Major League Baseball
Projecting World Baseball Classic pitching rotations for Team USA, other contenders
Major League Baseball

Projecting World Baseball Classic pitching rotations for Team USA, other contenders

Updated Mar. 2, 2023 8:50 p.m. ET

The fifth edition of the World Baseball Classic is almost here, with the action finally getting started next week. 

As fun as it is to gawk at the lineups these international squads have assembled, the other side of the ball may have an even greater impact on who comes out on top. While almost every team in the tournament has some MLB-caliber talent on the position player side, only a select few boast pitching staffs that appear capable of making a real run beyond pool play.

Talent alone won’t be the only thing that dictates how effective each team’s pitching will be in the WBC. While they will not be playing with the new pitch clock rules and shift restrictions, there are regulations regarding pitch counts to help prevent overuse for many of the pitchers ramping up for the MLB season. These regulations are different for each stage of the tournament:

  • 65 pitches per game in the first round (pool play)
  • 80 pitches per game in the quarterfinals
  • 95 pitches per game in the semifinals and final

If a pitch count is reached during the middle of an at-bat, the pitcher is allowed to exceed it to complete the at-bat. There are also guidelines regarding days rest required for pitchers corresponding to their workloads:

  • If a pitcher throws 50 or more pitches, at least four days must pass until he pitches again
  • If a pitcher throws 30 or more pitches, at least one day must pass until he pitches again
  • If a pitcher pitches on consecutive days, at least one day must pass until he pitches again

These rules and restrictions will undoubtedly influence the strategy deployed by teams with an unusual wealth of pitching options. Quality of the opponent will also be a factor. While upsets are always possible and no team in this tournament should be taken lightly, teams may organize their pitching with the bigger picture in mind, saving their best arms for the best opponents rather than lining up the rotation strictly in order of ability. In addition to the rules, it’s also possible that certain pitchers only have permission from their respective MLB teams to pitch in a certain number of games or innings in the tournament, which may also impact how each team deploys its arms. 

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at how the pitching could line up for the six strongest teams heading into the 2023 World Baseball Classic. It’s possible a relative underdog like Korea, Canada or Italy goes on a run beyond pool play that ousts one or more of these teams from the tourney. But based strictly on the balance and strength of the rosters, these six squads stand out as the clear-cut favorites — and the betting odds reflect that

Dominican Republic – Pool D

  • March 11: Venezuela
  • March 13: Nicaragua
  • March 14: Israel
  • March 15: Puerto Rico

The focus for this ridiculously loaded team will remain on the lineup, and deservedly so — it’s a comical amount of star talent assembled in one batting order: 

That said, the Dominican pitching staff was looking similarly outrageous before two ace-caliber arms dropped out in Luis Castillo and Framber Valdez. But even with the late dropouts, Team D.R. still boasts arguably the best pitcher in the entire tournament in Sandy Alcántara and a bullpen chock-full of flamethrowers. Having Alcántara for two starts, beginning with the highly-anticipated opener against Venezuela and again sometime in the knockout round is an enormous advantage for D.R. but also puts immense pressure on him to perform to his fullest capabilities. The three starters after Alcántara appear to be Cristian Javier, Johnny Cueto and Roansy Contreras, rounding out a rotation of wonderful contrast of pitchers at various stages in their careers: Alcántara the ace, Javier the rising star, Cueto the crafty veteran, and Roansy the rookie looking to make a name for himself.

The challenge here will be if any of these starters falters, the bullpen, as good as it is, consists primarily of one-inning weapons rather than guys who can go multiple frames. Look for Dominican Winter League icon César Valdez to provide length — or even a surprise start — if the situation calls for it.

This imbalance on the staff may result in manager Rodney Linares deploying an All-Star Game strategy of sorts, turning to a different dynamic reliever every inning en route to 27 outs. This may not be tenable for every game of the tournament, but he’ll have no shortage of terrifyingly talented relievers to call on, from World Series-tested Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero and Hector Neris to veterans like Luis Garcia, Diego Castillo and Carlos Estévez to rising relief stars like Camilo Doval. There won’t be too many wrong buttons to press, but Linares may have to press a lot of buttons to get through this thing. Granted, it also may not matter if the lineup scores a bajillion runs a game. 

USA — Pool C

  • March 11: Great Britain
  • March 12: Mexico
  • March 13: Canada
  • March 15: Colombia

Like with Team D.R., it’s hard to talk about this pitching staff without acknowledging who won’t be participating. Clayton Kershaw, Logan Webb and Nestor Cortes were all reportedly slated to suit up for Team USA but have each withdrawn from participating for a variety of reasons in recent weeks. What remains is a starting rotation that may look a tad underwhelming on paper but, when you consider the offense that will be supporting it, should still be plenty good enough to win the whole thing. Recall that Team USA won the 2017 World Baseball Classic with a rotation of Marcus Stroman, Chris Archer, Danny Duffy, Tanner Roark and Drew Smyly. Sure, it would be cool to have the likes of Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole dominating on the international stage, but it's not required for a team this good offensively to succeed. 

Mike Trout & USA or Julio Rodriguez & Dominican Republic?

Team USA and the Dominican Republic each have loaded lineups, but pitching might be the deciding factor between the two loaded squads.

This year, it'll be 41-year-old Adam Wainwright leading the charge ahead of what is expected to be his final MLB season. His stuff may not be nearly what it used to be, but the dude still gets outs and I'd expect nothing less from him on the international stage. Wainwright's Cardinals teammate Miles Mikolas is coming off another All-Star season and appears to be another lock to start a game in pool play. Beyond the two St. Louis arms, there are five other legitimate candidates to start: Brady SingerMerrill KellyKyle FreelandLance Lynn and Nick Martinez. Lynn would've seemed like a lock for a start a year ago, but he's coming off a disappointing and injury-plagued season. Singer, the youngest pitcher on the roster, seems primed for a possible breakout in this tournament following his quietly stellar year for Kansas City. Kelly and Martinez each have found recent success in MLB after playing in leagues in Asia; might they earn a WBC start over veterans like Lynn or Kyle Freeland?

With seven games being the maximum a team can play, it's possible Team USA just rolls with a different starter in every game rather than bring back Wainwright or Mikolas for the semifinals or championship. If it were up to me, I'd go with Singer and Mikolas against Mexico and Canada and bring them each back for the semis and finals in some order. It'll be equally interesting to see how the bullpen shakes out. Ryan Pressly looks like the safest pick to close games, but how manager Mark DeRosa deploys the likes of Devin WilliamsKendall GravemanDavid Bednar and Adam Ottavino in the later innings will be fascinating to watch.  

Japan — Pool B

  • March 9: China
  • March 10: South Korea
  • March 11: Czech Republic
  • March 12: Australia

Not only does Japan have the strongest starting rotation in the tournament, they also have the easiest path to the knockout round. Korea is formidable and a longtime rival of Japan in international competition — they will be a challenge, no doubt. But while Australia, China and the Czech Republic team will be fun underdogs to root for, they are also three of the weakest teams in the entire tournament otherwise. Add in the fact that Japan gets to host this pool in the world-famous Tokyo Dome, and it’s easy to understand why they are one of the clear-cut favorites.

But even if their pool were more challenging, it’d be difficult to pick against the roster Samurai Japan has put together — especially on the mound. Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish lead the way, each having taken MLB by storm in thrilling fashion over the past decade. They now have the opportunity to represent their country both at home in Tokyo and likely in the U.S. in the knockout round as Japan seeks their third WBC title. 

You already know how good Ohtani and Darvish are, but don't overlook the two aces slated to start beyond them in 21-year-old Roki Sasaki and 24-year-old Yoshinobu Yamamoto. With Kodai Senga gone, these are the two most coveted pitchers left in NPB. Sasaki's pure arm talent is nearly unmatched across the entire baseball universe, with his heater regularly touching triple-digits and complimented by a vicious array of secondary pitches.

Yamamoto’s stuff isn’t quite as electric but his track record is longer — he owns a 1.95 ERA in 733 career NPB innings. Unlike Sasaki who will likely remain in Japan for several more years, Yamamoto is expected to be posted for MLB teams following the 2023 season

It’s already been reported that Ohtani will start Game 1 against China, which sets him up to return for a quarter or semifinal assignment at Marlins Park. Darvish then makes sense to start against rival Korea, leaving Australia and Czech Republic the pleasure of dealing with Sasaki and Yamamoto. Sasaki and Yamamoto would then be lined up to piggyback the championship game if Japan opts against saving Ohtani or Darvish for the end. 

The remainder of Japan’s pitching staff is a who’s who of NPB excellence. Shosei Togo, a 22-year-old righty who finished third among NPB pitchers in WAR behind only Yamamoto and Sasaki, is one of eight pitchers on the Japanese staff who excelled as NPB starters in 2022. Yuki Matsui (0.77 WHIP, 1.92 ERA, 42.8% strikeout rate in 2022) and Ryoji Kuribayashi (68 saves over last 2 NPB seasons) headline a similarly loaded relief corps. Even without Ohtani and Darvish, this would probably be the deepest pitching staff in the entire tournament. 

Puerto Rico — Pool D

  • March 11: Nicaragua
  • March 12: Venezuela
  • March 13: Israel
  • March 15: Dominican Republic

This team has two clear-cut top arms in Stroman (who pitched for Team USA in the 2017 WBC but is now representing a new team in honor of his mother who was born in Puerto Rico) and Jose Berrios. Puerto Rico's schedule presents a dilemma of sorts, as their toughest game against the Dominican Republic is not until their final game of pool play. Do they save one of their aces for that? Or do they prioritize the first three games and use one of Stroman/Berrios against Venezuela and the other against a weaker team in Nicaragua or Israel? Complicating matters is that saving Stroman or Berrios until the final game of pool play will likely make it more difficult to bring them back in time for an elimination game in the quarters or semifinals. 

Mets No. 9 prospect Dominic Hamel, who started 24 games in A-ball last year, could be a strong candidate to start the third game against Team Israel if they are intent on saving Stroman or Berrios for the Dominican Republic game. Beyond Hamel, former top prospect Jose De Leon and veteran lefty Hector Santiago are each coming off strong campaigns as starters in the Puerto Rican Winter League — either of them could realistically get the start in the fourth game or deeper into the tournament, depending on the matchup. 

While the rotation is somewhat thin compared to the other favorites, the good news is that Puerto Rico has one of the better bullpens in the whole tournament, led by the Díaz brothers throwing absolute flames with similarly devastating sliders. Everyone knows how good Edwin is, but this could be a great opportunity for his younger brother Alexis to grab the attention of those who may have understandably missed his fantastic rookie campaign for the 2022 Reds. The Twins' bullpen will also be well represented on this squad, with Emilio PagánJorge Lopez and lefty Jovani Moran all strong options for Puerto Rico in relief.                                                                                        

And as if all the decisions regarding the sequencing of pitchers weren’t intriguing enough on their own, remember that it’ll be up to manager Yadier Molina to figure it all out as the tournament goes on. That should be fun!

Venezuela — Pool D

  • March 11: Dominican Republic
  • March 12: Puerto Rico
  • March 14: Nicaragua
  • March 15: Israel

Venezuela’s pitching staff is an inverse of the Dominican team in the sense that they have more starting pitchers than there are games to be played, and a significantly weaker bullpen. Rather than send out flame-throwing reliever after flame-throwing reliever one inning at a time, Venezuela could realistically piggyback multiple starting pitchers in each game to compensate for a lack of bullpen depth.

This may be slightly less feasible with the late withdrawal of Rockies ace Germán Márquez from the tournament, but there are still more than enough arms to pull this off if they so choose. For example, Venezuela's best chance at shutting down the high-powered offenses of Puerto Rico or Dominican Republic might be to combine Pablo López and Martín Pérez in one start, or perhaps Jesús Luzardo and Luis GarciaRanger Suárez and Eduardo Rodriguez are also each capable of starting on their own or in a piggyback capacity — heck, we just saw Suárez do it successfully in this past postseason. 

Verlander's 3-5 rankings of top WBC teams

Ben Verlander gives his 3-5 rankings for the WBC, including Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Japan.

Even lesser-known guys like Carlos HernandezElieser Hernandez and Max Castillo have demonstrated the ability to go multiple innings. They could prove awfully valuable in the right spot, especially if manager Omar Lopez would prefer to stay away from his thin bullpen in mid-game, high-leverage situations.   

Ah, about that thin bullpen: Lefty Jose Alvarado can get anyone on Earth out when he's right, but he's hardly the most consistent arm in terms of strike-throwing and he's by far the best reliever on this roster. Guys like Jose RuizJose Quijada and Jhoulys Chacin will need to step up big at some point if this team wants to make a deep run, even if all the starting pitching meshes together and performs well.

Mexico — Pool C

  • March 11: Colombia
  • March 12: United States
  • March 13: Great Britain
  • March 15: Canada

Don't sleep on Team Mexico. Not only do they have a quietly intimidating offense — although it did just take a hit with the withdrawal of Alejandro Kirk — but they also have one of the best pitchers in the tournament in Julio Urías and surprising depth beyond him. It starts with Urías, though, and when they choose to hand him the ball in pool play will undoubtedly set the tone for Mexico in this tournament. Throwing him against Team USA seems like obvious answer, but it might make sense to just roll with him in Game 1 to ensure he has maximum rest for the knockout round. 

Mexico headlines Verlander's 6-10 rankings of top WBC teams

Ben Verlander gives his 6-10 rankings for the WBC, which includes Mexico, Cuba, Canada, Korea and Netherlands.

The three starters behind Urías appear fairly set in stone, with Patrick SandovalTaijuan Walker and José Urquidy all available as quality mid-rotation starters with proven MLB experience. If Urías goes against Team USA, the southpaw Sandoval may be the best option to face Canada considering several of their best hitters (Freddie FreemanEdouard JulienBo Naylor) are left-handed. However you line up these four starters, they'll be in pretty good shape to make it out of this group and perhaps a deeper run. 

The bullpen isn't quite as strong, with Giovanny Gallegos projected as the closer with guys like Luis Cessa, lefty JoJo Romero and the eternal Oliver Perez as the most recognizable names slated for relief duties. MLB rookies Javier Assad and Adrian Martinez could serve as valuable multi-inning bridges to the back of the bullpen if they aren't needed to start a game later in the tourney. 

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for, DAZN and The Ringer. He's a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_. 

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