Future’s Game Gets An Olympic Twist

See also: U.S. Futures Game Roster
See also: World Futures Game Roster

This year, the Futures Game is getting an Olympic twist.

Players on the United States roster for the Futures Game this year will be the among those who are being considered for the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. Those players won’t necessarily play on the team that USA Baseball sends to the Beijing Games in August, but USA Baseball will draw from this pool of players to help form the Olympic team.

All told, USA Baseball had a pool of about 60 players it was considering for the Games. The final roster for the Olympic team is expected to be announced shortly after the Futures Game, so this game serves as a showcase for these 25 players.

“It’s going to be a team of exceptional young players who are part of a larger pool of athletes that we are looking at very closely for the Olympic baseball team,” said Paul Seiler, the executive director and CEO of USA Baseball. “Watching them compete in the Futures Game is part of the overall scouting process that will help us better identify which players give us the best shot at gold in Beijing.”

One of the challenges that USA Baseball faces in building any of its professional teams is getting the cooperation of major league organizations to lend their best talent to travel overseas while the season is still in progress. Major leaguers are out of the question, so USA Baseball looks at players who are on organizations’ 40-man rosters but not yet in the big leagues, or advanced prospects who have not yet been added to the 40-man.

“If you’re young and you’re good and you’re in Double-A or Triple-A, the major league team doesn’t want to send you because you’re a ball off the leg or whatever away from being in the big leagues,” said Bob Watson, MLB’s vice president of on-field operations and one of the people helping to select the Olympic team this year. “So that’s that fine line.”

Building A Winner

The Futures Game usually selects from the absolute best prospects in any organization. Tying it to the Olympic selection process complicates matters. For instance, clubs in contention for a postseason berth or clubs wary of risking a talented young arm for the event may have reservations about sending their players to the Olympics, a challenge that Watson understands.

“We want to take your No. 3 catcher,” Watson said. “Well, that’s probably not going to happen because he’s a foul tip away from being in the big leagues and we’re on the other side of the world. But if it’s player No. 28 to 40 (on the 40-man roster), I think we have a good chance of getting them.”

Of course, Watson’s job also requires him to hand out suspensions to major leaguers, creating an interesting dichotomy as he builds the Team USA roster.

“I get people that say, ‘Gee whiz, you’re calling me, you’re suspending my guy one day and you’re asking me for another guy the next,'” Watson said. “It’s a difficult position.”

The Futures Game will serve as an opportunity to aggregate a pool of potential players for the Olympic team in one place, allowing scouts from the Major League Scouting Bureau to evaluate the players on the field and letting Team USA manager Davey Johnson and his staff get to know the players.

“We have a series of conference calls, where all these calls are staff and scouts on the field,” Watson said. “We have a rule: You can’t make the team unless somebody’s seen you play. I’m one of those guys who say that old information is bad information. So I want the latest report because just think: There’s a lot of GMs who are in trouble today because they went off of last year’s report and made a deal and they hadn’t seen somebody, and they have guys who are not performing. We want the latest set of eyes to see these guys.”

Johnson said that he and his staff will blend scouting reports and statistical analysis to build an optimal roster.

“Basically the way we pick this team is we’ll go through and pick out the top number guys, both pitching and hitting,” Johnson said. “Then we’ll bring the scouts in and ask them who we like. If they start naming some of these guys, then you know that they like their all-around ability, their tools, their makeup, everything. That’s how you narrow it down. The toughest part is just getting permission from clubs.”

While the Futures Game will feature most of the best young players being considered for the team, many veteran players will also end up playing important roles on Team USA. That’s why Johnson says players’ performance records serve as the first filter for the team. They don’t discriminate and make sure every possible legitimate candidate for the team is considered.

“I was the first guy using computers in baseball studying statistics,” Johnson said. “If you go into the leading hitting categories and you look at the leaders in offense, and basically I taught (Oakland general manager) Billy Beane this: on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walks and strikeouts basically the same, that tells you that this guy can hit breaking balls as well as fastballs, and he knows the strike zone. Those kinds of guys can succeed anywhere.”

Johnson, who said he considers himself an “offensive manager,” said the performance record of pitchers will also guide their decision-making process.

“Numbers don’t lie,” Johnson said. “They don’t lie for pitchers. If a guy has big league stuff, you can tell he’s throwing two or three pitchers over by his walks, strikeouts and hits per inning. Then I need a scout to tell me, well, how’s his makeup? Does he got great makeup? Ability has a great relationship with performance, his makeup. You got good makeup and great ability, you’ve got a superstar. You’ve got bad makeup and great ability, you’re not going to be a superstar—it’s just that simple.”

Gold Medal Mining

The only downside is the event won’t be quite the same prospect showcase as in past years because USA Baseball is trying to build a winning team from available players and is not as concerned with sending the absolute best prospects for one Sunday in July.

Baseball America and Major League Baseball, which usually select the 25-man rosters for the game, selected only the World team this time around while USA Baseball chose the U.S. team. And while there is usually a two-man limit for each organization to assure broad representation, that limit was waived this year, again because USA Baseball has a different purpose in mind. So there are three Phillies on the U.S. roster, for example.

“The Futures Game is a rare opportunity to see that many elite prospects in one place, and in front of high-ranking evaluators and front office staff,” said a professional scout for an American League club. “It looks like there is still a high level of prospects in the game, and if including Team USA costs us one or two elite prospects, I don’t think it will be a noticeable difference because there are always different factors that can keep a Josh Beckett or whoever off the roster, and plus now we get potentially better overall representatives because of lifting the limit of two per team.”

The scout section at the Futures Game always overflows, and most teams send multiple scouts and executives to the game. That won’t change this year, even with the slightly altered rosters, and scouts are also happy the game has been extended to nine innings to provide a longer look at the players.

“I always felt the seven-inning game was kind of a disservice to the Futures Game,” the AL scout said. “The managers try to cram a bunch of pitchers in at the end of the game, some hitters only get one AB. The more these players are showcased, and the longer it takes to get to the celebrity softball game, the better, for me.”

When Team USA travels to Beijing in August, it will square off in a tournament against seven other countries: Canada, China, Cuba, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea and Taiwan. The United States qualified for the Olympics in 2006 by winning the Americas Qualifying Tournament, where Team USA defeated Cuba 8-5 in Havana. That marked the first time the U.S. had beat Cuba since 2000, when Ben Sheets dominated against the Cubans in the Sydney Olympics.

Team USA followed that victory by beating the Cubans 8-5 in Taiwan at the World Cup in November, giving the United States its first World Cup gold medal since 1974.

“You’ve got the Japanese sending two all-stars from each of their teams,” Watson said. “The Koreans are shutting down their league to send an all-star team and the Cubans are not happy with us because we’ve beaten them the last few times we’ve played them.”

The Netherlands qualified for the Olympics in September by winning the European Championship, and Japan qualified in December at the Asian Baseball Championship. Canada, Taiwan and South Korean qualified for the Olympics by finishing in the top three in the eight-team final Olympic qualifying tournament in March.

China received an automatic bid as the Olympic host, making this year the first time since baseball was introduced as a medal sport in 1992 that four Asian countries will be competing.

“The No. 1 favorite team is probably going to be Japan,” Johnson said. “The No. 2 team will probably be us and Cuba. Since we’ve handled Cuba the last times out, we’ll probably be the second favorite.”

Johnson managed both the qualifying team and the World Cup team to gold medals. Merely reaching the Olympics is an upgrade from 2004, when the United States failed to qualify for the Olympics. But after so much success in international competitions in the last two years, Johnson and his staff are still gunning for Olympic gold.

“This came along at the right time in his life,” Watson said. “He’s a baseball guy. For us to have him represent us is just fantastic. You have to remember the experience of winning a World Series, being in all-star games, being a successful player himself really goes a long way.”