The allure of the World Baseball Classic is its promise of delivering a high-stakes tournament that features the best players in the world.
An abundance of caution from MLB teams — particularly with their pitchers — puts a slight dent in that notion, but this year’s WBC will feature a collection of talent that’s nothing short of outstanding.
To give you a sense of the kind of star power on show in the tournament, what follows is a ranking of the best players participating. It is a subjective exercise informed by objective measures, but if you disagree with some of what you see that’s understandable.
There is no perfect way to line these players up, this is just one man’s attempt — so away we go:
1. Shohei Ohtani SP/DH – Japan
Ohtani sits atop this list for obvious reasons. He’s simultaneously a top-of-the-rotation starter and a fearsome slugger while making things happen on the bases.
We have every reason to believe he’d be a good defensive outfielder too, even if he’s rarely gotten the opportunity to show that.
The 28-year-old is a lock to be in the MVP race every year that he’s healthy, and it’d be hard to make that claim for any other player featured at the World Baseball Classic.
2. Mike Trout OF – United States
You could quibble with Trout in this spot because he hasn’t been at the top of many leaderboards lately, but when healthy he remains an unbelievable all-around threat.
The 31-year-old ranked 16th among all position players in fWAR last season (6.0) despite missing 43 games. If he’d managed 650 plate appearances at his pace, his 7.8 fWAR would’ve been behind only Aaron Judge.
Even during his injury-ravaged 2021, his fWAR per 650 PA was an astounding 9.8. As long as he’s 100 percent physically, it’s fair to characterize Trout as the most dangerous hitter at the tournament.
3. Manny Machado 3B – Dominican Republic
Machado just signed a $350-million extension and he could be worth every penny of it.
His year-to-year consistency lags behind some fellow superstars, but he’s still finished in the top three in MVP voting in two of the last three years — including a runner-up nod in 2022 — and posted a wRC+ of 140 in three of the last five.
Along with his contribution at the plate he plays excellent defence at third base where he’s a two-time Gold Glove winner with a Platinum Glove on his shelf.
4. Nolan Arenado 3B – United States
Arenado has a similar all-around skill set to Machado, but his strengths are tilted more towards defence.
The 32-year-old has won a Gold Glove in every one of his MLB seasons, with six Platinum Glove awards on his resume.
We have him below Machado because he only has one season with a wRC+ over 135 to Machado’s four, is a touch older, and tends to be a negative on the bases. That said, whichever all-in-one value metric you look at these guys have been neck-in-neck throughout their careers.
5. Mookie Betts OF – United States
Betts has won both the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove at his position in five of the last seven seasons, finishing top-five in MVP voting four times.
At this point in his career his tools aren’t as loud as they used to be, but there simply isn’t a hole in his game.
The biggest strike against him in a 2021 season that was mediocre by his standards (3.8 fWAR driven by a 130 wRC+), but he bounced back in a big way last year with a 6.6 fWAR campaign and a career-high in home runs (35).
6. Trea Turner SS – United States
Turner doesn’t have the same raw star power as some of his contemporaries here, but his numbers are nearly unmatched.
Over the last three years his fWAR ranks third in the majors among position players and ZiPS projects him to finish behind only Aaron Judge in 2023. That may seem surprising as Turner isn’t the same calibre of hitter as some of the players below him, and he doesn’t have much hardware to his name.
However, he is an elite threat on the base paths and plies his trade at the shortstop position. If his work there graded out more consistently he could go as high as third on this list, but his defensive metrics have been all over the place — and he’s on the other side of his defensive prime as he approaches 30.
7. José Ramírez 3B – Dominican Republic
Ramírez isn’t too much like Turner stylistically, but he has similar fWAR numbers, ranking second among all position players over the past three years and projecting for fourth in 2023.
The Cleveland Guardians superstar has finished in the top four in MVP voting in four of the last six seasons and does just about everything on the baseball diamond at an extremely high level.
The only categories he’s ever led the American League in a full season since his breakout in 2017 are doubles and intentional walks, but he’s been a Silver Slugger four times since then. His combination of power and speed is rare, and he has more position versatility than most stars because he began his MLB career as a utility man.
8. Paul Goldschmidt 1B – United States
Goldschimdt is a reigning MVP coming off an outstanding offensive season (177 wRC+) and brings more value in the field and on the bases than the vast majority of first baseman.
Even so, it’s hard to put him at the very top of this list because his position puts a ceiling on the defensive value he brings — even if he plays it extremely well.
One underrated ability in Goldschmidt’s toolbox is availability as he hasn’t missed more than 11 games in a season since 2014.
9. Freddie Freeman 1B – Canada
Freeman and Goldschidt are extremely similar players with the former excelling more as a contact hitter from the left side while the latter brings right-handed thump.
Team Canada’s centrepiece can’t match Goldschmidt’s defensive reputation, but he did win a Gold Glove in 2018. He also has two seasons with double-digit steals and set his career high last year with 13.
If you were looking to put Freeman above the St. Louis Cardinals star you could point to his postseason resume. We’re going to prioritize Goldschmidt’s superior offensive 2022 instead, but we’re splitting hairs.
10. Juan Soto OF – Dominican Republic
Soto has plate discipline that’s borderline Bondsian and enough power to make pitchers pay when he forces them into the zone. He’s been the biggest offensive threat on a World Series champion and had an immense level of success before his 25th birthday.
That said, he’s coming off a season where he struggled to compile hits and his defence graded out dismally.
His ceiling is immense but he doesn’t offer the all-round contributions of the players at the top of this list or the consistency of the Goldschmidt-Freeman duo.
11. J.T. Realmuto C – United States
The contribution of catchers is extremely difficult to quantify, which makes Realmuto a hard man to place.
That said, he’s the undisputed best backstop on the planet who is an asset at the plate and behind it. He’s got the best pop time in the major leagues while flashing 86th percentile Sprint Speed on the bases and hitting the ball hard to all fields.
Realmuto has an extremely rare skill set. The closest thing he has to a weakness is his power as he’s never topped 25 home runs or slugged .500. Even so, his ISO has been above league average in five consecutive seasons.
12. Francisco Lindor SS – Puerto Rico
Lindor is more of a good hitter than a great one, but his defensive wizardry at shortstop is unmatched.
According to Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average Metric, the New York Mets star has ranked in the 98th percentile at his position — or better — in every season since 2017.
That alone makes him immensely valuable, but he’s also a matchup-proof switch hitter with above-average power who adds value on the bases. Lindor is coming off the second-best offensive season of his career by wRC (127).
13. Carlos Correa SS – Puerto Rico
After struggling to stay healthy between 2017 and 2019 and just plain struggling in a pandemic-shortened 2020, Correa has put together two outstanding seasons.
He’s accumulated 10.6 fWAR since 2021, winning the Platinum Glove that season and producing a 136 wRC+ in 1,230 plate appearances.
His defensive metrics crashed back to earth last year, and while it’s still safe to describe him as an excellent shortstop, he’s not quite on Lindor’s level. He’s also never put up particular gaudy home run totals, peaking at 26 in 2021.
14. Sandy Alcántara SP – Dominican Republic
Alcántara’s placement here is out of respect for his 2022 season, which was outstanding. Last year the right-hander led the National League in innings pitched (228.1) and complete games (6) while producing a stellar 2.28 ERA.
That Roy Halladay-esque performance earned him an NL Cy Young Award, and he’s the betting favourite to receive that honour again in 2023.
An unimpressive strikeout rate is a strike against him, but Alcántara’s 96th-percentile velocity — and the outstanding horizontal run on his fastballs — should make him hard to square up at this tournament, and into the season.
15. José Altuve 2B – Venezuela
Altuve’s shortened 2020 was brutal (.219/.286/.344), but he’s shown the 48-game funk was a fluke since. His 11.9 fWAR over the last two years ranks sixth among all MLB position players and he produced a career-high 164 wRC+ last year.
We’re a touch skeptical of his 2022 as his xwOBA (.354) came in well below his actual number (.397) and his age (32) will become a concern soon. He’s already lost some speed, though he remains an efficient base stealer when he takes off.
For all those nitpicks, Altuve produces a tonne of offence for his position and still provides a stabilizing defensive presence in the middle of the diamond.
16. Julio Rodríguez OF – Dominican Republic
While Rodríguez has a major-league track record lasting just one season, it’s impossible to deny that he’s a star.
After struggling out of the gate in his rookie season, he hit .297/.355/.550 from May 1 on, good for a 161 wRC+. While he was doing all that mashing he also produced elite defensive results and provided a threat on the basepaths.
Rodríguez’s power, speed, arm strength, and overall defensive ability are all nothing short of elite. Plate discipline is his only weakness, and that is likely to improve as he ages.
17. Ronald Acuña Jr. – Venezuela
Acuña Jr. would’ve been further up this list a couple of years ago, but he’s coming off an injury-riddled 2021 and an unimpressive 2022.
Last season he produced 2.2 fWAR based off a 114 wRC+. For a frame of reference that’s approximately the total value of Santiago Espinal and the offensive contribution of Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Nothing to sneeze at, but not superstar stuff.
Acuña Jr. is better than his recent production suggests, though. It wasn’t long ago that he was talking about shooting for a 50-50 season and no one was laughing. His combination of raw power and speed is impressive and his approach at the plate is solid, if unspectacular.
18. Xander Bogaerts SS – Netherlands
Bogaerts has produced a wRC+ of 129 or better in five consecutive seasons and he’s coming by far his best defensive season according to OAA (88th percentile), DRS (+5), and UZR (+4.9).
Whether he’s able to repeat that success with the glove or not, the shortstop deserves credit for consistently delivering elite production from a premium position. He’s been a foundational player for a number of successful Boston Red Sox teams including the 2018 World Series champions.
His power took a step back in 2022, but if the San Diego Padres were particularly concerned about that they wouldn’t have handed him a $280 million contract.
19. Rafael Devers 3B – Dominican Republic
Devers is one of the most talented hitters in the sport, featuring superlative raw power while posting respectable strikeout rates.
Although he’s a below-average defender Devers has still posted at least 4.2 fWAR in each of his last full seasons. He’s also been extremely consistent, producing a wRC+ between 132 and 140 in each of those years.
He hits the ball with authority to all fields, wears out right-handed pitching, and has surprisingly graded as an above-average base runner in his career despite a lack of raw speed.
20. Jung-hoo Lee OF – Korea
Lee is an international star with a juicy MLB contract in his near future.
The 24-year-old led the KBO in OPS (.996) and wRC+ (174) in 2022 on the way to winning MVP honours. One of his most impressive skills is his mastery of the strike zone as his BB/K of 2.06 was leaps and bounds ahead of the second-best qualified hitter in the league (Sung-jun Moon at 1.42).
Lee lacks immense power, but he’s an unbelievably talented pure hitter capable of playing centre field. That’s a rare combination, and it will be fascinating to track his WBC performance and stock in the eyes of MLB evaluators.
21. Munetaka Murakami 1B/3B – Japan
Murakami is the other big international hitter to watch in this tournament thanks to his impressive power.
The Yakult Swallow hit a whopping 56 home runs and won the Triple Crown in NPB last season, earning him unanimous MVP honours. He isn’t a one-year wonder, either, as he produced 159 long balls in Japan’s top league before his 23rd birthday.
Murakami slots in below Lee because he’s a corner infielder not known for his defence, but the bat is special. Unfortunately for MLB fans — but fortunately for followers of the Yakult Swallows — he signed a three-year deal in the offseason and won’t make his way to North America until at least 2025.
22. Julio Urías, SP – Mexico
Sometimes Urías’s production invites skepticism because his peripherals lag behind his results, but at this point, he’s a proven master when it comes to inducing soft contact.
The southpaw has a BABIP against of .268 in 599.2 MLB innings and his average exit velocity against has been 85th percentile or better in each of his last three full seasons.
His 2.57 ERA since the beginning of the 2021 season ranks behind just Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer among qualified pitchers and he logged a higher innings load than either of them.
23. Wander Franco SS, Dominican Republic
Franco hasn’t played more than 83 games in an MLB campaign yet, but the do-it-all shortstop has generated 4.7 fWAR in the equivalent of one full season (652 PA).
That’s an extremely strong result for a player who just turned 22 who’s improving in just about every facet of the game.
Right now Franco’s greatest strength is his ability to get the bat on the ball, but his strong max exit velocity last season (85th percentile) suggests he has power waiting to be unlocked. He also plays a competent shortstop and has shown himself to be an asset on the bases despite a lack of blazing speed.
24. Yu Darvish SP – Japan
Darvish may be 36, but his repertoire is as varied and nasty as ever.
The right-hander is more efficient with his pitches than he used to be, relying on strikeouts less and giving away fewer free passess than he did earlier in his career. His approach has changed, but his results are still excellent.
Darvish was a Cy Young runner up in 2020 and earned down-ballot votes in 2022 after putting up a 3.10 ERA in 194.2 innings — and he kept things rolling in the playoffs with 25 innings of 2.52 ERA ball.
25. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, SP – Japan
Although 21-year-old fireballer Roki Sasaski is the NPB pitcher likely to capture the baseball world’s imagination at this tournament, Yamamoto’s superior track record gives him the nod here.
The 24-year-old has won the Sawamura Award for the league’s best pitcher in two consecutive seasons and his year-to-year consistency is ridiculous.
Along with those results Yamamoto brings solid raw stuff, throwing in the mid-nineties and featuring a plus curveball and splitter. The biggest question surrounding the right-hander is about his size as he’s listed at 5’10” and 169 pounds.