Samurai Japan’s quest to reclaim the World Baseball Classic title will begin in the nation’s capital.
Tokyo was announced as a host for both rounds of the Asian region of the 2017 World Baseball Classic during a news conference at the NPB Commissioner’s office on Tuesday. Seoul was announced as the other first-round host.
Sixteen teams will be vying for the crown, won by the Dominican Republic in 2013, when the tournament begins in March of 2017.
The eight teams in the Asian region will be split into two groups. Japan will compete against Australia, China and Cuba at Tokyo Dome from March 7-11. The other four teams, South Korea, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and a team yet to be decided, will compete at Gocheok Sky Dome, which opened in November and is South Korea’s first domed stadium, on the same dates.
The top two teams from each group advance to the second round, which will be held from March 12 at Tokyo Dome.
Japan will be trying to reclaim the crown after winning the first two editions of the tournament but falling short in the semifinal round in 2013.
“Sadaharu Oh was the first manager and he won the title,” manager Hiroki Kokubo said. “Tatsunori Hara was next, and he won the title and then there was Koji Yamamoto. I hope we play well so as to not diminish that history.”
The WBC will be the end of a four-year journey for Kokubo. He was installed as manager of the top team in 2013, when Japan revamped its national program, bringing its various teams, including the women’s squad, together under the Samurai Japan umbrella.
“Our goal is to have our teams become the best in the world at every level,” NPB commissioner Katsuhiko Kumazaki said.
Kokubo said he hopes to assemble the best team possible. As of yet, it’s unclear if it will include major leaguers. There were no MLB players on the Japan roster in 2013.
Kokubo plans to personally speak with each Japanese major leaguer in the coming weeks. That includes veteran Miami Marlins outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, currently two hits away from his 3,000th in the majors. Ichiro played for Japan in 2006 and 2009.
“I already have an appointment to meet Ichiro,” Kokubo said. “I want to speak with him face-to-face.”
One MLB player who may be left out is Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa, who has been essentially persona non grata since spurning NPB for the majors when he came out of Japan’s corporate league after the 2008 season.
Even if Japan’s major leaguers play, the majority of the team will come from NPB clubs. One of those players will almost assuredly be Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace pitcher/designated hitter Shohei Otani. The Fighters star is 8-4 with a 2.02 ERA as a pitcher and hitting .354 with 13 home runs (in 161 at-bats) this season. Kokubo said Otani would be thought of as a pitcher first, but didn’t rule out deploying him in both roles.
“We have to speak with the Fighters first,” Kokubo said.
The Japanese will likely be seen as one of the early favorites, though the road could be tougher if the warmer relations between Cuba and the United States helps draw MLB players to the Cuban team. They are eligible in the eyes of the WBC.
“The composition of the teams is really up to the individual federations,” said Jim Small, MLB’s Vice President for Asia. “That process will take place over the coming months. So no decision has been made about any Cuban players yet. That decision starts with the Cuban team first.”
The status of all MLB players remains unchanged, with MLB teams having the final say on participation in the case of a preexisting injury.
“Each federation will be told when they have to give their preliminary list of players,” Small said. “That’ll be sometime in the fall. That’s when that process starts.”
The other half of the WBC bracket will be announced at a later date.
“It’s in the coming weeks,” Small said. “We haven’t set the final dates yet, but it’ll be in weeks as opposed to months.”
Staff Writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report