With Major League Baseball's 2020 regular season in a perpetual state of uncertainty due to the global pandemic, fans are looking far and wide for their baseball fix. Luckily, the 2021 edition of the World Baseball Classic remains on track to take place next March.
With a little over 11 months until the tournament kicks off, we decided to try our hand at projecting what the dream lineups for each contender might look like.
Note: Japan, which has won the tournament twice, was omitted because it's difficult to determine the team's roster since the nation almost exclusively uses players from Nippon Professional Baseball.
The first three batters have combined to win five MVP awards, and there's a chance they could add two more before the tournament opens.
The thought of Judge and Rendon starting games on the bench is almost unfathomable, but so goes the embarrassment of riches the United States possesses. In fact, among those left off the roster are Paul Goldschmidt, Bryce Harper, Matt Chapman, Max Muncy, Whit Merrifield, Trea Turner, and Marcus Semien.
The American B-squad would be a contender in this tournament, and arguably the second-best team.
As long as the rotation starts with Cole and deGrom, there's really no wrong way to assemble a five-man staff of America's best. We went with Scherzer next, who will be entering his age-36 campaign. Buehler and Bieber follow him, and they should both build on incredibly promising 2019 campaigns that made them look like perennial Cy Young contenders.
Alternatives could include Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Jack Flaherty, Mike Clevinger, Lucas Giolito, Chris Paddack, or Stephen Strasburg.
A deep mix of elite righties and lefties was the aim here, with no concerns about any pitcher taking on a significant workload. The starters will be expected to work deep, and any of these relievers could be asked to close games in a pinch. They combined to collect 178 saves last year alone, with five of them notching at least 20.
The old guard of Dominican stars like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Adrian Beltre, and Robinson Cano will have all moved on, but the national team is in good hands with no shortage of talented youth. Tatis, Soto, and Devers – three of the top four hitters in our projected lineup – will be 22, 22, and 24, respectively, during the tournament.
With all that firepower, the Dominicans can go toe-to-toe with any nation. The glaring omission here is Nelson Cruz – the major's most-prolific home-run hitter over the last decade. However, the slugger will be entering his age-40 season in 2021, and Devers is the safer choice after a breakout 2019 campaign.
A nice combination of youth and experience makes up the Dominicans' solid rotation. Castillo looks like he could emerge into a perennial Cy Young candidate, while Martinez and Cueto have made a combined four All-Star appearances. Deivi Garcia and Sixto Sanchez could also force their way into the equation.
There's plenty of heat coming from the bullpen with Colome, Leclerc, and Robles all currently holding down closing duties for major-league teams. Liriano gets a spot as the only left-handed reliever on the roster. Betances returning to full health would give the squad another elite weapon out of the ‘pen.
The top five of Venezuela's lineup is as deadly as you'll find anywhere, and it's the engine of this team. Although the starting nine weakens a bit at the back end, this batting order contains upper-echelon power and on-base potential. Inciarte is included for his Gold Glove defense, a valuable skill in a short tournament.
On the bench, Escobar and Gonzalez both provide some pop, and the latter also adds some much-needed versatility. Peralta is another elite outfield defender who can replace Garcia during the late innings.
Although Venezuela is an offense-first team, its rotation isn't weak by any means. Carrasco and Rodriguez form a solid tandem atop this group, and Sanchez adds some veteran leadership at the back end. There's a possibility Chirinos is the best of the bunch after a highly underrated season in a dual role with the Rays.
There are lots of flamethrowers in Venezuela's bullpen. Graterol, the Dodgers' young fireballer, would be a candidate to close in a short WBC tournament, while Petit can step into any role. Carrying three left-handers allows for flexible in-game strategizing, and Alvarado possesses some of the nastiest stuff in the majors.
Projecting the Cuban team is difficult because so far the nation has decided not to include defectors.
But the team would be extremely competitive if it featured every Cuban star who plays in the majors. Even the bench is full of offensive punch, and you could shuffle things around to get Yandy Diaz into the starting lineup fairly easily.
Here's where things get a little more suspect. Few Cuban pitchers, and particularly starters, have made a significant impact in the majors recently. Aside from San Diego Padres lefty Morejon, the rest of the hurlers on this list have only played for the Cuban National Team, in the Cuban National Series, or in Japan. The major-league options are simply limited.
Chapman and Iglesias make for an imposing one-two punch in the bullpen. If the rest of the shaky staff can build bridges to the late innings, Cuba could play spoiler and make some noise in the tournament.
The 2017 WBC runner-up features a vaunted lineup with three of MLB's best shortstops in its infield. Surrounding Lindor, Baez, and Correa with underrated Twins slugger Eddie Rosario and the veteran poise of Yadier Molina gives Puerto Rico plenty of depth.
The team will also never be starved for catching talent with Molina, Perez, Vazquez, and Caratini all worthy of playing time behind the dish.
A rotation headed by Twins ace Berrios makes Puerto Rico a deadly matchup in any one-game scenario, but the four arms following him leave a lot to be desired despite major-league experience.
However, Lugo has excelled in the WBC. During the 2017 tournament, he emerged as a hero for Puerto Rico, helping the team reach the final by winning two of his three starts. Experience in a short tournament can't be taken for granted.
Puerto Rico's bullpen is an area of strength, as three hard-throwing closers (Diaz, Pagan, and Jimenez) anchor the back end. The team is deep here, too, and with three left-handers – including Claudio, whose 83 appearances in 2019 led the majors – there's plenty of wiggle room for strategy and working matchups if the starters get in some trouble.
Pitch counts matter in the WBC, making a deep and powerful bullpen potentially the deciding factor in a critical game.
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