Feedback
News

Caribbean, Latin American Teams Ready for World Baseball Classic

Giancarlo Alvarado, Anthony Rizzo
Puerto Rico's Giancarlo Alvarado pitches to Italy's Anthony Rizzo at the second round elimination game of the World Baseball Classic in Miami, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Wilfredo Lee / AP

Players and fans are getting ready for the latest edition of the World Baseball Classic. This Olympic-style event was first held in 2006 and subsequent events were held in 2009 and 2013. This global event was created by Major League Baseball in partnership with other international leagues for two main reasons: One, because baseball has not been played at the Summer Olympics since 2000, and only with amateur and low-level minor league players. The WBC was made for big league players to take on the best in the world.

One thing that's always made the WBC special is the large representation of teams from Latin America and the Caribbean. This year is no different, with six teams participating. The 2013 WBC holds the all-time record for Hispanic participation — they had 7 Latin American teams and Spain.

Here's a look at the countries participating for this year.

Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico

We start off with the teams that reached the finals of the last World Baseball Classic in 2013, the Dominican Republic (defending champions) and Puerto Rico (runners-up).

Long at the forefront of the baseball world, both teams struggled to get out of the first two rounds back in '06 and '09 before finally breaking through in '13. Although the 2013 Championship was a one-sided affair on the scoreboard (3-0 D.R.), 35,000 passionate fans of both island nations made their way to San Francisco's AT&T Park to witness history. Will history happen again?

New York Yankees pitcher Dellin Betances on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Matt Rourke / AP

Both teams rosters present a mixture of youth and experience. The Dominicans hope to repeat with strong pitching arms such as Dellin Betances, Johnny Cueto, and Edinson Volquez, along with some offensive power thanks to infielders Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre and Manny Machado — unfortunately Hanley Ramirez won't be able to play due to a shoulder injury. There will also be some solid defense in the form of shortstop Jose Reyes and outfielder Nelson Cruz.

When you first look at Puerto Rico you see the young guns in infielders Javier Baez and Francisco Lindor who are coming off of last year's historic World Series. Then you have catcher Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran who have played in every WBC thus far. They also have some pitching talent with J.C. Romero, Hector Santiago, and Giovanni Soto.

Image: World Series Workouts
Javier Baez #9 of the Chicago Cubs. Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

If these two teams meet again it won't be until the later rounds, so can the Dominicans repeat? Or will Los Boricuas finally reach the promised land?

"The Dominican Republic has the most balanced team of the tournament and closer to the previous star power presence, plus a difference-maker like Manny Machado, nice pitching and great batting for a short tournament," says Cristian Moreno, a Dominican native who's covering the WBC for ESPN Deportes.

"As for Puerto Rico, boy, was I a happy camper to see our neighbor country rise to the occasion (in 2013). Now they have a more balanced team. I think their key to victory will ultimately be to emulate that formula of a fiery heart and soul," he says.

Colombia

Colombia is making their first WBC appearance this year. Long heralded as a soccer nation, the South American country has made inroads in baseball over the last few years. Major League pitchers Jose Quintana (Chicago White Sox) and Julio Teheran (Atlanta Braves) are the faces of this team.

But outside of those two gentlemen, team Colombia is made up of mostly young and unproven players. They also have a tough draw in Pool C against more seasoned teams such as the Dominican Republic, the United States and Canada.

Jose Quintana
Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Jose Quintana. Orlin Wagner / AP

"That being said, I am not one to overlook in baseball, especially in this tournament — they have a few respectable arms who could at least put them in radar of winning if all goes well," said Moreno.

Mexico

Mexico has always had talent at the World Baseball Classic but can never get past the second round. This year they'll lean on veterans such as first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, third baseman Brandon Laird and pitchers Sergio Romo, Miguel Gonzalez, and Fernando Salas. What will it take to reach the next level?

Image: Miami Marlins v Los Angeles Dodgers
First baseman Adrian Gonzalez #23 of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012. Stephen Dunn / Getty Images

"Mexico has a very underrated team for this edition," Moreno says. "I think they are good enough to a point that not making the second round could be seen as an upset. But they will have Italy and more importantly two big opponents in Venezuela and Puerto Rico in their pool," said Moreno.

Venezuela

Speaking of Venezuela, they're another talent-rich baseball country but have only reached the semifinals of this tournament once (2009). Boasting an All-Star lineup that includes first baseman Miguel Cabrera, second baseman Jose Altuve, catcher Salvador Perez, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and flame-throwing pitcher Felix Hernandez, they're sure to be a formidable threat to Mexico, Puerto Rico and Italy in Pool D.

Felix Hernandez
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez. Charlie Riedel / AP

"Venezuela could argue the fact that in last in the last two editions of the WBC that they have not been able to count on their top pitchers for both contractual and injury reasons. Nevertheless the team talentwise has been very well rounded, to the point of on paper {at least} they're seemingly as good as anyone," said Moreno.

Cuba

The most interesting team in the history of the WBC has to be the Cuban National Team. After every World Baseball Classic, quite a few players have defected to join Major League Baseball after showcasing their skills at this event. Some of those players include journeyman infielder Alexei Ramirez (2006 team), New York Yankees pitcher Aroldis Chapman (2009 team), and Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu (2013 team).

Image: Cespedes and Mesa train in Havana
Yoelkis Cespedes (L) and Victor Mesa of Cuba's team at a training session in Havana, Cuba, February 15, 2017. STRINGER / Reuters

This year, though, Cuba has played most of the tournament in Asia and will play in Pool B in Tokyo, Japan.

The current team does not have many star players, though two to keep an eye on are Victor Mesa on center field and outfielder Alfredo Despaigne.

Latinos in Team USA

Last but not least, we have to talk about Team USA which once again is showcasing some Latino talent of its own. Third baseman Nolan Arenado, outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, and first baseman Eric Hosmer bring the Latin-American flare this time around. The 2013 USA squad holds the record for most American Latino players with five. But at the end of the day, this is a perfect example of the game's growth among Hispanic-Americans.

Nolan Areando
Colorado Rockies' Nolan Arenado follows the flight of his single off Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Blaine Boyer in the seventh inning of a baseball game Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016, in Denver. Milwaukee won 6-4 in 10 innings. David Zalubowski / AP

"It says a lot of great things about the game's growth in diversity," said Moreno. "It also should tell MLB that they need to better market and place interest in Latinos to actually take advantage of that ever-growing crowd," he added.

Unfortunately there's legitimate concern that this could be the last edition of the World Baseball Classic. Moreno himself first broke the news through his Twitter feed back in November. While he says that the fear about losing the WBC is real, he also lays out some solutions. One way is to ensure that most of the top stars want to take part in the global games.

"How do you market the event without the awareness of even who will participate?" asked Moreno.

The fate of the World Baseball Classic remains to be seen. But for now, we can just enjoy the ride while it lasts. The 2017 edition of the WBC begins on March 6th.

Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.