MLB Clubs Serve As WBC's Largest Obstacle
Clubs block top players from playing in international showcase
See also: World Baseball Classic Rosters
The World Baseball Classic news cycle went something like this:
Early January: Preliminary rosters are announced. Players Tweet and talk about how excited they are to play for their country. Fans, even some in the United States, start to get a little excited.
Late January: News of players pulling out of the event starts to trickle in. The Dominican Republic held out some hope for Albert Pujols, but he declined. Andy Pettitte, rumored to be pitching for his old manager Joe Torre on Team USA, decided against playing.
Early February: The trickle starts to become a flood. Team USA held a roster spot open for Justin Verlander, but he never came. Danny Espinosa, a key piece for Mexico as its supposed starting shortstop, pulled out to rehab his left (non-throwing) shoulder.
The biggest news came from Seattle, where Felix Hernandez was in the midst of negotiations on his massive contract extension. The Mariners were prepared to fork over $175 million over seven years to the 26-year-old ace out of Venezuela, who already had been named to his country's WBC preliminary roster.
King Felix went 2-0 in the 2009 WBC with 11 strikeouts in 82⁄3 scoreless innings and made Venezuela a WBC favorite this year almost on his own. With Venezuela featuring a lineup that would 2012 Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and 2012 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval, it is one of the rosters that best matches up to Team USA's projected lineup, led by Ryan Braun, Joe Mauer, Giancarlo Stanton and David Wright.
However, the U.S.—or any nation in the field, for that matter—had no match for Hernandez, a true major league ace at the peak of his powers, the best active pitcher his nation has produced.
The U.S. will not have Verlander; Japan will not have Yu Darvish, South Korea will not have Hyun-Jin Ryu. Canada will not have Ryan Dempster. (We'll get to the Dominican Republic later.)
But as Hernandez officially closed in on his contract extension, he pulled out of the WBC, leaving Venezuela with a rotation led by hard-throwing 23-year-old Henderson Alvarez, Tigers righthander Anibal Sanchez and veteran righty Carlos Zambrano. Not nearly as imposing.
Two things jump out about Hernandez's withdrawal. First, international baseball championships are won with ace pitchers. Cuba dominated the international scene—whether it involved amateur or pro players—from 1987-2005 with a deep stable of arms, creating legends such as Omar Ajete, Orlando Hernandez, Pedro Luis Lazo and Jose Contreras.
The U.S. won gold in 2000 behind Ben Sheets, and Japan won the first two WBCs behind Daisuke Matsuzaka (both events) and Darvish (2009).
Even the Netherlands has an ace, if not a big league ace, in righthander Rob Cordemans, a six-time pitcher of the year in the Dutch Major League. Cordemans won twice in 2011, including 7 1⁄3 innings and just two hits allowed to beat Cuba, as the Netherlands won the World Cup in Panama.
Not having Hernandez sinks Venezuela closer to the rest of the pack. It also raised a second point: How were players deciding if they would participate?
The WBC's rules state that the decision about whether to participate must be left to players, and that major league organizations are not allowed to tell players to forgo the WBC. But according to reports out of Venezuela, Hernandez pulled out due to "pressure" from the Mariners.
Meanwhile, righthander Johnny Cueto, the Dominican Republic's top young big league pitcher, was not on his country's preliminary roster. That seemed reasonable after he left last year's postseason start after one out with a right oblique injury.
When Cueto reported to spring training in early February, however, he told reporters, "I feel good. I've been throwing and working since October." When asked if he would play for the D.R., though, he said simply, "I don't know yet. I want to."
In the end, the Reds told Cueto not to play, and because he was placed on the disabled list during last year's Division Series, they were within their rights under WBC rules.
The Reds acted within the rules, if not within the spirit of the WBC. Major League clubs have limited national team federations' access to their players virtually ever since pros started playing internationally. Another MLB event has similar issues. Baseball America and MLB put together a preference list for every team for the annual Futures Game, but rarely get every player we ask for, and at least one club regularly makes just two players available—one domestic, one international.
The Rangers let Jurickson Profar, whom we rate as the top prospect in the game, star in last year's Futures Game, but appear to be standing in his way for the WBC. Profar was named to the Netherlands' preliminary roster. In early February, Profar was reported to be wavering; the Rangers said he had indicated to club officials that he would not play.
But then Profar took to Twitter on Feb. 6 and wrote, "24 days till the first game / excited to play with guys I grew up with," noting the Twitter handles of Dutch teammates Andrelton Simmons of the Braves and the Orioles' Jonathan Schoop, whom he played with in the 2004 Little League World Series.
The Rangers responded that the decision on whether to play in the WBC was up to Profar, but general manager Jon Daniels told reporters that playing in the event would diminish the chances for the 20-year-old to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster.
So on one hand, you have Major League Baseball pushing a tournament during a crowded time of year in the sports calendar, trying to spur interest in a new tournament that lacks the Olympic identity or the tradition of soccer's World Cup, trying to build a new brand for international baseball.
In the end, Profar chose MLB over the WBC. They should not be mutually exclusive. Right now, the WBC's biggest obstacle often appears to be MLB's member clubs. Its biggest problem is teams telling players like Hernandez, Cueto and Profar not to play.
Depth, And Perception
This is a bigger problem for some countries than others. The Netherlands actually has shortstop depth such as Simmons and Schoop, so it may not need Profar, though he certainly wouldn't hurt. Team USA certainly could use Mike Trout or Andrew McCutchen or Matt Kemp, but the U.S. has tremendous depth and is hardly slumming it in center field with Adam Jones.
But for Brazil, where baseball has tremendous growth potential but little international tradition, every player counts. So it hurts when Mariners lefthander Luiz Gohara, a 16-year-old who signed for $880,000 last summer to set a record for the country's amateurs, pulls out. It makes sense that the Mariners would want him to not play; what if the teen were pitching against Cuba, got amped up and threw too hard too soon and got hurt? It's a reasonable concern, though a teenager seems just as apt to overthrow on a bullpen mound during a side session with the general manager watching as on a mound during competition.
It hurts Brazil worse when catcher Yan Gomes, the country's first native-born big leaguer, tells MLB.com that he's "leaning toward no" when it comes to the Classic.
Gomes already is one of the biggest reasons Brazil is in the 16-team WBC, driving in the only run in a 1-0 clinching victory against host Panama in its November qualifying tournament. But Gomes was traded from the Blue Jays to the Indians since then and said he has to focus on his new club.
"I feel like I'm contributing more to the country by being an established big leaguer," Gomes told MLB.com. "I know I'll probably take some heat, but it's my career."
Bud Selig has taken some heat for starting the WBC. But the commissioner sees it as one of his signature achievements in more than 20 years on the job, and he should be proud of it. For the WBC to take the next step, Selig (or his successor, if he actually retires by 2017) needs to take a more active role in next Classic.
Next time, when Trout is coming off his latest MVP season, they both need to get a call from Commissioner Selig, or Commissioner Lingo, or whoever it is. It should go something like this: "Mike, this is the commissioner. Congratulations on another great season, and thanks for making the sport more entertaining than ever.
"Now do me a favor. Plan your offseason around playing for the United States in the WBC next spring. I will do what it takes to make sure all the best players play."
Until the world's best players are encouraged to play in games that matter instead of exhibitions in Arizona and Florida, the World Baseball Classic will struggle to live up to its name.