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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

February 27, 2009 at 12:13 PM

World Baseball Classic fever? Almost, but not quite

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I’m a big proponent of the concept of the World Baseball Classic, and I thought the inaugural rendition, in 2006, was outstanding. But the reality is that it’s an event destined to never be quite as good as it could be.

It’s no one’s fault, either. The WBC is a victim, ultimately, of two things: Bad timing, and the fact that the priority of major-league teams — which it imposes on players, either directly or indirectly — is winning the pennant, not the WBC title.

First, the timing issue. Anyone who can come up with a foolproof date to hold this event, I haven’t heard it yet. Some say it should be held after the season, perhaps in November. The problem, of course, is the extra workload on pitchers that would have already worked a full season’s worth of innings. No team is going to let their ace, after working 200-plus innings and perhaps another 30 to 40 in the postseason, dial it up again for the WBC. A post-season tournament simply isn’t feasible.

Others have wondered if MLB could shut down its season for two weeks in the middle of July and stage the WBC, with the championship game taking the place of the All-Star Game. However, that would result in too much lost revenue for teams to agree to this.It’s the same reason MLB will never send its stars to the Olympics.

So we’re left with spring training, and the unpleasant specter of players leaving their teams in the midst of preparing for the season. That’s happening right now as WBC camps are opening up in Florida and Arizona in the next few days. The 16 countries are gearing up for games that start, in most cases, next weekend. In the case of Asian players like Ichiro and Kenji Johjima, who remained with Team Japan rather than reporting to spring training, they could conceivably not get to Mariners’ camp until March 24, the day after the championship game at Dodger Stadium. That would leave them less than two weeks before Opening Day to be with Seattle — hardly an optimal situation for a team with a new manager and coaching staff, not to mention for two players that have, uh, issues to deal with.

That doesn’t even touch upon the factor of pitchers, and the scary notion of them gearing it up for intense game competition much earlier than normal. Yes, there are some pitch-count precautions, and we can presume that WBC managers will be mindful of their pitchers’ long-term health, even at the expense of winning a particular game. Yet most of these players have a burning desire to win for their country, and they are going to be giving everything they have — a month before opening day.

Many baseball people are convinced that the WBC led to pitching injuries in 2006. A substantial group of WBC pitchers had all or a large portion of their seasons wiped out by injury, including Bartolo Colon, Gustavo Chacin, Victor Zambrano, Tony Armas Jr., Chris Reitsma, Dan Miceli and Ricardo Rincon. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa told reporters in May of that year that Rincon’s participation for Mexico “absolutely” factored in his shoulder injury, requiring season-ending surgery. Rincon has pitched all of four innings in the majors since then.

“It’s the consequence of pithcing competitively before you’re ready,” La Russa told the Belleville News-Domocrate at the time. “What other conclusion can you draw?”

Check out Jake Peavy, who pitched for Team USA in 2006 and then put up noticeably sub-par numbers that year: an 11-14 record with a 4.09 ERA. Others WBC pitchers that were below career that year included Dontrelle Willis, Esteban Loaiza, Brad Lidge, Oliver Perez, Odalis Perez and Carlos Silva (who’s back with Team Venezuela, along with Felix Hernandez, held out by the Mariners in 2006).

It’s only fair to point out that some WBC pitchers had outstanding years, such as Carlos Zambrano, Joe Nathan, John Santana, Brian Fuentes and Daisuke Matsuzaka — the tournament MVP in pitching Japan to the championship. He went 17-5 with a 2.13 ERA for the Seibu Leions. And it’s also fair to point out that pitchers get hurt every year, with our without the WBC.

Numerous quality pitchers have pulled out this year’s WBC, undeniably diminishing the event. Canada will be without Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden and Erik Bedard. Venezuela is minus Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano. Australia will do without Ryan Rowland-Smith. And the U.S. is minus Tim Lincecum, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, John Lackey, John Danks, Joe Saunders, Brad Lidge, Jonathan Papelbon — not to mention elite position players Mark Teixeira, Ryan Howard, Grady Sizemore, Josh Hamilton, Joe Mauer, Derrek Lee, Chase Utley, Evan Longoria, Lance Berkman, Michael Young, Prince Fielder, and Ian Kinsler.

If you come to the conclusion that the WBC doesn’t mean as much to theAmericans as it does to other countries, I think that’s a fair assumption, despite the adamant denials you’ll get from Team USA members. I just don’t see the same zeal to represent their country from Americans as I do from the Latin and Asian players.

In some cases — such as Sizemore’s late withdrawal Friday — the reason for pulling out was because of health. In other cases, the players felt their loyalty belonged to their major-league team. In the case of Santana, it was because of insurance issues (which also knocked Albert Pujols off the Dominican team).

The dilemma of the Mariners’ Adrian Beltre epitomizes the no-win position of the players. Beltre is eager to play for the Dominican Republic, but the Mariners — strong supporters of the WBC — are equally desirious that he doesn’t risk his health in light of the fact that he’s coming off two surgeries. No matter what Beltre decides, it will disappoint one group.

I’m very much looking forward to the WBC, and I expect it will once again be an intense, entertaining show. But due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, it’s not quite the world championship deluxe that we’d all love to see.

Coming soon: I’ll handicap the WBC and pick a champion.

(Photo by Associated Press is of Ichiro celebrating after Japan defeated Cuba, 10-6, in the 2006 WBC championship game in San Diego).

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