World Baseball Classic: Most intriguing player on all 20 teams, from Shohei Ohtani to KBO star Jung-ho Lee
The 2023 World Baseball Classic – the first WBC in six years thanks to the pandemic – gloriously looms. This most recent model of the global tournament features an expanded field of 20 teams, from the defending champs (United States) to powerhouse lineups like the Dominican Republic to the pitching-dominant Team Japan to longshot entrants like Great Britain and the Czech Republic.
Not surprisingly, star power abounds within these rosters, as do compelling individual stories. Speaking of which, we’re here, as part of our WBC scene-setting, to declare from on high the single most intriguing player on each of the 20 participating teams. This is necessarily a subjective exercise, and as always (silent, private) objections from loyal URL-clickers are welcome.
Shall we proceed in naming the most intriguing player on each of the 2023 WBC rosters? It seems we shall.
Australia: Aaron Whitefield, OF
Whitefield, 26, is currently with the Angels, and he’s had two cups of coffee in MLB in recent years. Most notably, Whitefield has piled up 180 stolen bases across parts of seven minor-league seasons in the U.S. Back in his native Australia, he’s a two-time MVP of the Australian Baseball League, and early this spring he was in Angels major-league camp on an NRI.
Canada: Freddie Freeman, 1B
The Canadian team has a proud WBC history when it comes to first basemen (Justin Morneau is the WBC all-time doubles leader, and of course there’s Joey Votto). Freeman becomes the latest. As he proved last season in his first campaign with the Dodgers, he’s still elite at the plate, and he’ll be the fulcrum in Canada’s lineup. Runner-up? That would be board-certified Interest Cat John Axford, who’ll turn 40 not long after the tournament ends.
China: Ray Chang, SS
The 39-year-old stalwart infielder is veteran of multiple WBCs. Although born and raised in Kansas City, Chang has Team China eligibility because his parents were born in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Chang spent parts of 12 seasons in the affiliated minor leagues and logged 275 games played at the Triple-A level. He was very likely headed for a call-up to the majors as a member of the Twins organization in 2011, but a broken leg suffered at Triple-A the night before said likely call-up snuffed out those dreams. Since 2017, Chang has been retired from playing and has since helmed baseball operations for MLB China. Now, though, Chang is dusting off the spikes for one final WBC.
Colombia: Gio Urshela, INF
Opinions will vary, but it says here that Urshela is the best player on Colombia’s WBC roster. He combines defensive flexbiliity and fielding value with above-average plate production, and since his breakout season of 2019, he boasts an OPS+ of 119 at the plate. Adding to Urshela’s appeal this season is that he’ll be a key complementary piece for the Angels as they attempt to reach the playoffs in what may Mike Trout’s and Shohei Ohtani’s final run together as teammates.
Cuba: Luis Robert, OF
The 26-year-old Robert, despite injury concerns, remains one of the most exciting five-tool players around. For the White Sox, he’s been a standout defensive center fielder, and he’s put together a career .289/.334/.474 slash line despite dealing with the kind of injuries and maladies that can sap production even when he’s not on the injured list. He’s in the “superstar if healthy” bucket of current MLB players, and he could shine in the WBC for the erstwhile baseball powerhouse Cuba.
Czech Republic: Martin Červenka, C
The Czech team is without question the cinderella entrant in the 2023 WBC, and the closest thing they have to a quasi-star is Červenka. Now 30, the Prague native in recent years has reached the Triple-A level with with the Orioles’ and Mets’ organizations. As MLB’s Michael Clair notes, Červenka now works in sales. Related content:
Dominican Republic: Julio Rodríguez, OF
The Dominican Republic roster is positively larded with stars, even after the loss of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. That means there are multiple contenders for this honor. That said, we’ll go with Rodríguez, who as a 21-year-old rookie last season put together a deeply campaign that would look at home on the back of Mookie Betts’ baseball card. Throw in the million-watt smile and his zeal for the game, and Rodríguez is already one of the brightest stars in the game.
Great Britain: Harry Ford, C
The Brits are a first-time entrant in the WBC this time around, and this 20-year-old catching prospect might be their top talent. Ford, whose parents are from the U.K., topped our expert R.J. Anderson’s list of the top Seattle Mariners prospects for 2023. The former No. 12 overall pick in his first pro season flashed excellent on-base skills and promising fielding chops behind the plate.
Israel: Joc Pederson, OF
Long a useful player, Pederson enjoyed one of his most productive seasons in 2022, and his elite quality-of-contact indicators suggest he can keep it going for the near- to mid-term. He’s pretty easily Team Israel’s most accomplished and most notable player this time around. Does it make Pederson more intriguing that he once got his Chiclets rattled by Tommy Pham because of fantasy football rules minutia? Just asking questions.
Italy: Sal Frelick, OF
Mike Piazza’s squadron has a number of worthy candidates for this honor, but we’ll go with Frelick – a 22-year-old former first-rounder out of Boston College. Our own R.J. Anderson, in ranking Frelick as the No. 2 prospect in the Brewers’ system, recently called him “a speedy, contact-tailored hitter who walked more than he struck out last season in 46 games at Triple-A.” After the WBC, Frelick has a good shot at making it to Milwaukee this season.
Japan: Shohei Ohtani, RHP/DH
Sometimes one is compelled simply to play the hits. While we could get unconventional in selecting Japan’s most intriguing player, we’ll just go with, you know, the biggest baseball star in the world. Ohtani, the Angels’ two-way super(duper)star figures to flash his pitching and hitting chops for Japan in the WBC, and that as always is to the immense uplift of all who witness such singular feats. Half of his duties will involve fronting Japan rotation that may be the best in the tourney.
Korea: Jung-hoo Lee, OF
Lee’s team, the Kiwoom Heroes, has said he’ll be posted after the 2023 season, which means he’ll be headed to MLB next offseason barring the unexpected. So consider his WBC performance a free-agency preview of sorts. Lee, 24, is a career .342/.407/.495 in KBO with more walks than strikeouts and speed on the bases, and he’s the reigning MVP. Added bonus: His nickname is “Grandson of the Wind” (!). He’ll make for compelling color television during this WBC.
Mexico: Randy Arozarena, OF
The Rays’ 28-year-old masher of baseball is of course one heck of a hitter (he’s got a sparkling career OPS+ of 130 and an ALCS MVP to his credit). Adding a layer to this story is that Arozarena was born in Cuba and defected to Mexico prior to his signing with the Cardinals in 2016. In 2022, he became a citizen of Mexico, so here he is.
Netherlands: Xander Bogaerts, SS
Aruba’s Bogaerts is the Netherlands’ top talent this time around, and adding to his notability is the $280 million free-agent pact he signed with the Padres earlier this offseason. Bogaerts brings to the Dutch cause improved defense at short and top-level offensive production over the last half-decade or so.
Nicaragua: Carlos Rodriguez, RHP
When in doubt, go with the pups. That brings us to Rodriguez, whom MLB.com recently tabbed as the 13th-ranked prospect in the Brewers’ system. The 21-year-old has an ERA of 3.01 with good strikeout numbers in one minor-league season, and he’s a got a full repertoire fronted by a changeup that has plus potential. He’ll be a key arm fro Nicaragua in a brutal Pool D that includes the imposing likes of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela.
Panama: Jose Ramos, OF
Ramos may be the one to watch here. The 22-year-old is coming off a 2022 season in which he cracked 25 homers in 123 combined games at the Low-A and High-A levels. MLB.com tabs Ramos as the No. 23 prospect in a deep Dodgers system while noting his 30-homer potential and exceedingly powerful throwing arm.
Puerto Rico: Marcus Stroman, RHP
This might strike some as an odd selection given the presence of a star like Francisco Lindor on Yadier Molina’s team. Stroman, though, gets the nod. In addition to being a darn good starting pitcher, Stroman makes himself even more intriguing – the operative word, you’ll recall – by virtue of his having been the winning pitcher and tournament MVP for Team USA in their WBC clincher in 2017. The team they defeated in said clincher? Puerto Rico. So, yes, Stroman was core member of the U.S. rotation last time around, and now he’s suiting up for Puerto Rico in an homage to his mother’s Puerto Rican roots.
“I’m beyond excited,” Stroman in February told MLB.com of his decision to pitch for Puerto Rico. “My mother is my heart. She’s my rock. She’s my best friend. She’s my blood. So any time I can represent that woman — I love her more than anything — anything for Mom.”
Taiwan: C.C. Lee, RHP
Veteran reliever C.C. Lee, a native of Peng-Hu County in Taiwan, has MLB service time to his credit; he appeared in parts of three seasons for Cleveland, including a 2014 campaign in which he made 37 appearances. These days, the 36-year-old right-hander is a late-inning save specialist in the Chinese Professional Baseball League, and he figures to be Taiwan’s best high-leverage relief arm. Perhaps best of all is that his nickname is – gird yourselves for a stunning revelation – “Instant Noodles Timer.” Yea and verily: Instant Noodles Timer.
United States: Mike Trout, OF
On the position-player front, the U.S. is loaded this time around, and that means plenty of viable choices for this cherished honor. We’ll go with Trout. Injuries have become an increasing concern for the three-time MVP and future Hall of Famer, but when healthy he’s still performing at peak level. Last season, for instance, he cracked 40 home runs and put up a WAR of 6.3 in just 119 games. His rate-basis excellence suggests he might author a memorable moment or three in the upcoming tourney.
Venezuela: Ronald Acuña Jr.
Thanks to Ronald Acuña Jr.’s unfortunately substantial injury history, he was a late addition to the Venezuela roster. But he indeed made it, and that presents an opportunity to watch one of the most compelling young stars in baseball represent his country. With his knee problems presumably behind him, Acuña, who’s still just 25, is looking to get back to peak form. The WBC will provide the first indicator as to whether he’s indeed back in the realest sense.