MLB.com Columnist

Jon Paul Morosi

Japan heavily favored in Classic's first round

Cuba, Australia, China have work cut out for them in Pool B

Japan heavily favored in Classic's first round

The first three World Baseball Classics, in brief:

Team USA's best finish was a loss in the semifinals. Team Japan's worst finish was a loss in the semifinals.

After the country's top players nearly avoided the inaugural Classic because of a labor disagreement, Japan has become the tournament's pre-eminent team. Samurai Japan won the tournament in 2006 and repeated three years later. And by the time a champion is crowned at Dodger Stadium next month, Japan is likely to remain the only nation to reach the semifinal in all four editions of the Classic -- even with only one Major League Baseball-affiliated player, outfielder Norichika Aoki, on this year's roster.

WBC 2017: Tickets | Rosters | Rules | Full coverage

Shohei Ohtani? Sure, Japan will miss the two-way dynamo's electric arm and powerful bat. He's out due to an injured right ankle that will be cared for -- and scrutinized -- intently throughout the year, as Ohtani prepares for a possible jump to the Major Leagues in 2018.

But Japan has sufficient pitching depth to negotiate past Australia, China and Cuba in Pool B, particularly in the familiar environs of the Tokyo Dome.

Even without Ohtani, Japan's pitching staff should retain its international cachet. Consider the history: Daisuke Matsuzaka was tournament MVP in 2006 and '09; Yu Darvish earned two victories in '09, including the championship game in relief; and Koji Uehara ('06), Hisashi Iwakuma ('09), Kenta Maeda ('13) and Masahiro Tanaka ('13) were part of esteemed Classic rotations before successful MLB careers.

Japan wins second Classic in '09

In that context, to be called Japan's ace in the World Baseball Classic is no casual matter. In 2017, the distinction will belong to Tomoyuki Sugano, the Yomiuri Giants' 27-year-old right-hander. Sugano went 9-6 with a 2.01 ERA in Nippon Professional Baseball last year, striking out 189 batters and walking only 26 in 183 1/3 innings. He has no prior Classic experience but earned the victory for Japan in the bronze medal game of the 2015 Premier 12 tournament, the most recent global baseball competition.

"The most important aspect of being a pitcher is to be consistent," Shota Ohno, Japan's catcher, said through an interpreter in an interview with MLB.com this month. "You can count on him to have a quality start almost every time."

Japan's lineup is more dynamic than the version that floundered in the 3-1 semifinal loss to Puerto Rico four years ago -- and certainly more powerful than the 2009 edition, which won the Classic title despite hitting only four home runs in nine games.

Tetsuto Yamada is probably the country's most complete offensive player, coming off consecutive seasons in which he met or exceeded 30 home runs, 30 stolen bases, 100 RBIs and a 1.000 OPS. He will start at second base over the defensively superior Ryosuke Kikuchi, as reported by the Japan Times.

Outfielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, 25, is coming off a 44-homer season for the Yokohama Bay Stars, and first baseman Sho Nakata is a veteran run producer who has averaged 104 RBIs over the past three seasons.

"He's very passionate about baseball," Ohno said of Nakata. "He loves taking care of the younger guys. He's a leader in the clubhouse. From a performance standpoint, he's one of the best power hitters [in Japan]. He also can do situational hitting. He's not selfish at the plate. His glove at first base is very solid, and he saves a lot of runs."

Players to watch for Team Cuba

Japan opens pool play against Cuba on March 7, in a rematch of the 2006 final. Defections over the past decade have sapped Cuba's strength in international play, as Cuban-born Major Leaguers are unable to represent their homeland's national team. This Classic will be Cuba's first without archetypal infielder Yulieski Gurriel, who drew comparisons to Derek Jeter for his play in the first Classic. Gurriel, scion of a legendary Cuban baseball family, instead is experiencing his first Spring Training with the Astros, having signed a five-year, $47.5 million deal in July.

Cuba's pitching staff relies more on guile than power -- ace Lazaro Blanco draws comparisons to Livan Hernandez -- but the lineup will feature intriguing young outfielders Victor Mesa Jr. (son of the former national team manager) and Yoelkis Cespedes (half-brother of Mets star Yoenis Cespedes).

And while the Cubans lack in-their-prime stars, the club will benefit from a rare attribute among Classic teams: recent sustained familiarity playing as a unit. Manager Carlos Marti led much of the national team roster into the Caribbean Series in Mexico earlier this month, and Cuba plans to play 11 exhibition games in Asia, according to Prensa Latina, Cuba's official state news agency. (Team USA, by comparison, has one practice and two games before the tournament.) Marti was quoted by the Cuban News Agency as saying that Team Cuba was underprepared in 2013 and had not played enough top-level international competition prior to the tournament. That won't be an issue now.

Chen on pitching for Team China

The gap between Cuba and the pool's remaining teams -- Australia and China -- is narrower than it was four years ago, creating the possibility for a historic upset. Australia will feature at least two starting pitchers with MLB experience, Travis Blackley and Warwick Saupold, while Team China has lined up Kwon Ju (who projects as a back-end starter in the Major Leagues) and 17-year MLB veteran Bruce Chen for its first two games.

Chen honoring heritage in World Baseball Classic

China's infield is likely to include two Chinese-Americans, third baseman Ray Chang and shortstop Joey Wong, along with Chinese-born first baseman Xu Guiyuan, who signed a Minor League contract with the Orioles after attending the MLB Development Center in Wuxi, China.

Chang's playing career set for final act with China

PLAYER TO WATCH

Alongside veteran standouts like Yamada, Tsutsugo, Nakata and the beloved shortstop Hayato Sakamoto, outfielder Seiya Suzuki is poised to emerge in Japan's lineup. An established star with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp at only 22 years old, Suzuki has shown charisma and the potential to join Yamada as a 30/30 player.

THE KEY GAME

China vs. Cuba, March 7, 10 p.m. ET

China's advancement into the second round would be a massive story for the World Baseball Classic -- and Major League Baseball, given the league's investment in three development centers in China and streaming partnership with Le Sports. For that to happen, a win in China's first game is nearly essential; but at least the schedule is favorable for the Chinese, in the sense that Cuba's pitching staff should be weary from facing Japan less than 24 hours before.

The World Baseball Classic runs from March 6-22. In the U.S., games will air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN will provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. will have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. Internationally, the tournament will be distributed across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

PREDICTION

Japan and Cuba 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.