By Joe Sparacio
We're down to the semifinals of the 2017 World Baseball Classic. For those baseball fans that are just tuning into the tournament's electric conclusion (beginning Monday night at 9 p.m. with Netherlands vs. Puerto Rico on MLB Network and MLB.TV), let's look at two players to watch from each squad as they try to take home the title.
Jones has garnered five All-Star nods and earned four Gold Glove Awards and a Silver Slugger since his Major League debut in 2006. In second round play, Jones proved that he still has the ability to come up huge when the spotlight shines brightest, as he robbed Baltimore teammate Manny Machado of a home run in a win-or-go-home game against the Dominican Republic. And while both the Orioles and Team USA have unrealized dreams of success, Jones hopes his veteran leadership can help them each reach the Promised Land.
This is Buster Posey's first Classic appearance, and he's already making a huge impact. Due to a combination of injuries and timing, he has missed out on the other tournaments. But the four-time All-Star, three-time World Series champion, three-time Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Award winner is bringing some pedigree to this stacked squad.
Posey's counterpart, Jonathan Lucroy, hit .400 and drove in one run in the 2013 Classic, but the Giants star is up to the task this year, having posted a 1.152 OPS with four RBIs over the first two rounds of the tournament. In 2016, Posey hit .288, recorded 80 RBIs and drilled 14 home runs, guiding the Giants back to the playoffs as an NL Wild Card team. He also notched the 1,000th hit of his career in a Sept. 27 win over the Colorado Rockies, a fitting milestone. The veteran is one of the best catchers in the game and a silent leader, and his addition to the Team USA staff has not only improved its lineup but their young pitching staff, as well.
Molina was actually a backup to Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez in his first two World Baseball Classic stints, but Yadi he's been behind the plate for Puerto Rico in last two tournaments. As a result of his defensive skills, seven hits and two runs scored, the Major League veteran was selected as a member of the All-Tournament Team four years ago.
Molina is a natural leader for the Puerto Rico squad. He has spent his entire 13-year MLB career with the Cardinals, winning two World Series, eight Gold Glove Awards and a Silver Slugger Award, all while expertly guiding a pitching staff that's boasted the likes of Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. He is now one of only six players to participate in all four World Baseball Classics, and his magic touch may be enough to put Puerto Rico over the top this year.
The currently undefeated Puerto Rico team has possibly the deepest infield in the tournament, with players like Javier Baez and Francisco Lindor in the fold. But 22-year-old Correa is the shining star leading the team's youth movement. Born in Ponce, he played at the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School and was selected by the Astros with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 Draft, joining Alex Rodriguez and Adrian Gonzalez as the only Latino players ever to be selected first in the MLB Draft.
The shortstop ranked as the top prospect in Houston's farm system prior to the 2013 season. Just two years later, he took the baseball world by storm, slugging 22 homers in fewer than 100 games while helping lead a young Astros team to a playoff berth. At just 20 years old, he would win the American League Rookie of the Year Award, and in 2016, he tallied 96 RBIs and 20 homers. In the 2017 tournament, he has posted an OPS over 1.300 with eight runs scored, seven RBIs and two steals in just six games.
Japan placed third during the 2013 World Baseball Classic, and third baseman Matsuda's all-around contributions helped the team get to that point. Following a season in which he batted .300 in Nippon Professional Baseball, the right-hander batted .333 with seven hits, five RBIs and a .571 slugging percentage for Japan in the World Baseball Classic, all top-five marks on the team. He was a key contributor in wins over Brazil and Chinese Taipei, knocking in an insurance run in the first contest and scoring the go-ahead run in the latter.
Matsuda has since helped the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks win two more Japan Series titles and secured Mitsui Golden Glove awards each season from 2013-15. In the early rounds of the 2017 Classic, he scored seven runs and collected five RBIs in five games played, continuing his sizzling international pace.
Nippon Professional Baseball's Tokyo Yakult Swallows drafted Yamada out of high school back in 2011, and he had a breakout campaign in 2014, hitting .324 with 29 home runs and 89 RBI. He followed that up with a stellar 2015, during which he upped his average by five points while launching 38 home runs and collecting 100 RBI.
A member of the 30-30 club in two straight seasons, Yamada has played numerous infield positions throughout his career thus far. Still just 24, he has already captured the 2015 Central League Most Valuable Player award, leading the league in home runs, doubles, runs scored and stolen bases, and he helped the Swallows reach the Japan Series in the same season. Keep an eye on him; while Yamada isn't leading the team in any category, he has contributed in every facet of the game, chipping in a steal, two homers, six hits, four runs scored and a .419 OBP through the first two rounds of play. Before you know it, he could very well be the next Major Leaguer to come out of Japan.
Kingdom of the Netherlands
Four years ago, Simmons was just a 23-year-old shortstop who had played in 49 Major League games and hadn't yet made a name for himself. That would soon change. In the 2013 World Baseball Classic, he scored the most runs in the entire tournament (10), tallied 10 hits, posted a 1.016 OPS and swatted two homers over eight games for the Netherlands.
The Curacao native also flashed the outstanding defensive ability that would soon become his calling card. Following the 2013 tournament, Simmons would win his first of two straight Gold Glove Awards. He's back for the 2017 tournament, and his stellar play up the middle has continued. He has even batted .333 with a .357 OBP to boot.
It wasn't too long ago that Profar was considered the crown jewel in the Texas Rangers' farm system. In 2012, he was heralded as an elite, five-tool prospect rated No. 1 overall by MLB.com, but after a cup of coffee in the Majors a year later, he ended up missing all of the 2014 and much of 2015 thanks to a shoulder injury. Profar was on the 2013 World Baseball Classic roster due to his prospect pedigree, but he only played in one game and didn't register a hit.
Much has changed four years later. The budding talent made it back to the Majors in 2016 in a utility role and tallied almost 300 at-bats. After shaking off the rust, he began to show some of that talked-about promise, and convinced the Rangers that he deserves a chance to be on the roster for the upcoming season. In the 2017 Classic, Profar has been nothing short of phenomenal. Thus far, he has posted an otherworldly .577 OBP and a .522 batting average over the first two rounds, and his versatility will certainly come in handy after Gregorius sustained an injury that will prevent him from participating in the semifinals. Still only 24 years old, Profar is still younger than a slew of prospects and 2017 may finally be his year to shine.