Classic competition to again be fierce

Classic competition to again be fierce

Think about this matchup: Venezuela's Johan Santana against a Dominican Republic lineup that includes Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, David Ortiz and Alfonso Soriano?

Or America's Jake Peavy facing a Venezuelan lineup with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen?

The rosters haven't been set for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, but the 16 teams and four pools for next March's event have been determined, and with them the possibility for dream matchups like these.

Without rosters, handicapping the relative strength of each team is mere speculation at this point, but the talent pool for the countries which will send teams to the second World Baseball Classic is so deep that perhaps six of the 16 teams figure to have a legitimate shot at reaching the March 23 Final.

Here's a look at each of the four pools and some of the possibilities:

POOL A

Defending champion Japan, China, Chinese Taipei and Korea will compete at Tokyo Dome on March 5-9, with the winner and runner-up advancing to the semifinals against a pair of teams from Pool B.

Japan should be formidable once again and is the favorite to win this pool. When you have a roster that could include 2006 Tournament Most Valuable Player Daisuke Matsuzaka, All-Tournament team catcher Tomoya Satozaki and outfielders like Ichiro Suzuki and Kosuke Fukudome, just for starters, Team Japan should be loaded once again. And that's without even considering the home-field advantage.

Korea could be the dark horse team of the tournament.

Korea had the best overall record in the tournament last time, and assuming such contributors as first baseman Seung-Yeop Lee (.333, five homers, 10 RBIs in 24 at-bats in the 2006 WBC), outfielder Jong Beom Lee (.400), and pitchers Jae Seo (2-0, 0.64 ERA in 14.0 IP) and Chan Ho Park (10 IP, 0.00 ERA) decide to play again, the Korean entry should be powerful.

Chinese Taipei went 1-2 and was unable to advance in the 2006 WBC. With players like shortstop Chin-Lung Hu (.417) and pitcher Wei-Lun Pan (1-0, 0.00), and more and more talent becoming Major League-caliber on the island, Chinese Taipei should have an even stronger entry in the second WBC.

POOL B

Australia, Cuba, Mexico and South Africa comprise Pool B, which will compete March 8-12 at Foro Sol Stadium in Mexico City.

Cuba, the runner-up in the 2006 WBC, figures to have many of the same players back next year, including third baseman Yulieski Gourriel (2 HR, 8 RBIs), outfielder Frederich Cepeda (.385, 8 RBIs in 8 games), pitcher Yadel Marti (1-0, 0.00 ERA in 12.2 IP) and designated hitter Yoandri Garlobo (12 hits in 25 at bats and a .536 OBP).

The Cubans were largely unknown last time, and are expected to have new faces as well as many of the same players that helped the team upset the favored Dominican Republic last time. That unfamiliarity might come into play as a result of the new rules in '09.

Format changes call for making the first two rounds double elimination instead of round robin. The top two finishers from each pool, however, will move on to the next round. In addition, the semifinals will be "cross overs," eliminating the chance that teams will play three times before the Final. That could enable an ace like Marti to not have to face any team more than once.

More than half of the Mexico pitching staff -- Oliver Perez, Jorge De La Rosa, Elmer Dessens, Antonio Osuna, Ricardo Rincon, Roberto Ramirez, David Cortes and Pablo Ortega -- did not allow a run in the 2006 WBC. Pitching helped Mexico advance to the second round, but the offense was inconsistent and the team did not reach the semifinals.

Mexico should be dangerous again, and is certainly capable of advancing from this bracket.

Of the four teams that went 0-3 in the first WBC, Australia might have the best chance of any to get in the win column next time.

Last time, the offense managed just two extra-base hits in three games -- both doubles -- and only two of the 16 position players had batting averages north of .200. Scouts said the Australian team was better than it showed last time, and with young pros like pitcher Peter Moylan and first baseman Justin Huber expected back, don't be surprised if the Aussies bounce back with a better showing in '09.

POOL C

The United States and Venezuela, two teams picked by some to win the tournament last year, didn't get past the semifinals. The two teams get another crack from Pool C on March 8-12 at Toronto's Rogers Centre. Italy, 1-2 last time, and host Canada, 2-1, round out this interesting quartet.

The Big Two's paths to the Final depends in part on how many of their superstars decide to play.

If Santana, who by the way was 0-2 in the 2006 WBC despite a 2.16 ERA, decides to go again, along with Cabrera, Ordonez, Carlos Zambrano, Francisco Rodriguez and some of the other marquee talents, Venezuela will be formidable and certainly capable of going all the way.

The U.S. could put together another superstar team with the likes of Chase Utley, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Derrek Lee.

In a short series, however, star power isn't any guarantee. First baseman Mark Teixeira (0-for-15) and outfielder Matt Holliday (0-for-6) were hitless with five strikeouts and no walks in the last WBC.

Italy might be able to get Mike Piazza back, assuming the free-agent designated hitter is willing to participate again. And perhaps David Dellucci, Marco Scutaro, Frank Catalanotto, Jason Grilli and Mark DeRosa would join Piazza. If so, Team Italy might be able to at least get in the win column again.

Canada is the dark horse. The talent pool may not be as deep as that of the U.S. or Venezuela, but a home team that can put a 1-2 punch of Erik Bedard and Jeff Francis on the mound, has an MVP for the middle of the order (Justin Morneau) and boasts various Major Leaguers, like Jason Bay and Matt Stairs, is not to be taken lightly.

POOL D

If you like offense, you might want to be at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan for the Pool D games on March 7-11.

Two teams that figure to have outstanding offenses -- the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico -- are in a Pool that also includes Panama (perhaps with slugger Carlos Lee) and the Netherlands (Andruw Jones).

The headliners of course are host Puerto Rico, with the likes of Carlos Beltran, Ivan Rodriguez and Carlos Delgado as possibilities, and the Dominican Republic, with Pujols, Ortiz, Guerrero and Soriano.

Puerto Rico's chances hinge on its pitching. Last time the staff had little notable Major League experience beyond Joel Pineiro, J.C. Romero and Javier Vazquez. Pitching depth might come into play for Puerto Rico again next year.

Panama went three and out last time, but if more stars like Lee and Colorado closer Manny Corpas decide to play, Panama would be capable of an upset.

Jones went hitless for the Netherlands last time, but the Dutch still came away with one victory in three tournament games.

The favorite at this point has to be the Dominican Republic. With perhaps the most powerful lineup in the tournament, if they get the pitching, this team could win it all in '09.

Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.