— The year 2013 is an awfully long time from now, yet if the 2009 World Baseball Classic taught us anything, it’s that baseball is indeed improving outside the traditional hotbeds of the U.S., Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Japan, Korea, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Panama.
So here are four countries to watch in the next four years — and to look for in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
1. The Netherlands
No country was a bigger surprise in the 2009 World Baseball Classic than the Netherlands, which beat the heavily-favored Dominican Republic not once, but twice, in round one to advance to the quarterfinals.
Now, the already well-organized Dutch Baseball Federation has plenty of marketability to continue growing the game on its two Caribbean islands, Aruba and Curacao, but most notably in Holland in Europe where MLB International has made major investments on the continent with its European Academy.
Over the next four years, MLB fans will get to see the growth and development of pitchers Jair Jurrjens and Shairon Martis (who threw a no-hitter in the ’06 Classic), and slugger Greg Halman (Mariners prospect), among others. Other Dutch players to watch include pitchers Alexander Smit (Reds prospect) and Rick VandenHurk (Marlins prospect), and possibly Hainley Statia (Angels prospect) and Yurendell de Caster (Tigers prospect).
Curacao won the 2004 Little League World Series and don’t be surprised if they return to Williamsport in the next four years. The Dutch’s stunning performance in the 2009 World Baseball Classic could do wonders for baseball throughout the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
In 1999, Australia stunned the Cubans to win the Intercontinental Cup, its first ever — and to date — lone championship in international baseball. The mates from Down Under nearly did it again 10 years later, losing 5-4 to the Cubans in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
After a dismal 0-3 record in the 2006 WBC, the Aussies also pummeled Mexico in this year’s tournament, 17-7, although Mexico also returned the favor, beating the mates, 16-1. Still, the Aussies' thunder was largely the result of a much improved roster from three years earlier.
Australia hasn’t had an MLB All-Star since Dave Nilsson in 1999, but the next four years appear very bright with up-and-coming prospects like pitcher Drew Naylor (Phillies prospect), infielder Luke Hughes (Twins prospect) and outfielder Mitch Dening (Red Sox prospect), plus veteran pitchers Grant Balfour (Rays), Ryan-Rowland Smith (Mariners) and Peter Moylan (Braves). Who’s to say Australia isn’t the Netherlands of the 2013 World Baseball Classic?
After getting clobbered in its three games of the 2006 World Baseball Classic by a combined score of 40-6, China showcased in the 2009 World Baseball Classic that it has indeed caught up to its chief rival, Taiwan (Chinese Taipei).
China beat Taiwan, 8-7, in the 2008 Olympics and again in the World Baseball Classic, 4-1, no small feat considering they’ve been playing baseball on Taiwan for decades and the island has won 17 Little League World Series titles. But MLB’s No. 1 international priority — to find the Yao Ming of baseball — appears to be paying off in the land of 3 billion strong.
Since 2000, MLB has been sending former MLB players like Jim Lefebvre, Bruce Hurst and Terry Collins, among others, to China. And the hard work was on display in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Contributions from infielder Ray Chang and pitchers Jiangang Lu and Junyi Chen, were among the most promising player highlights of what the future might look like for the Chinese in the Classic.
It will be fascinating to see how much better China can be four years from now. And here’s an undeniable fact: the number of school-age athletes in the Land of Mao alone is larger than the entire population of the U.S. If only a small percentage of these young Chinese can start playing baseball, look out.
For the second straight year, Nicaragua was not invited to the World Baseball Classic but it’s hard to imagine MLB denying this Central American country of 4 million a chance to compete in a possibly expanded 2013 WBC. After all, except for Cuba and the Dominican Republic, in no country do young boys play baseball more in the streets than in Nicaragua.
The country has only one notable MLB player in pitcher Vicente Padilla and hasn’t produced a bona-fide superstar since “El Presidente,” Dennis Martinez. But with its winter league back in the fold and a number of players in the U.S. Minor Leagues, including Mariners pitching prospects Juan Ramirez and Francisco Valdivia, Nicaragua is yet another country to watch in the next four years.
Honorable Mentions: Italy also showed marked improvement in the 2009 Classic, although its roster was once again bolstered by quasi-Italian MLB players who weren’t even born there (although somebody in their family heritage was). Still, Alessandro Maestri is an Italian-born pitcher who the Cubs are high on, and if he makes a splash, Italian baseball could definitely be one to watch in the next four years … Baseball is the No. 1 sport in Panama, but it may grow significantly in the next four years if its able to re-launch a winter league as it also has plans to open at least two new ballparks … Another country we might see in a 2013 World Baseball Classic is Colombia, which, like Nicaragua, has a number of players in the U.S. Minor Leagues, including pitcher Julio Teheran (Braves) and Ernesto Frieri (Padres).