The World Baseball Classic returns for the first time since 2017, with the first game set for 11 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday between the Netherlands and Cuba, two of the more interesting squads in the tournament. Neither is likely to take the whole thing down, but if either ends up in the final four, I wouldn't be surprised.
Cuba is led for the first time by MLB players like Luis Robert and Yoan Moncada (along with former MLB star Yoenis Cespedes), while the Netherlands team is still powered by Aruban and Curaçaoan stars like Xander Bogaerts and Wladimir Balentien. Other teams, of course, have much bigger names at the top of the roster, with the Dominican Republic, Japan, and United States teams sporting some of the best players in the league.
And the Japanese team boasts some of the absolute best players in the world who aren't in the league. The tournament will be the first chance for most American baseball fans to see some of the biggest stars of the Nippon Professional Baseball league and from the Korean Baseball Organization, and that's what I'm most excited about. And it's what Fantasy players should be most interested in.
Before the first game tonight, let's go through a rundown of what you should be keeping an eye out for as you watch the tournament, which runs through March 21. For the most part we'll be focusing on guys you probably don't know much about – foreign league stars and top prospects getting an opportunity on the big stage – but I've also got a list of eight MLB players with something to prove in the tournament.
Here's what to watch in the WBC:
Non-MLBers to watch
- Munetaka Murakami, DH, Yakult Swallows (Japan) – Murakami was the unanimous Central League MVP, winning the Nippon Professional Baseball league Triple Crown and setting the single-season record for home runs by a Japanese-born player. He hit .318/.458/.711 as a 22-year-old. His 1.169 OPS was better than any of Ohtani's seasons in Japan. Murakami just signed a three-year contract that will see him posted to MLB after the 2025 season, when he'll be just 26 years old. The ZiPS projection system sees Murakami as an easy 30-plus homer hitter with some speed, and a potential Fantasy difference maker.
- Yoshinobu Yamamoto, SP, Orix Buffaloes (Japan) – Yamamoto is the reigning two-time Pacific League MVP, and he's led the league in ERA, wins, and strikeouts in consecutive seasons. Yamamoto is probably the best pitcher outside of American professional baseball, and he generates high-90s velocity despite a slight frame at 5-foot-10 – and he's managed to throw 190-plus innings in consecutive seasons, an impressive feat in any league, let alone one with a 141-game schedule. Yamamoto may be posted after this season and figures to earn a contract that dwarfs the $75 million deal Kodai Senga got this offseason from the Mets.
- Roki Sasaki, SP, Chiba Lotte Marines (Japan) – If the average American baseball fan has heard of any of the Japanese stars, it's because of Sasaki's historic performance last season. He threw the first perfect game in Japan since 1994 last season, striking out 19 batters during the course of the game, including 13 in a row. He followed that up with eight perfect innings before being removed from the game, having recorded 52 consecutive outs, 31 of them by strikeout. Sasaki is just 21 and can hit triple digits with his fastball, and is in the conversation for the best pitching prospect in the world right now. The problem is, he's probably further away than either of the two ranked ahead, because he would likely have to forgo significant money to sign with an MLB team before turning 25. That probably means we're four years away from seeing him come stateside, and given that he's a young pitcher who has never thrown more than 130 innings in a season, that means there's still a lot of uncertainty in this profile.
- Iván Herrera, C, STL (Panama) – Herrera got a cup of coffee in the majors last season and could be in line to back up Willson Contreras as soon as this season. He's a decent hitter, with great plate discipline and enough pop to matter at a shallow position, but he's unlikely to matter much for Fantasy until there is a trade.
- Sal Frelick, CF, MIL (Italy) – Frelick is Scott White's No. 50 prospect entering the season, coming off a 2022 campaign where he hit .331/.403/.480 across three levels, reaching Triple-A (where he excelled). There are questions about how much power Frelick will hit for in games, but he looks like a good bet for average and speed, and has a path to an Opening Day spot on the Brewers roster. He'll likely begin in Triple-A, but if Garrett Mitchell falters, Frelick won't be down long.
- Bo Naylor, C, CLE (Canada) – Progress is rarely linear for prospects, and that's especially true for catchers, who take on a tougher physical and mental trial than most other prospects. Naylor finally broke out in the way scouts have been expecting in 2022, hitting .263/.392/.496 with 21 homers and 20 steals in 118 games between Double-A and Triple-A, even reaching the majors for eight plate appearances. Naylor seems likely to start off in the minors, but again, could be up relatively soon. Out-of-position speed is always intriguing for Fantasy, and Naylor could bring a Daulton Varsho-esque profile to the catcher position eventually.
- Edouard Julien, 2B, MIN (Canada) – Julien has hit very well in the minors, sporting a .283/.437/.485 line over 225 career games, with exceptional OBP skills and plenty of speed. There are questions about his eventual defensive home, but his is a pretty intriguing skill set if he can keep hitting. He'll likely begin 2023 at Triple-A, and he's Scott's No. 78 prospect right now.
- Jung-hoo Lee, RF, Kiwoom Heroes (South Korea) – Lee won the 2022 KBO MVP in his age-23 season thanks to a .349/.421/.575 line and a 66:32 BB:K ratio. There are more questions about how his bat will translate to MLB, given that the level of competition in Korea isn't as high as it is in Japan, but we're going to find out pretty soon, as he is set to be posted after the upcoming season. Lee hasn't posted as much power as even someone like Ha-Seong Kim did in the KBO, but he's been a more productive hitter overall. He might profile more like 2022 Red Sox signee Masata Yoshida, as a top-of-order place setter rather than a middle-of-the-order bat.
- Harry Ford, C, SEA (Great Britain) – Ford was the No. 12 pick in the 2021 draft and might be the Mariners top prospect after hitting .274/.425/.438 as a 19-year-old at Low-A last season. Prep catchers are some of the worst bets you can make to pan out as prospects, and he's so far from the majors that there's a lot that can go wrong. Still, it's a potential 20-20 profile at catcher, so if he makes it out the other side, he could be an impact Fantasy player, with shades of a peak Jason Kendall. We're just probably talking more about a 2025 ETA. Despite that, he's Scott's No. 31 prospect right now.
- Owen Caissie, LF, CHC (Canada) – Caissie's overall line – .254/.349/.402 in 2022 won't blow you away, but it looks a lot better when you realize that the 19-year-old hit just .122/.173/.163 in April. He carries a plus raw power projection that he isn't yet tapping into consistently enough, and there's enough swing-and-miss in his game to generate plenty of risk. This is going to be a make-or-break season for the 20-year-old's prospects.
- Zack Gelof, 3B, OAK (Israel) – Having reached Triple-A as a 22-year-old, Gelof is close enough where we could see him this season on a team that probably won't be playing for much. Gelof is splitting much of his time between 3B and 2B, and given the lack of depth at those two spots, we'll be rooting for him, though his eventual home park might limit his best tool, his power.
- Jose Ramos, RF, LAD (Panama) – Ramos has a swing geared for power, and he hit 28 homers in 143 games between the minors and a stint in the Arizona Fall League. However, he also struck out 189 times and was ultimately left off the 40-man roster and went undrafted in the Rule 5 draft. He's still young enough to develop better plate discipline, and if he does, there's always room on Fantasy rosters for a potential 30-homer hitter – though whether there will end up being room on the Dodgers roster is always a question.
- Matt Mervis, 1B, CHC (Israel) – Mervis went undrafted in 2020, but his progression isn't as much of an outlier as that might make you think – remember, there were only 10 rounds in that year's draft. Mervis will be 25 mid-way through April and is a first-base only prospect, so there isn't a lot of margin for error here, but he mashed his way into the prospect conservation last season by hitting .309/.379/.606 and getting all the way to Triple-A – where he continued to produce big numbers. He'll probably open this season at Triple-A, but if Eric Hosmer can't turn back the clock, I'd guess we'll see Mervis within the first 50 games of the season. That proximity makes him a better-in-Fantasy-than-real-life prospect; he's Scott's No. 41 player.
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MLBers to watch
- Jose Berrios, SP, TOR (Puerto Rico) – Berrios has a lot to prove coming off a disastrous 2022 season, but the problem is, there isn't one specific thing we'll be able to point to and say, "Aha, he's figured it out." Berrios' velocity and movement were mostly fine last season, he just didn't really command his pitches well enough consistently enough, and 50-75 pitches in the WBC isn't going to prove he's fixed it or not. Still, I'll certainly feel better about my late-round fliers if he pitches well.
- Luis Robert, OF, CHW (Cuba) – The biggest issue for Robert in his career has been health, so we primarily want to see him get through this unscathed. However, we'd also like to see him driving the ball in the air consistently after his launch angle dropped to a career-low 10.0 degrees last season. Robert still made plenty of contact and hit the ball hard, but it was too often on the ground. We want doubles and homers, not singles.
- Jurickson Profar, OF, FA (Netherlands) – Profar remains unsigned, which is a surprise after he posted a 3.1 WAR for the Padres last season. There's no shortage of teams who could use an above-average bat who can credibly play all over the field, and the WBC will serve as a tryout of sorts for Profar.
- Gary Sanchez, C, FA (Dominican Republic) – Same for Sanchez, though he also has the misfortune of coming off a pretty dreadful season. I'd bet on Sanchez signing somewhere, and a good WBC would obviously help his chances. He'd still be in the No. 2 catcher discussion if he does sign somewhere, though the days of expected elite production are well behind us at this point.
- Mookie Betts, OF, LAD (USA) – The US team will be playing its games exclusively in MLB parks, so we'll have Statcast data available for all of Betts' games. Which means we'll be able to see if the offseason work he put in to increase his bat speed paid off. I won't be moving Betts up or down from his top-six spot in my overall rankings no matter what, but I wouldn't mind if we saw some 110-plus mph exit velocities from him – he's maxed out at 109.0 mph over the past three seasons.
- Lars Nootbaar, OF, STL (Japan) – Nootbaar has been one of the most talked about players in Fantasy Baseball circles this preseason, but he ended up playing in just two spring games, so it's hard to know where the competition stands in Cardinals land. The good news is all of the relevant players are going to get plenty of game reps, and that includes Nootbaar. He's a Statcast standout, but we'd like to see him show out on this stage to set the stage for a big closing kick to spring.
- Tyler O'Neill, OF, STL (Canada) – O'Neill is Nootbaar's primary competition for the center field spot in St. Louis, and he's going to get an opportunity to perform on a big stage as well. The Cardinals have seven spring games after the WBC ends, but O'Neill could actually benefit from being on a worse team in the tournament, because it could give him a few more reps with the Cards before spring closes. I'm out on O'Neill, given concerns about both his performance and playing time, but if he locks up a starting spot for the Cardinals, it could harm both Nootbaar and Jordan Walker, the team's top prospect.
- Brady Singer, SP, KC (USA) – Singer posted a 3.11 ERA over his final 24 starts last season, and the development of his changeup helped spur that. He has focused on that pitch in the offseason and in the spring, and that'll be something to watch throughout the tournament, as he figures to be one of the USA team's go-to starters. Singer's slider is a good swing-and-miss pitch, and his sinker got really good results last season, so if the changeup becomes more of a consistent weapon, that could help sustain last year's breakout.
- Wander Franco, SS, TB (Dominican Republic) – We haven't seen the breakout from Franco yet … except we kind of did. He hit .313/.333/.578 in April of last year with significant improved quality-of-contact metrics, but he couldn't sustain that improvement before a series of injuries derailed his season. Franco is just 22 and remains an incredibly talented player, but the power hasn't developed yet. I'd like to see some impressive Statcast readings off his bat.