World Baseball Classic preview (Piper has the skinny on Pools A and B)

Flip-flopping nationalities, plumbers pitching Pujols and new meaning to the phrase “smuggled Cubans” are among the many forthcoming highlights of the intriguing inaugural World Baseball Classic.

Some of the big questions have already been answered. Alex Rodriguez decided that he isn’t Dominican after all, despite having spent three days in the D.R. with his great-uncle thrice removed when he was ten years old. Nomar Garciaparra IS Mexican, he eventually concluded, but he opted out of the competition in a bold political statement against the current government. Which, he guesses, is probably pretty bad.

Many things are still up in the air, however. How many long bombs will A-Rod and Co. launch against South Africa’s staff of 75-mph flamethrowers? Will Asian pitchers be able to adjust to cowhide balls, which are tougher to grip than their native horsehide balls? Does George Steinbrenner have an armed task force ready to infiltrate camp and detain as many Cubans as possible?

The following is part one of The Chronicle’s two-part viewing guide for the WBC.

Pool A

China-Chen Kun, the Chinese National Team’s hardest-throwing pitcher, tops out in the mid-’80s. According to the WBC’s online site, “practically all of China’s players have below-average arm strength.” So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.

Manager Jim Lefebvre will be lucky to steal one win, as even Chinese Taipei will be heavily favored against the Chinese. There are 156,000 organized baseball players in China, which seems like a lot until you consider that’s only 1 in every 8,333 Chinese people. Bird flu is more common.

Chinese Taipei-Taiwan goes by “Chinese Taipei” because its people believe they are the only legitimate Chinese government. To my thinking, this adds incentive for the winner of the China/CT game. What would be better than meeting for handshakes and asking the losers, “Who’s the real China now? Huh?”

Joking aside, Taiwan will be taken very seriously by Asian powers Korea and Japan. It may lack the big names of those clubs, but with the most Little League World Championships in history, Taiwan may also hold a fair amount of unheralded talent.

Japan- Starting with Ichiro Suzuki at the top of the lineup, Japan will look to play small ball against the heavy-hitting Western powers. The order lacks proven power hitters now that Hideki Matsui and Tadahito Iguchi have both decided to abstain.

The host nation for Pool A, Japan is also the clear favorite to advance. Manager Bobby Valentine has a cast of seasoned professional players who could play double or triple-A ball-much like his situation with the Mets.

Korea-Hee-Seop Choi is the most familiar offensive name on a power-heavy club that will also feature Seung-Yeop Lee, who hit 56 home runs in the Korean Baseball Organization last year.

The Korean pitching staff is replete with recognizable names, including Jung-Keun Bong, Chan-Ho Park, Jaw-Weong Seo and Sun-Woo Kim. Since they’re playing under a unified flag, now Kim-Jong Il can finally prove he’s in the arms race.

Pool B

Canada-Injuries will probably prevent Eric Gagne, Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster and Larry Walker from taking part, but Canada still has a sizeable portion of Major League players.

Jason Bay, Corey Koskie and Justin Morneau lead the offense, while Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis and Chris Reitsma highlight one of the deepest pitching staffs in the tournament. It sounds far-fetched, but the Bacon Boys might even be capable of nabbing a win against the U.S., as the Ute women’s basketball team rejoices

Mexico-The announcement of Garciaparra’s absence leaves the Mexican lineup looking like Nomar’s spine: a little thin. There isn’t much to protect sluggers Vinny Castilla, Jorge Cantu, Erubiel Durazo and Benji Gil.

Pitching is Mexico’s strong suit. Fireballers Oliver Perez and Rodrigo Lopez will supplement sinkerballer Esteban Loiza in one of the Classic’s most feared rotations.

South Africa-All-times saves leader Lee Smith is the pitching coach. Sadly, he can’t pitch. Winning the Classic is going to prove a tougher task than ending apartheid for the South Africans, who have no professional players. Bricklayers and street sweepers will be prominent members of the team. That’s right-a team that gets to bat against Roger Clemens.

United States-While so much buzz surrounds the devastating Dominican lineup, the United States still enters the competition as the prohibitive favorites.

Clemens is joined by Jake Peavy and Dontrelle Willis in the rotation, while the likes of Joe Nathan and Brad Lidge should provide shutdown relief.

The U.S. infield alone could probably beat most of the teams in this tournament, with Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, Derrek Lee, Alex Rodriguez, Michael Young and Mark Teixeira. The biggest problem for the United States might be winning with a cast of pampered prima donnas, although that cause was greatly helped by the decisions of Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield to stay home.