Even more specifically, the FOXSports.com baseball writer is not happy about certain American-born players declining to participate in this spring’s World Baseball Classic, the third of its kind. He has a decent enough cause for complaint: both previous instances of the Classic, a sort of “baseball World Cup” that pits national teams against each other in a tournament format every three years (now four) were won by Team Japan, which is notable in that Japan is not the home to the largest, most lucrative and most talented professional baseball league on the planet.
Japan is instead home to the second largest, most lucrative and most talented professional baseball league on the planet, and they take winning the World Baseball Classic very seriously indeed. Team Japan sends its best players each year and has been rewarded with the highest prize both of the first two Cup tournaments; Morosi, quite reasonably, wants to know why the Americans are unable not only to win an international competition in a sport their country created, popularized and mastered, but why they’ve never even placed in a medal round.
The traditional answer, of course, is because the Americans don’t send their best players, and especially not their best pitchers. The reason they -- we, I suppose -- don’t send our best players is the same reason that every single other team in the world sends their best: American supremacy is generally unchallenged in the sport.
Except that’s not really true, is it? Even putting aside Team Japan, the Cubans, Dominican Republicans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans and Mexicans can all field formidable teams drawing from talent already on major league rosters. And guys from those countries who have made the majors are hungry to represent their national flags because they’ve spent most of their adult lives bringing glory to American teams -- they didn’t leave their hometowns and countries because they wanted to, they did it because that’s where the baseball was. The World Baseball Classic is their chance to pay that back. Or pay it forward. Or maybe just make Team USA pay.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Tigers are probably more an American fixture to Justin Verlander (for example) than some hokey national squad that meets up once every few years before spring training and is currently governed by former Yankee skipper and current fun-hater Joe Torre.
This wasn’t really a problem for the American team the first go-round. The 2006 American squad featured names like Jeter, A-Rod (who would defect to the Dominican Republic for the 2009 edition), Teixeira, Utley, Chipper Jones and Derrek Lee in the field, with the two guys who ended the 2005 MLB season with the most pitcher WAR -- Roger Clemens and Dontrelle Willis, if you can believe it -- on the mound, and Jake Peavy and a bevy of decent to outstanding relievers behind them. (Remember, this was March -- no one really knew how broken Brad Lidge was, yet). Despite that, this team didn’t really do much in the inaugural tournament, eliminated before the semi-final round. Whether that was due to the players not being ready from the offseason, or the small sample size quirks inherent in a tournament that does individual games instead of series, in a round-robin format, is impossible to say.
It was a very different story in 2009. Who was the best American pitcher to show up? Tim Lincecum, the 2008 National League Cy Young winner? Absent. Dan Haren, fourth in pitcher WAR in the NL the previous season? Nope. Of the top 10 pitchers in baseball that year by WAR, eight were American, and none showed for Team USA. (The two non-Americans on that list, Johan Santana and Ryan Dempster, also didn’t go for their respective home countries, but Santana was recovering from knee surgery and Ryan Dempter’s a Canadian, whose national squad has had similar issues to Team USA). The best American pitcher to make the team, going by the previous season’s performance, was Oriole Jeremy Guthrie, who’d had himself a tidy little 190.2 IP, 122 ERA+ season good for 30th on the WAR list. Accompanying him were Ted Lilly (31st), Jake Peavy (32nd), Roy Oswalt (35th) and a number of decent relievers, but the two most dominant American relievers in 2008 -- Joe Nathan and Scott Downs -- didn’t make the trip.
Injury fears, of course, are a large part of reason pitchers stay behind. Most guys aren’t far enough into their preparations for the season to be ready and willing to go out and throw a game in March. And it’s no surprise that as we approach Thursday afternoon’s roster release deadline, the majority of question marks left on all of the team rosters are pitchers.
As of Thursday morning, however, we already know who three of Team USA’s starters could be: Reigning National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, Kris Medlen of the Atlanta Braves and Ryan Vogelsong of the San Francisco Giants. While, as Morosi notes, there are certainly players that could make the top of this staff stronger -- the aforementioned Verlander, David Price, really any number of guys -- Dickey would bring legitimacy to the staff that it did not have in 2009. Medlen’s 2012 was notable far beyond his wins streak to end the season; he was the 13th best pitcher by WAR despite starting the year in the bullpen. And while Vogelsong’s 2012 was a disappointment coming off his 2011, he still pitched a tick above league average with a 3.37 ERA. Craig Kimbrel, who last year was the best American reliever in baseball -- in fact, let’s just say the best reliever in baseball, period -- has been offered a spot on the roster, too. We’ll see what his answer is.
Considering that the position player side of things appears to be up to its usual exemplary caliber with Adam Jones, Giancarlo Stanton, David Wright and Ryan Braun all slotted to make the trip, while anyone who would like to see Team USA stocked like a full-on Dream Team is likely to be disappointed by Thursday afternoon’s roster announcement, we should see a much stronger team than the one the Americans sent to the Classic last go-around.
Hopefully, this is a sign that the nation’s homegrown stars are beginning to take this thing seriously. There’s no question Team Japan is.