Two-time defending World Baseball Classic champion Japan is back for a run at a third title, albeit with some familiar faces missing.
Japan's entire contingent of Major League stars -- a who's who of Japanese baseball that includes Yu Darvish, Ichiro Suzuki and two-time Classic MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka -- passed on the chance to suit up this time around, making way for rising stars such as Tohoku Rakuten Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto and a host of others as new manager and Japanese baseball Hall of Famer Koji Yamamoto attempts to equal the feat of Sadaharu Oh in 2006 and Tatsunori Hara in '09 by bringing home the title.
The Japanese will enjoy home-field advantage in the first round, as they did in 2009, with Pool A to be held at Fukuoka, Japan's Yafuoku Dome, home of Nippon Professional Baseball's Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, who have placed outfielder Seiichi Uchikawa, third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda and pitchers Tadashi Settsu, the 2012 recipient of the Sawamura Award (given to Japan's top pitcher), Masahiko Morifuku and Kenji Otonari under Yamamoto's care this spring.
Hoping to stand in the way of another Japanese coronation is a Cuban team hungry for success in the Classic after falling to Japan in the 2006 final and being bundled out of the '09 tournament in the second round.
Joining the two baseball powers in Pool A is Classic newcomer Brazil, managed by Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, and China, which is competing in the tournament for the third time.
Japan and Cuba are the teams to beat in Pool A, with China and Brazil hoping to play the role of spoiler.
The following is a look at the four teams who make up Pool A:
The Brazilians pulled off a shocker during the qualifying round by beating Panama, 1-0, to secure the final spot in the World Baseball Classic.
Baseball is still growing in Brazil, where soccer reigns supreme, but Larkin is helping to raise the game's profile as the national team manager.
Brazil made the long journey to Fukuoka from South America, but many of the Brazilians should feel right at home as the roster includes a number of players, including the Tokyo Yakult Swallows' Daniel (Yuichi) Matsumoto and Rafael Fernandes, who are currently plying their trade in either Nippon Professional Baseball or the Japanese industrial league.
Unfortunately, they'll be without their best player, Indians catcher Yan Gomes, Brazil's first Major Leaguer.
The Brazilians figure to be a bit offensively challenged, hoping that getting a good performance from their pitchers the key to picking up a victory in their first Classic, with China looking like the most likely victim. Beyond that, with Cuba and Japan lurking, the waters are probably too rough for Larkin's squad to safely navigate.
China earned its first World Baseball Classic victory in 2009, but the nation is still a ways off from competing against Japan and Cuba.
Success this year looks like an especially tall order, given that all but eight members of the Chinese roster (including 10 of 13 pitchers and all three catchers) were a part of the squad that was outscored, 23-1, by Taiwan's Lamigo Monkeys (14-1) and Korea's Samsung Lions (9-0) in two Asia Series losses in November.
China's prospects took another hit before the Classic, when the team learned Kansas City Royals pitcher Bruce Chen would not be added to the roster. Chen's absence puts even more pressure on other notable Chinese pitchers Xia Lou and lefty Tao Bu.
Despite Chen's absence, the Chinese have a U.S. connection in infielder Ray Chang, a veteran of eight Minor League seasons. Speedy outfielders Xiao Cui and Zhenhong Lu are two other players to keep an eye out for.
Baseball is still a developing sport in China, so the team will be short on experience on the field. Fortunately that won't be the case in the dugout, where former Seattle Mariners skipper John McLaren will be calling the shots and former Houston Astros, New York Mets and Oakland Athletics manager Art Howe serving as his hitting coach.
The downside is neither McLaren nor Howe will be on the field, where the Chinese could be in for a bumpy ride.
The International Baseball Federation, the sport's world governing body, ranks Cuba as the No. 1 team in the world -- followed by the U.S. and Japan -- and the 2006 Classic finalists are looking to affirm that designation by winning it all this time around.
Although without slugging outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who defected in 2011 and spent the past season with the Athletics, Cuba could still be dangerous at the plate.
Opposing pitchers have to be especially wary of Jose Abreu and Alfredo Despaigne, two of the most potent hitters in Cuba.
Abreu had a huge season playing for Cienfuegos during the 2011-2012 campaign in Cuba's Serie Nacional, batting a league-best .394, with 35 home runs, 99 RBIs and an OPS of 1.379 in 87 games. Not to be outdone, Despaigne put up a .326/.479/.695 line for Granma and led the league with 36 home runs and 105 RBIs.
The Cubans have another potential impact player in stalwart Frederich Cepeda, an all-tournament selection in 2009 after finishing a scorching 12-for-24 with a pair of doubles, three home runs and 10 RBIs in six games. Infielder Yulieski Gourriel presents another threat on a Cuban team that can hold its own against any in the 16-team field.
The Cubans also benefit from a wealth of experience on the mound with a number of players having pitched in either the 2006 and '09 (or both) editions of the Classic.
Two of them, Yadier Pedroso and Freddy Alvarez, were the starters during Cuba's two-game exhibition series against Japan in November. The Cubans dropped both games, and will be out for revenge when the teams square off to close out Pool A on Wednesday, March 6.
Without its Major League stars, Japan will field an entirely domestically based team with veterans such as Yomiuri Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters outfielder Atsunori Inaba and Tohoku Rakuten infielder Kazuo Matsui, the only Japanese player with Major League experience, leading a host of young players into battle.
Eagles right-hander Masahiro Tanaka (the 2011 Sawamura Award winner) leads a talented pitching staff, and the Hiroshima Carp's Kenta Maeda (the 2010 Sawamura winner) and Giants lefty Tetsuya Utsumi (the 2012 Japan Series MVP) are joining him on the front lines, with sidearming submarine reliever Kazuhisa Makita of the Seibu Lions lurking in the back of the bullpen.
Abe, who hit .340, with 27 home runs and 104 RBIs for the Giants in 2012, will bat at the heart of a lineup built to get on base and manufacture runs.
Abe and Fighters slugger Sho Nakata are among the few real power threats for the Japanese, who will again rely on pitching and defense to carry the day.
Jason Coskrey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less