Will the US Defend Its Title in the World Baseball Classic?

The tournament is back in a couple of weeks, believe it or not

Adam Jones playing for USA Baseball in the World Baseball Classic.
We've been the defending champs for six long years now.
MLB via Getty Images

No shame if you forgot, considering there’ve been two different presidents and a pandemic since the last tournament, but the World Baseball Classic is a thing, it’s back and we’re still the defending champs.

The United States pummeled Puerto Rico 8-0 in the final back in 2017 (Marcus Stroman won MVP honors, remember that?), good for our first title in the tournament’s young history. The first three trophies, meanwhile, were split between Japan (which won in 2006 and 2009) and the Dominican Republic (2013, the only team to ever go undefeated in tournament play).

WBC officially returns for a two-week sprint this spring, from March 8-21, with first round “pool play” staged in China, Taiwan and Phoenix and Miami. The quarterfinals, semifinals and championship will all be held at the Miami Marlins’ LoanDepot Park.

What’s with the six-year hiatus? Well, the tournament’s fifth installment was slated for 2021, but COVID had other plans. Last year’s CBA drama pushed it back even further. But this year’s action could be worth the wait. WBC has expanded to 20 teams total, while retaining competitive rosters from juggernauts like the USA, Japan, South Korea and the Dominican Republic.

While this year’s field is bigger than ever, USA still has an excellent chance to bring home its second championship. That’s thanks to what is unequivocally the program’s most talented 30-man roster ever. While you were getting ready for the Super Bowl last week, USA Baseball dropped the full list:

Projected Starting Lineup

C J.T. Realmuto
1B Paul Goldschmidt
2B Tim Anderson
3B Nolan Arenado
SS Trea Turner
LF Kyle Tucker
CF Mike Trout
RF Mookie Betts
DH Pete Alonso

As for the pitching staff, skipper Mark DeRosa will be able to give the ball to studs like Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainright, Brady Singer and Kyle Freeland…with Devin Williams, David Bednar and Daniel Bard waiting in the bullpen. (Not exactly household names yet, to be fair, but they were among the best relievers in the league last year.)

For some extra pop off the bench, this team also has certified missile launcher Kyle Schwarber, and for some extra wheels on the basepaths, they can turn to speedster Cedric Mullins. Oh, and, they’ve also got the reigning National League batting champion, in Jeff McNeil…not to mention assistant coaches like Ken Griffey Jr. and Andy Pettitte on the pine.

Spotlight any top-tier WBC club, and you’re going to find a row of Silver Slugger or Gold Glove winners. The Dominican is stacked, Puerto Rico is stacked, and the rosters from Asia are veritable NPB, KBO and CPBL all-star teams. (Plus whatever superstars have made the leap across the Pacific. In Japan’s case, yes, two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani will be playing!)

Still, it’s extremely difficult to imagine the team listed above losing a game once they’ve hit their stride. USA will face tests from Mexico and Colombia (they’ll also play not-so-dangerous Canada and Great Britain) in the group stage, before advancing to the quarters. Everything from there is single-elimination, and baseball can be a random game, so of course an early exit is possible, but have you ever seen a lineup that deep?

Credit to Mike Trout, still the greatest ballplayer on the planet, for ushering in an avalanche of high-profile commits. The captain of the team, Trout evidently “watched the 2017 event with regret after turning down the opportunity to play,” and enters this campaign with a clear mandate: “The whole reason I signed up: trying to win this thing. There is nothing else. Anything else is a failure.”

Once Trout joined, fellow MVPs followed. This team has boppers, baserunners and a bullpen that can end games in the 7th inning. Obviously, America is never really lacking in baseball talent — even as the game has continued to grow internationally. But as the WBC doesn’t command the same patriotism or panache as the Olympics, domestic stars have frequently dodged the tournament…in favor of staying healthy and honoring massive contracts with MLB franchises.

(That appears to be the plan for Aaron Judge, pretty much the only American position player who could unseat someone in that lineup. Unsurprisingly, New York Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner’s father, George, was one of the few owners to oppose the WBC nearly 20 years ago, saying it was a huge risk for high-priced players.)

USA should do just fine without the big fella from The Bronx, though. FOX should be alright in the end, too — all WBC games will be broadcast across FOX, FS1, FS2, FOX Deportes or Tubi, and at convenient times for American viewers, thanks to the fact that every potential American game will be on American soil. Games will be at 7pm, starting March 11th, and continue for a couple weeks, assuming USA accomplishes what it’s capable of.

The very last WBC game, when USA was in the final, 3.1 million viewers watched the game across MLB Network, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes. In the social media era, and with fervor for international sports higher than ever, expect another American championship appearance to soar past that mark. And if we don’t make it, well, some other nation will be overjoyed to do so. The two times Japan reached the WBC championship are among the most-watched events in Japanese television history.

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