Say what you want about the World Baseball Classic, but it doesn’t sound like it’s going away any time soon. And it shouldn’t. A tournament that showcases baseball’s talent and can grow the game internationally is a tremendous opportunity for the sport. Especially since baseball was dropped after the 2008 Olympic Games. Though it’s scheduled to return for 2020, the summer event is bereft of the game’s top talent for the obvious reasons.
Despite the drawbacks for teams and players preparing for the season, the potential for injuries that could reshape division races, and the lack of Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw, this event creates a special opportunity for players to represent their countries.
This year the Seattle Mariners will have 12 representatives competing for seven different countries as shown in the table below.
|Mariners at the World Baseball Classic|
|Felix Hernandez, SP||Venezuela|
|Robinson Cano, 2B||Dominican Republic|
|Nelson Cruz, DH||Dominican Republic|
|Jean Segura, SS||Dominican Republic|
|Edwin Diaz, RP||Puerto Rico|
|Yovani Gallardo, SP||Mexico|
|Drew Smyly, SP*||USA|
|Tyler O’Neill, OF||Canada|
|Emilio Pagan, RP||Puerto Rico|
|Pat Venditte, RP||Italy|
|Sam Gaviglio, SP||Italy|
|Sebastian Valle, C||Mexico|
Easily the biggest impact of the WBC on the Mariners is the participation of Felix Hernandez. After taking a step back performance-wise in 2015, the ace struggled to the worst performance of his major league career in 2016. He went to work this offseason with a pennant-sized chip on his shoulder, and the goal of being ready to represent Venezuela playing a key role in his preparation for the 2017 season.
Early returns on Hernandez’ progress this spring are positive. He arrived in camp in notably better shape and specifically worked on strengthening his lower half. On Sunday, his second outing of the Cactus League season, he went three innings with five strikeouts and no walks. He gave up a couple runs in a long first inning but finished his day with 36 strikes on fifty pitches. On the broadcast, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre mentioned Hernandez having some issues with his changeup, but his other offerings were sharp and he commanded the ball well.
Given the challenges of 2016, and the commitment the club has made to the right-hander in terms of dollars, one would be fair to question why the Cy Young award winner is participating. A regular spring would likely be the optimal choice.
Joey Votto, after another outstanding campaign, declined to represent Canada at the WBC citing a need to improve on some areas of his game he found lacking. It’s unclear what particular things he feels he needs to work on, perhaps defensively, but we do know after earning $22 million in 2017 he will be payed $25 million annually through 2023.
All players have their reasons for or against participating, and as frustrating as that may be on either side of the coin, but you have to respect a player’s desire to represent their country. Teams have frequently voiced their support for players’ participation and are often involved in defining the parameters for how the player will be used during the event.
That goes particularly for the most recent Mariner addition to a WBC roster, Jean Segura. GM Jerry Dipoto spent 20 minutes on the phone with Moises Alou, the GM of the Dominican Republic squad about how his most significant offseason acquisition would be utilized in the tournament.
Ideally Seattle would want to ensure that Segura’s progress at shortstop be maintained heading towards the start of the season. He and Robinson Cano, one of Segura’s teammates at the WBC, will form a new double play tandem in the Emerald City this year.
It’s unclear how much time the two will share in the diamond. Segura replaced Boston’s Hanley Ramirez on the roster, a former shortstop who’s moved over to first base. It would be ideal for Cano and Segura to have the full month of playing together, especially with the latter switching positions for the coming year. But the idiosyncrasies in the field will take time to connect anyways — a week or two of interruption shouldn’t have a dramatic effect on that.
Aside from the starting middle infielders being away, another key piece of the lineup will be too. Nelson Cruz joins his countrymen on the Dominican team and figures to see time both in the outfield and at designated hitter.
The move to DH will be a more permanent role in Seattle for the slugger this year after two seasons where he saw plenty of outfield time. Given the influx of athletic outfielders added, Cruz will be hard pressed to see much time in the field given the emphasis on defense by the front office.
Electric closer Edwin Diaz will have the opportunity to represent Puerto Rico for the first time. Rarely does Spring Training offer the higher leverage situations that many relievers are accustomed too in the season so getting to pitch some critical innings this early may benefit Diaz at the start. But he is just one year into his bullpen journey, and this is his first camp as a major league reliever, so I can’t imagine he has much process to interrupt.
Seattle will be sending three-fifths of the starting rotation when accounting for Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo. Though Gallardo’s specific participation is still to be determined, Smyly is only going to make one appearance for the U.S. squad before returning to camp. Still, both will miss out on some time to continue developing rapport with their new catchers. However, given the length of this year’s spring there’s been and will be plenty of time to make up for the absence.
Elsewhere top prospect Tyler O’Neill will get an opportunity to shine with Team Canada after impressing in the first couple weeks of spring games. He’s already showed off his power in an exhibition game, blasting an opposite field home run against the New York Yankees.
With so many players away, opportunity is ripe for several players who’s fate have yet to be determined for the upcoming season. Expect to see a lot of Shawn O’Malley, Mike Freeman, and Taylor Motter as the process of determining the back-up infielder continues and Segura and Cano are absent. Boog Powell will also get a chance to rebuild his stock as he nears a return from an 80-game PED suspension.
While the WBC provides an opportunity for the best players in the world to represent their country at the highest level, it also provides a stage that same opportunity for players who may never reach stardom in the majors. Looking at rosters for some of the less star-studded teams may yield names of former fringe-major leaguers or Triple-A fodder, but I would have to imagine this is a tremendous experience for them.
Say what you want about the World Baseball Classic, but so many of the knocks against it are easy to work around. Yes, a player is at risk of getting hurt, but how much more risk than facing a minor league pitching with 35-grade command in a spring game?
The timing of the tournament will always be tough, but once every four years the sport can deal with the side effects of an international opportunity that otherwise wouldn’t exist.