Photo Credit: Wikimedia
Joc Pederson

Team Israel, which begins play in the World Baseball Classic on March 12 in Miami against Nicaragua, finds itself in the most difficult bracket. With Joc Pederson, the San Francisco Giants slugger who hit 23 homers last season, anchoring the lineup, and starting pitcher Dean Kremer, who was 8-7 last year with a 3.23 E.R.A with the Baltimore Orioles, expect Team Israel to win its opening game.

The second game is much tougher against Puerto Rico on March 13. Puerto Rico is one of the strongest teams in the tournament with Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, former Mets infielder Javier Baez, Braves outfielder Eddie Rosario and on the mound, the team boasts starting pitchers Marcus Stroman of the Cubs and Jose Berrios of the Blue Jays, as well as Mets closer Edwin Diaz, who is the best in baseball.


But it is the third game that most eyes will be on – a true match-up of David vs. Goliath. The Dominican Republic is the favorite to win the tournament based on an insanely powerful lineup. It includes San Diego Padres sluggers Juan Soto and Manny Machado (27 and 32 homers last season), Boston Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers and Blue Jays infielder Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (27 and 32 homers), and Seattle Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez, the American League Rookie of The Year who hit 28 home runs last season. The team also has National League Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara, who was 14-9 with a 2.28 E.R.A and 207 strikeouts for the Marlins, and Astros pitcher Christian Javier, who went 11-9 with a 2.54 E.R.A. last season. If Team Israel manages to win this game on March 14, it would mark one of the biggest upsets in sports history.

Team Venezuela is also stacked – with Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and an infield of Jose Altuve of the Astros, Eduardo Escobar of the Mets, Andres Jiminez of the Guardians, Eugenio Suarez of the Mariners, and Gleyber Torres of the Yankees.

But Team Israel has played much better than expected which resulted in a second documentary on the team’s unlikely success. The difference for the team this year compared to previous ones is that this will be the first Team Israel with current players in the MLB, which will make play more exciting.

In 2017, Team Israel stunned the world, beating South Korea, Taiwan and the Netherlands in the first round and beating Cuba in the second round. The team mascot became the Mensch on the Bensch, which appeared on the ABC hit “Shark Tank.” In addition, “Jew Crew” shirts were made. In the Olympics in 2021, Team Israel was eliminated by the Dominican Republic in a nail-biter, going down 7-6. It marked the first time an Israeli baseball team played in the Olympics.

That 2017 performance in addition to the fact that the games will be played in Miami, Florida, in the same state where many teams have their Spring Training games anyway, explains why some MLB players have decided to join.

The team is managed by Ian Kinsler, who played many seasons with the Texas Rangers. He played for Team Israel in the Olympics in 2020 after he retired from MLB in 2019. He said it made sense to manage the team.

“It seemed like a really good fit,” Kinsler told MLB Network, adding that the team had a hard-nosed style the 2017 WBC. Kinsler played for Team USA that year.

Asked if he would have still taken the job if he knew Team Israel would be in such a tough bracket, he said he would.

“I like a good challenge,” he said on the network. “It’s nice to be the underdog…. Hopefully we can surprise some people. You never know in baseball.”

Team Israel will look to infielder Ty Kelly, who has played for the Mets and Phillies, as well as catchers Ryan Lavarnway and Garrett Stubbs. Lavarnway has played with a number of MLB teams and Stubbs hit five homers for the Phillies last season. Also on the team is Jacob Steinmetz, an Orthodox fireballer who was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks and is in their minor league system. Should he enter as a reliever and strike out any big-name players, it would likely raise his profile. This marks the first time Team Israel will have active MLB players. Yankees center fielder and reliever Harrison Bader and Scott Effross reportedly did not join the team due to injury. The two top Jewish players in MLB, Braves pitcher Max Fried and Astros infielder Alex Bregman did not opt to join the team.

In a previous interview with me, general manager Peter Kurz referred to their bracket as “the Death Pool” based on tough competition. He said the bullpen is deep, though it doesn’t have stars people recognize. He said that he also hoped for some offensive production from first baseman Matt Mervis. Mervis is a slugger who hit 42 home runs last year in the minors for the Cubs and is at their Spring Training camp and could make the team.

“We’re used to being underdogs,” Kurz told me. “Let’s see what happens.”

All games will take place at loanDepot park.


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Alan has written for many papers, including The Jewish Week, The Journal News, The New York Post, Tablet and others.