April 12, 2024
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Israel to Play in the World Baseball Classic

Israel isn’t exactly an international powerhouse when it comes to sports. Being a small country, it pretty much comes with the (limited) territory. One of the most famous performances by any Israeli athlete or team came in 2017 when the baseball team somehow won their first four games in the World Baseball Classic (WBC).

They were eliminated after dropping their next two games, but those four wins were enough to earn the team an automatic spot in the next WBC, which will have started by the time you’re reading this.

So what do you have to know about the WBC and Israel’s chances of making some noise again this year? That’s a good question. In fact, let me try to answer all your questions.

What do I need to know about the format?

This year’s WBC is expanded to 20 teams. Teams are organized into four groups of five to start the tournament. Each team plays a full round robin of their group and the top two finishers advance to the next round.

Who is in Israel’s group? Does Israel have a good chance to win?

Here’s where the bad news comes in. Israel’s group features the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Nicaragua. The first of those three might all be top five teams in the entire tournament. So finishing in the top two will be very, very difficult.

The (lack of) luck of the draw has really hamstrung Israel’s chances. While they should beat Nicaragua, they likely have to win two of their other three games. Even winning one would be seen as an accomplishment.

That game against Nicaragua is somewhat crucial for the next WBC though. The expansion to 20 teams from the previous 16 means that the team that comes in last place in every group must requalify for the next WBC. So even the teams that don’t move on have something to play for.

That said, nobody expected 2017 to happen either, so you never know.

Hold on a second. I don’t recall there being a bunch of Israeli baseball players in the Major Leagues. How is Israel creating a roster to compete?

Great question. Let’s just say that the rules for who is allowed to represent which country happen to greatly benefit those wearing the Star of David on their jerseys.

You see, in order to truly get a World Baseball Classic, the tournament decided to make a player eligible to play for a team if that player:

1. Was born in the country, holds citizenship or has a permanent residence in the country.

2. Has documentation showing he is eligible for citizenship in the country if he applied.

3. Has at least one parent who was born in the country or holds citizenship.

4. Previously represented the country in the WBC.

The Israeli Law of Return grants anybody who is Jewish or anybody that has a Jewish parent, grandparent, or spouse the right of Israeli citizenship. In other words, they are eligible for Israeli citizenship whether they’ve exercised that right or not. Therefore, rule #2 applies and anybody eligible for the Law of Return is eligible to play for Israel in the WBC.

Shlomo Lipetz is the only Israeli-born player on the roster, though he’s on the reserve list for this tournament as he’s now 44 years old. All other players were born in the United States.

Are there any special rules for the WBC that I should know about?

The WBC is basically using last year’s Major League Baseball rules. So there are some of the newer rules, but none of the ones that are being instituted for this
season (larger bases, banning the shift, pitch clock.

The biggest rule difference is pitcher pitch limits. The idea here is to not anger MLB teams by having pitchers hurt their arms before the season even starts. For the pool play round, the limit is 65 pitches per pitcher.

Lastly, there is a mercy rule of 10 runs by the seventh or 15 runs by the fifth.

OK. Who is playing for Israel?

Let’s make our way around the diamond.

Catcher is an interesting spot for Israel as they have both Ryan Lavarnway and Garrett Stubbs. Lavarnway is one of the few players with an Israeli passport as he obtained Israeli citizenship and has played for Israel in the last WBC and the 2020 Olympics. While he was crucial to those teams, he’s currently 35, a free agent and wasn’t in the MLB last season. Stubbs is the back-up catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies and one of the few MLB players on the roster. He played well last year and might be starting if the Phillies didn’t also have one of the best catchers in the world. Both will likely get time on the field for Israel.

The infield is on the weaker side, but has a ton of upside with two great prospects on the right side. First base will be covered by Matt Mervis, a top prospect in the Chicago Cubs system, while second base will feature Zack Gelof, a prized asset for the Oakland Athletics.

The left side is a little trickier. Danny Valencia has been retired from baseball for almost five years now, but has become a mainstay for Israel since obtaining Israeli citizenship in 2019. At 38 years old, you’ll see him playing either shortstop or third base depending on what Israel chooses to do about Ty Kelly and Spencer Horwitz. Kelly also has Israeli citizenship and has played for Israel since 2019. Currently a free agent, he spent last year in the Dodgers’ organization and has been a journeyman MLB player for many seasons. Horwitz is the opposite. An up and coming player in the Blue Jays system, he’s only 25 years old and might be a future star for this team. One of the two will likely play next to Valencia on the left side of the infield, while the other will probably end up in the outfield.

Anchoring the outfield (and certainly the line-up) will be Joc Petersen. An MLB All-Star last season for the San Francisco Giants, Petersen catching fire might be the only thing that could put Israel over the top from a run-scoring perspective. The other outfield spot should be inhabited by Alex Dickerson, a free agent who spent last year going back and forth between the majors and minors (like most of his career) with the Atlanta Braves.

On the mound, Dean Kremer is the ace for team Israel. Coming off a breakout season with the surprising Baltimore Orioles, Kremer was the first Israeli ever drafted in the MLB draft. His parents are Israeli, he speaks fluent Hebrew, and he spends part of every offseason with his family in Israel. In 22 games last season, he had a 3.23 earned run average and his MLB experience will be huge for the Israelis given their tough draw.

The other three starters are shaping up to be Robert Stock, Colton Gordon and Brandon Gold. Stock is another player who is in and out of the majors (this season he will be with the Milwaukee Brewers organization), and though he is usually a bullpen arm, he’s probably a starter for this team. Gordon hasn’t yet seen MLB action, but Israel is hoping that he will be a breakout star for them as he’s been developing nicely in the Houston Astros system and is only 24 years old. Gold pitched in AAA-ball for the Colorado Rockies last season and should pick up the final start for Israel.

The bullpen doesn’t carry a ton of experience other than the few arms who’ve seen some MLB action. Richard Bleier (now of the Boston Red Sox after an offseason trade from the Miami Marlins) is the most reliable choice if Israel Manager Ian Kinsler has to make the call. Jake Bird’s sidearm delivery could offer a great change of pace for the Israelis, as the Rockies pitcher makes his debut for the blue and white.

Yes, Jacob Steinmetz is on the roster. The recent HAFTR graduate who is in the Arizona Diamondbacks minor league system might get an inning here or there, but don’t expect the 19-year-old to get a ton of playing time. The next WBC might be a more realistic goal.

When are Israel’s games and where can I watch them?

Should you be reading this in Florida, make your way to Miami where Israel’s group is based and try to go cheer them on in person!

 

Date Game Time (ET) Channel
March 12 Nicaragua vs. Israel 12 p.m. FS2
March 13 Israel vs. Puerto Rico 7 p.m. FS1
March 14 Israel vs. Dominican Republic 7 p.m. FS2
March 15 Venezuela vs. Israel 12 p.m. FS2

Nati Burnside is a freelance writer living in Fair Lawn and is a man of many interests. He can be reached at [email protected].

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