Plenty of young talent on display at Classic qualifiers
While excitement around the World Baseball Classic will build next March, when the best in the big leagues and elsewhere play for national pride, that won't happen for countries that don't qualify. For the eight nations that began making their bids this week, that work must be carried out by players who are not at the highest levels of the game. Thus, squads with the best prospects might have an advantage.
In both Jupiter, Fla., and Regensburg, Germany, some of the game's better prospects will mix with some unaffiliated players as Israel, South Africa, Spain and France try to advance in Florida, while Canada, Great Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic hope to move on in Germany. Only one team from each qualifying group will advance to next spring's tournament next spring, so getting contributions from Minor Leaguers is vital.
There are no Top 100 prospects in either qualifier, but there are plenty of players from the organizational Top 20 lists, found on Prospect Watch, on national team rosters, with many other Minor Leaguers playing as well. And when looking through this prospect primer, keep in mind you won't be the only ones watching how these young players perform.
"We do scout the games and also the main event this March," one pro scouting director said. "Any type of performance gauge we can get on a player, we use. I use the USA-Canada game in the last World Baseball Classic. Phillippe Aumont came in and his competitiveness and the emotion of the moment told us a lot about his desire to win."
QUALIFIER 1: JUPITER, FLA.
Teams: France, Israel, South Africa, Spain
While Team Israel might generate more buzz because of retired players Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler, it also has some legitimate young talent on the roster. Dodgers outfield prospect Joc Pederson is the top-ranked prospect, coming in at No. 4 on the Dodgers' Top 20. In two full seasons, Pederson has put up a .314/.401/.506 line from the left side of the plate, to go along with 52 stolen bases. Jack Marder is the other ranked prospect on the Israeli team. Coming in at No. 14 on the Mariners' Top 20, the University of Oregon product has caught, but seems to be settling in at second base -- both in the Seattle system and for Team Israel. The 2011 16th-round pick spent a good portion of his first full season on the disabled list, but he has a .352/.416/.564 line since becoming a pro, all in the hitter-friendly California League.
South Africa is the only other team at this qualifier with a ranked prospect, and he's just getting started with his professional career. Kieran Lovegrove, a right-hander out of the Southern California high school ranks who was born in Johannesburg, was the Indians' third-round pick in June. The 18-year-old, who struggled a bit in the opener against Israel, is No. 16 on Cleveland's Top 20 after making his professional debut in the rookie-level Arizona League this summer.
Others to watch in Jupiter: RHP Josh Zeid (Israel), a hard-throwing reliever acquired by Houston in the Hunter Pence deal, was in the Astros' Top 20 at the start of the season. ... Pirates shortstop prospect Gift Ngoepe (South Africa) played for Class A Advanced Bradenton this year. ... Rangers OF Engel Beltre (Spain) is a former Top 20 prospect and is just 22 years old.
QUALIFIER 2: REGENSBURG, GERMANY
Teams: Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain
Most see Canada as the favorite to emerge from this qualifier, but that is not the team with the ranked prospects. Great Britain has lefty Chris Reed, No. 3 on the Dodgers' Top 20. The 2011 first-round pick out of Stanford made it to Double-A in his first full season and pitched in the Futures Game, though he missed time with a sore shoulder. He started the opener against Canada and allowed two unearned runs in 2 2/3 innings before he was removed after 51 pitches.
The German team has the other ranked prospect, outfielder Max Kepler. Kepler is No. 18 among the Twins' Top 20. Just 19, the talented but raw outfielder made some good strides in the rookie-level Appalachian League this summer.
Others to watch in Regensburg: While devoid of Top 20 talent, Canada does have some intriguing names on its roster. Pitcher-turned-outfielder Adam Loewen, most recently with the Mets, was a first-round pick because of his arm and has made it to the big leagues as a hitter. ... Speedy Tyson Gillies came to the Phillies in the Cliff Lee deal. The outfielder has had so many hamstring issues that teammates call him "Hamster." ... Twins OF Rene Tosoni is a former Futures Game MVP. ... Outfielder Brock Kjeldgaard began this year in the Brewers' Top 20, and lefty Phillippe Valiquette spent 2012 in the Brewers' system and has teased with his plus fastball, though the results haven't always been there.
Germany's Donald Lutz made it to Double-A in the Reds' system in 2012, spending time in the outfield and first base, while his Classic teammate, outfielder Aaron Altherr, was in the Phillies' Top 20 at the start of the season. ... Reliever Alex Sogard, who made it to Double-A in the Astros' organization, should see mound time for the Czech Republic. ... Great Britain's Michael Roth has had a full year. After helping South Carolina again reach the College World Series championship, he joined the Angels and made his pro debut. On a strict pitch count, he followed Reed in Game 1 against Canada.