Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics Baseball Team Preview: Israel
Israel is on the rise in international baseball. It reached its first World Baseball Classic in 2017, upset traditional powers South Korea and Cuba to advance to the second round and followed that up by qualifying for its first Olympics with an upset victory over the Netherlands in the WBSC Europe/Africa Qualifier in 2019.
Here is a rundown of Israel's strengths, weaknesses and overall outlook for the Summer Games.
WBSC World Rank: 24
How It Qualified: Won WBSC Europe/Africa Qualifier in 2019
Previous Olympics Appearances: None
Manager: Eric Holtz
Holtz, 55, served as a player-coach in the Israel Baseball League in 2007 and coached the United States to a gold medal at the 2017 Maccabiah Games. He previously coached at Division III Manhattanville (N.Y.) College and Westchester (N.Y.) JC and currently owns and operates Game On 13 training facility in Elmsford, N.Y.
Kinsler came out of retirement to play for Israel in the Olympics. He and Valencia, who last played in MLB in 2018 but helped Israel qualify in 2019, played for the independent Long Island Ducks to get in shape for the Summer Games. Kelly hasn’t played in the majors since 2018 but played for Triple-A Tacoma in the Mariners organization this season. Lavarnway briefly appeared in the majors with the Indians this year. Zeid, who spent two seasons in the majors with the Astros in 2013-14, hasn’t played professional baseball since the 2017 season but is Israel’s most accomplished pitcher.
Israel is making its first Olympics appearance in any team sport since 1976 … RHP Shlomo Lipetz, 42, has been representing Israel in international competitions since 1989 and is currently the music director at a winery in New York City … RHP Alon Leichman is the Mariners Double-A pitching coach. He was Israel’s bullpen coach at the 2017 World Baseball Classic and joined the active roster for Olympic qualifying in 2019.
Israel has emerged as a dangerous underdog in recent international competitions, pulling upsets over South Korea and Cuba in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and the Netherlands in the Europe/Africa Qualifier in 2019. Valencia, Kinsler and Kelly give Israel an experienced infield and Lavarnway provides a steady veteran presence for the pitching staff behind the plate.
Israel’s pitching staff features only three players who are currently active in affiliated professional baseball: RHP Zack Weiss (Mariners) and LHPs Alex Katz (Cubs) and Jake Fishman (Marlins). The lack of depth also extends to the lineup, where only Lavarnway and INF Scotty Burcham are currently active in affiliated professional baseball, although many of their other position players are active in independent leagues.
Israel doesn't have the top-end talent or depth of the other teams in the field and will be hard pressed to win a medal, but it has shown it's capable of pulling an upset and can’t be taken for granted.