Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 12, 2017

Godzilla And Cinderella Advance At The World Baseball Classic

Given that baseball is returning to the Olympics in 2020, perhaps we should be paying closer attention to the fourth installment of the World Baseball Classic, which is nearing the midpoint of its seventeen day schedule. Few fans in the U.S. seem very excited about the competition between sixteen teams representing countries across the globe. As the first stage of round robin games started early last week, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred was compelled to deny rumors that the WBC was losing money and that this year’s competition would be the last. “The WBC will be broadcast in 182 countries,” Manfred said in Tokyo. “This will be a $100 million event over this brief period. From Day 1, while it was a profitable event from the beginning, it has really grown in terms of its revenue significance and its popularity around the world.”

Of course in the same interview the head of MLB made it plain that major league players will not be participating in the Olympic baseball tournament, scheduled to take place at the 30,000 seat Yokohama Stadium, twenty miles south of the main venues for the Tokyo Games. “You know, no matter how you put the event together, there would be a significant number of major league players who would be away from their team,” Manfred said. “It would alter the competition in what I have already characterized as our every day game. I do not believe that our owners would support some sort of break in our season. Continuity is key to our competition.”

With the Olympic flame scheduled to be lit on July 24th three summers hence, Manfred’s point makes sense. The Great Game could scarcely go on hiatus for the period of the Olympics, or the 2020 World Series would bump up against Thanksgiving. The alternative of shortening the season and thus reducing revenue for each of the thirty big league teams is surely an idea that the owners would never even consider.

So when the time comes the Olympic squads will be made up of college players, recent big league retirees, players from professional leagues in other countries, and probably some American minor leaguers. But just because Clayton Kershaw or Bryce Harper won’t be competing for a gold medal, that doesn’t mean the competition won’t be both spirited and entertaining. Which just happens to also be the case with the World Baseball Classic.

Interest is relatively low in this country because most top American MLB stars chose not to participate. There is no Kershaw or Harper on the U.S. roster. Reigning MVPs Mike Trout and Kris Bryant are in Arizona with the Angels and Cubs. Rick Porcello, the American League Cy Young Award winner, is in Fort Myers with the Red Sox. Max Scherzer, who won the NL Cy Young last season, was scheduled to join Team U.S.A. but backed out with a finger injury. Not that the American team is made up of a bunch of forty year-old weekend softball players. Buster Posey, Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen and Daniel Murphy are all on the roster, as are Andrew Miller and David Robertson. Still the number of elite starting pitchers who declined to take part is notable. In addition to Kershaw and Porcello, the list includes Noah Syndergaard, Madison Bumgarner, Corey Kluber, Jon Lester, Justin Verlander, Jake Arrieta and Zach Greinke. That’s two full rotations worth of aces who are busy with their regular Spring Training preparations.

While they can’t say it out loud, the GMs and managers of those pitchers’ teams, as well as those of position players who have passed on the WBC are surely happy they all did. Not just because participation in the WBC disrupts the normal flow of February and March, but because the games pose the risk of injury for those who do take part. In Saturday’s game between Venezuela and Italy, catcher Salvador Perez of the Kansas City Royals and pitcher Francisco Rodriguez of the Detroit Tigers, both playing for Venezuela, were injured on the same play. For the conspiracy theorists out there, Rodriguez injured his knee in a home plate collision with the catcher for Team Italy, who just happens to be Drew Butera, Rodriguez’s full-time backup with the Royals.

If American interest in the WBC is faint, that’s not the case in other countries. The first round games for the four teams in Pool A were played at the Gocheok Sky Dome is Seoul, South Korea, and the stadium was packed near capacity for the games in which the national team took the field. The Tokyo Dome was the site for Pool B, and it too was crowded whenever Japan or Cuba was playing. The Dominican Republic is the defending WBC champion from 2013, and the three first round games that this year’s team played at Marlins Park in Miami all drew bigger crowds than the average attendance for Marlins home games last season.

Team Dominica swept through the last WBC, finishing 8-0 and becoming the first team to go undefeated on its way to the championship. A heavy favorite to repeat, the Dominican lineup is loaded. While American major leaguers may be reluctant to participate, that’s decidedly not the case for those with ties to the Caribbean island nation. This year’s roster includes Jean Segura of the Diamondbacks, who led the National League in hits last season; and speedy Jonathan Villar of the Brewers, last year’s stolen base leader with 62. Then there’s Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz and Starling Marte in the outfield, and Adrian Beltre, Robinson Cano, Manny Machado and Hanley Ramirez in the infield. It’s a lineup any major league manager would be happy to run out on the field anytime during the longest season.

It’s no surprise that the Dominican Republic squad finished the first round a perfect 3-0, on top of Pool C. That included a comeback 7-5 win over Team U.S.A., although the Americans are thrashing Team Canada as this is being written and so will likely join Team Dominica in the second round as the runner-up in Pool C. The Dominicans will be favored in the second stage round robin at Petco Park, and barring an upset favored again at the single elimination finals among four teams at Dodger Stadium the beginning of next week.

But beware Team Israel. In keeping with it spot on the calendar, the WBC has a Cinderella team, such as we’ll soon be hearing about from the NCAA basketball tournament. Team Israel is in its first WBC, having played its way into the tournament by winning a four team, double elimination qualifier in Brooklyn last September. The Israeli roster includes not a single active major leaguer, with the best Jewish players either sitting out the WBC or playing for the U.S. Ranked 41st in the world and a 200-1 longshot to win the tournament, Team Israel has one Israeli-born player and a group of American minor leaguers and retired big league players with enough Jewish heritage to qualify under the tournament’s rules.

So far all they’ve done is sweep through the first round, beating South Korea 2-1, Taiwan 15-7, and the Netherlands 4-2. After moving from Seoul to Tokyo, Team Israel opened round two by downing Cuba 4-1. Ahead are a rematch against the Dutch and a meeting with Team Japan. The unlikeliest team to be undefeated at this point may need only one more win to qualify for the finals. Who said a competition without known stars couldn’t be entertaining?

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