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Team USA Faces Tough Road Through Olympic Qualifying

The United States can qualify for the 2020 Olympics with a strong showing at WBSC Premier12 next month.

That’s going to be easier said than done.

On Thursday, USA Baseball released its roster for Premier12, the qualifying tournament for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Team USA was limited to non-40-man roster players and, as a result, the 28-man roster is primarily made up of prospects and ex-big leaguers who are currently free agents or in the minors.

Other countries, meanwhile, will be bringing their best players from their top professional leagues.

Japan, the top seed in the tournament, features a roster made up exclusively of Nippon Professional Baseball players, many of them NPB All-Stars. The star-studded roster includes Central League batting champion Seiya Suzuki, Pacific League total bases leader Masataka Yoshida, former Central League MVP Tetsuto Yamada and NPB strikeouts leader Kodai Senga, who was a member of the 2017 all-World Baseball Classic team and is arguably the top pitching prospect in Japan.

Korea, which won the inaugural Premier12 tournament in 2015, is bringing two-time Korean Baseball Organization MVP and 2019 home run champion ByungHo Park, batting champion Euiji Yang, ERA champion Hyeon-Jong Yang and lefthander Gwang-hyun Kim, who finished second in the KBO in strikeouts this year and was a member of Korea’s 2008 Olympic gold medal team.

As talented as many of the prospects on Team USA are—seven are BA Top 100 Prospects—it is still a young group that has largely not played at the level of NPB or the KBO.

The good news is the U.S. doesn’t have to beat Japan or Korea at Premier12 to earn an Olympic bid. It just has to finish highest of the seven teams participating from the Americas.

Two Olympic berths are up for grabs in Premier12. The top finisher among the seven teams from the Americas (USA, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic) will earn one Olympic bid. The top finisher from Asia/Oceania excluding Japan (South Korea, Australia, Chinese Taipei) will earn the other Olympic berth as long as it finishes in the top six of the tournament.

Japan has already qualified for the 2020 Olympics after receiving an automatic bid as the host nation. Israel qualified after winning the Africa/Europe qualifier in September.

Cuba, the highest ranked Americas team after the U.S., features longtime international standouts Frederich Cepeda and Alfredo Despaigne, as well as former Dodgers shortstop Erisbel Arruebarrena. The Cubans are critically short of depth, however—especially on the pitching side—after a mass exodus of talent from the island this decade.

Mexico, Venezuela, Canada, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic were held to the same rules as the U.S. and also limited to non-40 man roster players, giving Team USA an even playing field in those potential matchups.

The challenge begins right away. Team USA opens Premier12 play on Nov. 2 in Jalisco, Mexico against the Netherlands, the perennial European power coming off being upset in the Africa/Europe qualifier. The Netherlands is ineligible to qualify for the Olympics through Premier12—it has to wait until a last-chance international qualifier in March 2020 for another shot at an Olympic berth—but the Dutch feature a talented group of veterans with international experience and are highly-motivated to do well after being upset.

The U.S. follows up against Mexico on Nov. 3 and the Dominican Republic on Nov. 4. If it finishes among the top four teams of the group, it will move on to the Super Round in Tokyo, where dates with Korea and/or Japan likely await.

Milb Flag Jeffspeergetty

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