By Richard Cuicchi | January 22, 2017 at 10:40 PM EST | No Comments
The baseball community is starting to hear a buzz and excitement about the upcoming World Baseball Classic in early March. The tournament of 16 international teams usually gets a lot of attention, particularly from the Latin American countries, but this year’s Team USA roster has got many observers thinking the American baseballers can finally break through to the championship round. There appears to be a renewed mindset by major-league players to put a top-notch team on the field.
Team USA has yet to get out of the semifinal round of the tournament in the three years (2006, 2009 and 2013) of the tournament. For the past two tournaments, there was a general perception the American team was not putting its best players on the roster. While Major League Baseball has been a strong supporter of the event, it has left the decision of filling roster spots to the individual players. However, the owners and agents often discouraged their star players from participating, for fear of their not being fully prepared to start the regular season in April or, in the worst case, suffering a season-ending injury during the WBC games.
The preliminary roster being assembled for Team USA has many folks feeling different about the team’s prospect for getting into the championship round this year. Head-liners who have already committed include All-Star and MVP-caliber players such as Buster Posey, Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Ian Kinsler, Daniel Murphy, Adam Jones, Andrew McCutchen and Christian Yelich. The pitching staff will include Marcus Stroman, Chris Archer, Tanner Roark and Andrew Miller. Max Scherzer had been previously committed, before deciding to withdraw due to a stress fracture on his ring finger, but now there are reports of Clayton Kershaw and David Price being added to the staff.
The WBC was originally conceived to be a comparable event to the World Cup for soccer and the Olympics for track and field, swimming, and gymnastics, bringing the world’s best teams and athletes together for head-to-head, tournament-style competition, where nationalism would be a huge factor in the competitive spirit among the teams. However, the WBC tournament has yet to actually achieve the equivalent status and reputation as those other international events. Some of the shortfall has been due to the way the United States has disregarded the role of the international play to decide a world champion. After all, baseball has historically been thought of as America’s game, and it’s had its own “World Series” for over 100 years, despite the absence of representative teams from other countries.
Another significant issue in the USA’s reluctance to fully embrace the tournament has been its timing. The spring season is not really the best time because of interference with players’ normal training preparation for the regular season. A fall season tournament, following the World Series, draws concerns for ample suitable weather for the three weeks of the tournament and the players’ reluctance to extend their already long seasons.
Stiff completion for Team USA will come from historically strong teams from Japan, Venezuela, and Dominican Republic, whose teams combine the best of their national players with major leaguers from their countries. The USA will play in the Pool C first-round against Dominican Republic, Canada and Columbia. Dominican Republic, the defending WBC champion, will again feature such high-powered major-league hitters as Robinson Cano, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre. Canada will be led by major-leaguers Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman and Russell Martin, who has said he wants to play shortstop, versus his usual catcher position. Retired pitchers Ryan Dempster and Eric Gagne have indicated a desire to be named to the Canadian team, although they have not pitched professionally since 2013 and 2008, respectively. So it’s not clear how serious of a contender they will be. Columbia is projected to be the weakest team in the pool, since the current number of major leaguers from the country is relatively small. Major league pitcher Jose Quintana will be the best player on its team.
Pool C games start on March 9 in Miami. The other three first-round pools will be played in Seoul, Korea (A), Tokyo (B), and Jalisco, Mexico (D). The second-round games will be played in Tokyo and San Diego beginning March 12, with the final championship round being played in Los Angeles starting March 20.
Team USA’s manager this year is Jim Leyland, the former major league manager with the Pirates, Marlins, Rockies and Tigers. He will have a star-studded lineup to work with, one that should draw renewed interest of American fans. Perhaps this is the year the American team ends its championship drought in WBC competition, reclaims its dominance on the international stage, and provides a boost to the popularity and appeal of the tournament.