(Image courtesy of MLB.com, WBC)

Play Ball!

Ladies and gentlemen, the 2017 World Baseball Classic is officially underway! (Check out our previews of Brackets A, B, and C before pool play continues tomorrow!) After an exciting first day of action that saw Israel take down heavily-favored South Korea in 10 innings, this year’s tournament is certainly living up to the hype. With games starting on Thursday, Bracket D might just be the most exciting bracket of them all. Team Mexico will be joined in Jalisco by fellow powerhouses Venezuela and Puerto Rico and a respectable Italian team. As the deepest bracket in the tournament, expect some of the biggest first-round fireworks to come from Bracket D.

Venezuela

The level of talent on this team is almost as high as the country’s inflation! This lineup is no joke, however. Miguel CabreraJose Altuve, and Carlos Gonzalez lead a powerful offense that also includes Victor Martinez and Martin Prado. Venezuela’s title hopes depend on having consistent production from the lineup, as the pitching rotation is thin behind ace Felix Hernandez and lefty Martin Perez. The tournament’s pitching restrictions will force manager Omar Vizquel to use his bullpen early and often to ensure that Hernandez makes as many starts as possible.

Fortunately for Vizquel, Francisco RodriguezBruce Rondon, and Yusmeiro Petit provide him with solid late-inning options. If Venezuela’s bullpen can hold onto leads, Cabrera & Co. should be able to escape a tough first-round bracket.

Prediction: Venezuela goes 2-1, pushing them to the second round.

Puerto Rico

If you thought the Dominican Republic, United States, or Netherlands had the best infield in this year’s Classic, take a look at the triple threat Puerto Rico will be sending out to play the field. Young phenoms Carlos CorreaFrancisco Lindor, and Javier Baez will play third base, shortstop, and second base for the island with Mike Aviles presumably covering first. Longtime All-Stars Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina provide depth and leadership to this young lineup. Expect Angel Pagan, Kike Hernandez, and Eddie Rosario to make big contributions on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.

Puerto Rico’s weakness is its pitching. Jose Berrios, Seth Lugo, and Hector Santiago anchor the rotation with MLB.com Top 100 Prospect Jose De Leon providing additional firepower if the team advances to the second round. Manager Edwin Rodriguez will most likely turn to Giovanni Soto and J.C. Romero to bridge the gap between his starters and Edwin Diaz.

Prediction: Puerto Rico will go 2-1, but a heart-wrenching tiebreaker will keep Carlos Beltran’s squad from advancing in what is most likely his last WBC.

Mexico

Attempting to rank Puerto Rico and this very talented Mexican team essentially came down to a coin flip. Led by the brothers Gonzalez – older brother Edgar is the manager, while younger bro Adrian anchors the lineup and plays first – the hometown team looks to bounce back from a disappointing 2013 Classic to make some waves in Bracket D. Team Mexico will rely on Danny Espinosa, Khris Davis, and top Dodgers prospect Alex Verdugo to provide additional pop in the lineup.

While Mexico’s lineup certainly lacks the firepower of Venezuela or Puerto Rico, Gonzalez is blessed with the deepest pitching rotation in the bracket. Yovani Gallardo, Jaime Garcia, and Miguel Gonzalez lead the staff with Sergio RomoJoakim SoriaVidal Nuno, and Oliver Perez serving to close out games in the later innings. Mexico’s pitching becomes even more dangerous if the team advances, as Dodgers phenom Julio Urias and Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna are available for the second round.

Prediction: The hometown fans propel Team Mexico to a 2-1 record and the second round after winning the tiebreaker with Puerto Rico.

Italy

Oh, how the Italian mothers wish that sweet Anthony Rizzo were playing for Gli Azzurri this year. The Italians will unfortunately be without their World Series champ, as Rizzo declined to participate in the 2017 edition of the Classic. However, they will have talented Mets infielders Brandon Nimmo and Gavin Cecchini. Chris Colabello, Drew Butera, Daniel Descalso, Francisco Cervelli, and Rob Segedin provide more depth than you’d first expect from this Italian squad. While the lineup doesn’t have the star power found throughout the rest of Bracket D, this offense is still good enough to cause problems for pitching-thin teams like Venezuela and Puerto Rico if the Italians can rack up pitch counts quickly.

Manager Marco Mazzieri finds himself thin on pitching options, as former Major Leaguer Pat Venditte and Tommy Layne have the most big league experience of anyone on the staff. The Italians will certainly rely on their offense to try and pull off upsets against the big dogs of Bracket D.

Prediction: Mentre spero che gli Italiani riescono, la probabilità non è buona quest’anno. Non avanzerrano.

Conclusion

Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Mexico will be in a dog fight to advance. The Italians are unfortunately just along for the ride this year.

Bold Prediction: The top 3 teams will all finish pool play with a 2-1 record. Venezuela and Mexico will advance after Mexico wins the tiebreaker with a close win over Puerto Rico.