While some countries seem to relish the event, most American players take a laissez-faire attitude toward what could truly be a classic.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Felix Hernandez is a Cy Young Award winner who might be the best American League pitcher of his generation. Robinson Cano is a seven-time All-Star who’s on the fast track to Cooperstown. Nelson Cruz has hit 40 home runs in each of his past three seasons and might be the best DH in the game. Drew Smyly is, like, a pretty decent pitcher.
The common thread between these four Mariners is that each is on his country’s roster for the World Baseball Classic, which began Monday and runs through March 22. Hernandez is hurling for Venezuela, Cano and Cruz are sporting Dominican Republic jerseys, and Smyly will represent this fledgling baseball country known as … the United States of America.
Sorry, but what the heck is going on here? The WBC is baseball’s most prestigious international tournament, yet many Americans treat it like the runt of the afterthought litter.
That’s not a knock on Smyly, who’s a serviceable starter still teeming with potential. But when you look at what the United States roster could be — and what the tournament could be as a result — doesn’t it feel like an opportunity missed?
“I’m not sure the USA has all the best players,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said Wednesday. “If it really wants to be a world event, that needs to happen.”
To be fair, the U.S. will have former NL MVP Buster Posey at catcher and former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen in the outfield. It will have two-time NL MVP runner-up Paul Goldschmidt at first base and last year’s NL MVP runner-up Daniel Murphy at second. Outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, owner of the largest contract in MLB history, is also on the roster, as is third baseman Nolan Arenado, who was second in the NL in WAR last year.
This might be the best collection of talent the Americans have ever assembled, but it pales in comparison to what might’ve been.
Who you won’t see is Angels outfielder Mike Trout, the best player of the century. Who you won’t see is Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of the century.
Reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant won’t be there, nor will 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson or 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper. And then there’s the pitching staff — which won’t include Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Noah Syndergaard, Madison Bumgarner or anyone else among MLB Network’s top 100 players in baseball.
What’s the deal?
Well, one of the primary concerns is health, especially among pitchers. Mariners left-hander James Paxton declined a chance to play for Canada after an injury-plagued 2016, noting that the WBC could derail his season if his body wasn’t ready.
Smyly, on the other hand, didn’t seem concerned about that.
“Anyone can get injured in this game at any given moment. It could happen in spring training,” said Smyly, who went 7-12 with a 4.88 ERA with the Rays last year. “The intensity level and atmosphere (in the WBC) is more intense, but I’m going to approach each pitch the same way I would in spring training.”
Good for him. He recognizes the opportunity he has. Besides, White Sox ace Jose Quintana is on Colombia’s WBC roster, just like All-Stars Johnny Cueto and Dellin Betances are on the Dominican Republic’s. Injury prevention plays a factor in the American MIAs, but the driving factor seems to be indifference.
Friday, The New York Times asked Syndergaard if he had any regrets not suiting up for the U.S. He did not. The reason?
“Because I’m a Met,” Syndergaard said. “Ain’t nobody make it to the Hall of Fame and win the World Series playing in the WBC.”
No, but nobody makes it to the Basketball Hall of Fame or wins a championship playing in the Olympics, but that’s a rite of passage for NBA greats. Why are baseball players so much more reluctant?
The truth is, this event could be gripping. If it was truly a world championship involving the game’s best — if it was clear that all parties involved craved a title — fans would gravitate to the stadiums and television sets.
Why not try to make it happen? Why not at least find out if this could be baseball’s version of the World Cup?
If Kershaw, Trout, Harper and Bryant all opted in, it would set off a chain reaction league-wide. If they incessantly talked the tournament up, their peers would almost feel guilty turning down a chance to play. And then we’d have something — we’d have something that could be special.
Wednesday, Kershaw was asked why the WBC hasn’t caught quite on with American players. He paused before his answer.
“I mean, I would say they have a pretty solid team, don’t you?”
Actually, yes, Clayton. That’s exactly what they are: solid.
Would be a lot cooler if they were spectacular.