USA Baseball Eyes Minor Leaguers For 2020 Olympic Qualifiers This Fall
The 2020 Olympics are just over a year away. The first round of qualifying is less than six months away.
With games rapidly approaching, USA Baseball has begun the process of identifying and selecting players it wants for the U.S. national team, even though an official announcement has yet to be made about which players will be eligible to participate.
“We believe it will be non-40-man roster players,” said Paul Seiler, the executive director and CEO of USA Baseball. “The specific date to determine that has not been communicated to us, but it’ll most likely be non-40-man roster players.”
The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo mark the return of baseball to the Summer Games for the first time since 2008. The International Olympic Committee voted to cut baseball and softball from the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Games, but both are back for 2020.
As such, USA Baseball is dusting off the playbook from last decade to choose the 28 players it believes will give the United States the best chance to qualify for the Olympics, and ultimately compete for a gold medal.
The process began in April. USA Baseball compiled a list of more 100 non-40-man roster players at the start of the minor league season and has tracked them closely through the first half of the year. A team of 12-15 professional scouts, with the blessings of their major league clubs, has provided USA Baseball with reports and evaluations on those players, as well as recommendations on who should be chosen.
“The quote-unquote tryout is the minor league season up to the point where we have to make final decisions,” Seiler said. “As (they) play, players are going to play themselves into the conversation and other players will play themselves out of the conversation.”
Shortly after the major league all-star break in July, USA Baseball will formally rank the players based on its own evaluations and scouts’ recommendations. In August it will begin contacting teams for permission to take those players for Team USA, requests clubs can either approve or deny.
The official 28-man roster will be announced in late September or early October.
“If we picked a team today on paper, the team that ultimately will be eligible based on guys getting called up (to the majors) and different variables that will either add or remove a player to the list, it will be very different by the time that team gets together in October,” Seiler said. “So it is a bit of a moving target, but we are blessed—and we know this—to have a very deep pool of athletes to choose from.”
The last U.S. Olympic baseball roster in 2008 was a mix of prospects and veterans not on 40-man rosters. Jake Arrieta, Dexter Fowler, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Colby Rasmus and Matt LaPorta were all on the team as prospects in the minors at the time. Stephen Strasburg memorably made the team as a rising San Diego State sophomore. The young group mixed with minor league veterans who had previous major league experience, such as Mike Hessman, Blaine Neal, Mike Koplove, Terry Tiffee and John Gall.
Seiler said he envisions the 2020 roster having a similar makeup.
“It’s best player in the moment, and that could be a lot of different guys,” he said. “This is typically not a quote-unquote all-prospect team. It’s a combination of best available players . . . Obviously the minor league player is where the bulk of our team will come from, but if there is a player like a former pro pitching in Japan, that might be somebody who is attractive based on their familiarity of the landscape and where we might be going.”
Once finalized, Team USA will converge for a training camp in Phoenix in late October. Its first game is Nov. 2 in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the first round of the Premier12 Tournament.
Team USA will have three opportunities to qualify for the six-team Olympic field.
The first chance is at Premier12, a 12-nation tournament of teams from all over the globe in November. The tournament’s top finisher from the Americas—the field includes the U.S.,Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Canada, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic—will earn an automatic bid.
If the U.S fails to qualify at the Premier12, it will have another chance at an Americas Qualifier in Arizona in March 2020. That eight-nation qualifier will be made up of the six teams from the Americas who didn’t qualify at Premier12 plus the top two finishers from the 2019 Pan America Games.
If the U.S. again failed to qualify, it would have a third chance at a six-nation tournament in Taiwan made up of the runners-up from the previous qualifiers. The winner of that tournament will earn the final Olympic berth.
There’s no guarantee that the U.S. will even make the cut. Seven of the top 12 teams in the world as ranked by the World Baseball-Softball Confederation hail from the Americas, with only two Olympic bids from the region guaranteed. The U.S failed to qualify for the Olympics as recently as 2004, though the qualifying format has since changed.
“We’ve had people say, ‘When do you go to Tokyo?’ and we’re quick to remind people we’re not in Tokyo yet. We have to qualify,” Seiler said. “It’s going to be really, really difficult. Seven of the top 12 teams in the world are from our (region). FIFA has the pools of death. We have the continent of death.”
In order to navigate that “continent of death,” USA Baseball has interviewed 12-15 former major league coaches to fill out Team USA’s coaching staff. Previous managers in Olympic years have included Davey Johnson (2008), Frank Robinson (2004) and Tommy Lasorda (2000).
Seiler said he expects to the coaching staff to be announced by July.
The 2020 Olympics are the only guaranteed chance the U.S. has to win a gold medal in baseball in the foreseeable future. After taking baseball and softball out of the Olympics in 2012 and 2016, the IOC has already voted to remove them from the 2024 Olympics in Paris as well. While it is assumed baseball and softball will return for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, no guarantee has been made.
With that, Seiler and USA Baseball see the upcoming games as an opportunity to make a statement that will resonate across the world.
“On a global level, I think it’s important for baseball and softball both . . . we want to put on a show.” Seiler said. “We want to be a part of a show in Tokyo that reminds the IOC leadership that a mistake was made to take baseball and softball out of the Olympics, and also to remind them why we should be a part of the Olympics moving forward.”
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Baseball at the 2020 Olympics
When: July 29-Aug. 8, 2020
Format: Two pools of three teams each. Round-robin first round (six games) followed by a knockout round (10 games).
Gold-Medal Game: Aug. 8, 2020, Yokohama Stadium
Reigning Medalists from 2008 Beijing Olympics
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*Japan automatically qualifies as host nation
Africa/Europe Qualifier: Sept. 18-22, Bologna and Parma, Italy
Premier12 (Americas and Asia/Oceania) – Nov. 2-17, Mexico, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan
Americas Qualifier: March 2020, Arizona
At-Large Qualifier: March/April 2020, Taiwan