Chiba Lotte Marines, faces substantial pressure as the staff ace; former Tigers reliever Fu-Te Ni will have a crucial role in the bullpen.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Jair Jurrjens made the National League All-Star team in 2011, while going 13-6 with a 2.96 ERA for the Braves. But he hasn't won a Major League game since '12 -- or pitched in one since a two-game cameo with the Rockies in '14. He threw for Royals officials at a tryout last week, but he remains unsigned.

So for the Curaçao native, the World Baseball Classic has multiple meanings: He is trying to revive his Major League career by pitching before scouts in high-intensity games; he will represent the Netherlands for the first time since the inaugural tournament of 2006; and he wants to honor the memories of his father, Carl, and former Braves teammate Tommy Hanson, who died within a week of one another in 2015.

THE KEY GAME

Israel vs. Korea, March 6, 4:30 a.m. ET

The first game in Pool A -- also the first game in the entire tournament -- is crucial. The winner will have an excellent chance to advance out of the group, while the loser will be 0-1 with a matchup against the Netherlands looming.

PREDICTION

The Netherlands and Israel advance.

Jon Paul Morosi is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.