Asked what he thought of the competition Team Israel will face at the first World Baseball Classic qualifier, manager Brad Ausmus had to be honest. He didn't really know. The most he's seen of South Africa is at the hotel.
Israel, Spain and France are among the new participants in the expanded tournament field, while South Africa didn't win a game in its two previous attempts in the Classic. But the four teams will quickly get to know each other in Jupiter, Fla., when they kick off the Classic's qualifying rounds at Roger Dean Stadium from Wednesday through Sunday.
Whichever team emerges from the modified double-elimination bracket will join the winner of the other three qualifying rounds, as well as the top 12 teams from the 2009 Classic, to advance to the main tournament in March.
The qualifier begins Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET, when South Africa will play Israel. Spain and France will square off Thursday night at 7. The winners of those games will compete in the semifinals Friday for a chance to advance to the final qualifying game, and whoever drops that game will face the team that emerges from the loser's bracket Saturday for another chance to reach the final game on Sunday at 5 p.m. All of the qualifiers will be available for streaming on worldbaseballclassic.com.
Indeed, as Ausmus said, it is difficult to handicap the field, particularly since the teams have had so little time to practice together and prepare for the qualifier. French manager Jim Stoeckel said he will only have one day to practice with his entire team before opening against Spain on Thursday.
Team Israel, meanwhile, has spent about a week together in South Florida, playing a few games against local colleges to prepare.
"Really, it's a matter of getting these players together who have for the most part never played together," Ausmus said. "It's a matter of getting them on the field together, allowing them to learn how to communicate with each other, understanding what each player does at their position and then just getting the repetitions so they get comfortable with each other on the field."
Ausmus' Israeli team would appear to be the favorite, as it will feature mostly Jewish-American players currently in the Minor Leagues plus former big leaguer Shawn Green, a two-time All-Star who came out of retirement to play for the team. Among the more notable players joining Team Israel from the Minors are catcher Jack Marder, first baseman Cody Decker, outfielder Robbie Widlansky and right-hander Jeff Kaplan.
They'll join Israeli pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, a right-hander whose greatest claim to fame is having pitched 16 straight innings over two games on one day during the European Championship qualifiers.
But Team Spain, playing under manager Mauro Mazzotti, has also built up a track record of success, having added several Minor Leaguers to its roster as well. Spain played deep into the European Championships and won the Italian Baseball Week, a small exhibition leading up to the Euros in which it finished ahead of Italy, Chinese Taipei and the Czech Republic.
The South African team may have struggled in past Classics, but it will return a roster littered with players with experience in the tournament. Led by Rick Magnante, who also managed the team in the 2006 and '09 Classics, South Africa will at the very least have something to prove in the qualifer, attempting to make it back to the Classic and pick up a victory.
Finally, there's Team France, an obvious underdog given its lack of experience, proven talent and Major League connections. The French pitching coach will be a familiar face in former Dodgers closer Eric Gagne, but Stoeckel admitted this will be a learning experience for his players.
"This is very, very new for them," Stoeckel told MLB.com. "This is on a baseball scale that the French have never seen.
"I would say we're a distant fourth in the tournament out of four teams."
But that can't be said for certain until the teams get the first Classic qualifier under way on Wednesday night. Until then, the teams will continue preparing in any way they can without having seen each other on the field.
"We don't know much about them," Ausmus said. "But we are gathering information and have gathered information that we're going to kind of consolidate in the next day or two and use it, certainly hopefully, to our advantage."