2/28/2013 10:01 A.M. ET
Four from Pool A could emerge as Classic stars
By Jason Coskrey / Special to MLB.com
The World Baseball Classic not only brings nations together to vie for supremacy on the diamond, it gives fans around the world a chance to get a look at players they wouldn't normally see.
This is especially true in Pool A, which pits Brazil, China, Cuba and Japan against each other.
The Japanese, the two-time Classic champions, are the most well-known to the world at large, having in the past produced many Major Leaguers and former Classic participants such as Ichiro Suzuki, Yu Darvish and Norichika Aoki, among others.
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Cuba is a baseball power on a global level, but its players are lesser known to many fans in Asia and the United States, while Brazil and China continue to grow on the international stage.
Each of the Pool A teams is flush with players worth watching, but the following four deserve to have their talents spotlighted:
Rafael Fernandes, P, Brazil
Fernandes got the start and struck out two over six scoreless innings in Brazil's 1-0 upset of Panama in a qualifier-round game that secured his country the 16th and final spot in the Classic.
Pitching in Japan will be nothing new for Fernandes, who attended the Tokyo Yakult Swallows' Brazilian academy and was a developmental draft pick by that team in 2008.
Fernandes, likely the Brazilians' No. 2 starter, brings a cutter and a changeup to the table in addition to his fastball.
The right-hander has spent most of his time in Japan with the Swallows' farm team, where he has gone 8-8 with a 3.79 ERA over 135 1/3 innings since 2009. Fernandes is 1-0 with an 8.31 ERA over 13 innings in just career 10 appearances with the Swallows.
Pitching for Brazil should give Fernandes at least a brief opportunity to impress his employers, as he tries to help Brazil advance in its first Classic appearance.
Ray Chang, IF, China
Kansas City Royals pitcher Bruce Chen isn't suiting up for China, but infielder Ray Chang gives the experience-starved Chinese a somewhat seasoned player.
Chang, a native of Kansas City and a veteran of eight Minor League seasons, including five at the Triple-A level, is back in the Classic after a strong showing during China's brief stay in the 2009 edition of the tournament.
Chang was decent at the plate, fairly solid defensively at shortstop, and was easily China's best player in 2009, finishing 5-for-11 with a home run and two RBIs (accounting for half of China's total runs scored). He fueled the Chinese's lone win in '09, going 3-for-4 with a solo homer and an RBI double in a 4-1 victory over rival Taiwan.
Chang spent the past two seasons in the U.S. with the Rochester Red Wings, the Triple-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, and had a .252 average and 34 RBIs in 131 games over that span.
Not much is expected out of the Chinese, but Chang figures to be key to the nation's hopes of scoring another victory in the Classic.
Jose Abreu, IF, Cuba
Unlike the majority of the Cuban roster, who play almost in seclusion on the baseball-mad island, Abreu's reputation precedes him.
The 26-year-old first baseman has drawn attention for the monstrous, Barry Bonds-esque numbers he's put up in Cuba's Serie Nacional over the past few seasons.
Two years ago, Abreu hit an eye-popping .453 with 33 home runs and 93 RBIs for Cienfuegos. He followed that up with a .394 average, 35 home runs (one behind the single-season record set by Alfredo Despaigne that same year) and 99 RBIs in 2011-12.
Abreu was the subject of a feature by a major sports web site in February, which has served to create some of the same hype and intrigue that followed Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman and Japanese hurler Yu Darvish -- now with the Cincinnati Reds and Texas Rangers, respectively -- into the 2009 Classic.
Masahiro Tanaka, P, Japan
No Japanese player enters the Classic with as much expected of him as the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles right-hander.
Tanaka has already been branded Japan's ace -- and with good reason. The 24-year-old dealt with a few injuries this past season and still managed to finish 10-4 with a 1.87 ERA and 1.03 WHIP while leading Nippon Professional Baseball's Pacific League with 169 strikeouts over 173 innings.
Tanaka has been regarded as one of Japan's top pitchers for years despite sometimes being overshadowed by former teammate Hisashi Iwakuma (currently with the Mariners) and the former Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters star Darvish. However, Tanaka outdueled both for the 2011 Sawamura Award as the top starting pitcher, with a 14-6 record, 1.27 ERA and 226 strikeouts over 226 1/3 innings.
Armed with a fastball in the 90s and an above-average slider, "Ma-kun," as he's affectionately known by Japanese fans, has a prime opportunity to make a name for himself on the international stage in the same way Japanese pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka, Darvish and Iwakuma did in past World Baseball Classics.
Jason Coskrey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.