It’s World Baseball Classic time again. You remember, that time every couple of years when Major League Baseball interrupts spring training so it can stage its version of the World Cup, though the WBC is nowhere near as popular as its soccer counterpart.
Sixteen different countries compete in a tournament with the goal of meeting up in Dodger Stadium for a championship game that will crown the best country in baseball. Opening round games will be played in the United States, Mexico, Japan and South Korea before moving to the states for the final rounds.
Many of the squads consist primarily of players from the majors, while some countries have very few players who have any association with American pro ball.
The World Baseball Classic was established as a way to maintain international interest in the game after the Olympics dumped baseball. The United States has never won a medal in the tournament, and many of the country’s top players refuse to play in the event. Major League Baseball, which set up the event, has set a pitch count in an attempt to protect pitchers and alleviate the concerns of major league clubs, seeing as how the event comes during the middle of spring training when pitchers are working on arm strength and trying to get into shape for the season.
Pitchers in the first round aren’t allowed to throw more than 65 pitches in a game. The number goes up to 80 pitches a game in the second round, and 95 pitches in the championship round. Still, pitchers like Clayton Kershaw continue to give the event the pass while other hurlers, like Oakland’s Sonny Gray, are not allowed to pitch. The classic’s insurance carrier would not allow Gray to compete because of a clause in the insurance coverage that prohibits players who spent more than 60 days on the disabled list last season, or who were on the DL at the end of August, from playing in the classic.
“It would be awesome to get to represent your country,” Kershaw said last year. “But the priority is always the season.”
The Astros are losing seven players off the 40-man roster to the tournament, meaning that for the next several weeks, the team will be missing some pieces as skipper A.J. Hinch tries to establish an optimum batting order and figure out who will fill what role in the bullpen.
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Jose Altuve is off to play for his home country, Venezuela, as are Carlos Beltran (Mexico) and Carlos Correa (Puerto Rico, which competes as its own nation in the WBCA), Nori Aoki (Japan), Kevin Chapman (Canada), Luke Gregerson and Alex Bregman (United States). George Springer, despite heavy lobbying from Correa to play for Puerto Rico, and despite being named to the U.S.’s provisional roster, elected to not play.
The Astros will not have to worry about any pieces of the starting rotation suffering from injury while playing in the exhibition tournament. Dallas Keuchel, who is recovering from a shoulder injury he dealt with last season, lobbied to join the squad during the offseason, but luckily, the MLB brass responsible for choosing the roster chose to leave Keuchel off.
“It's something I've thought about for a while with baseball coming back to the Olympics,” Keuchel told MLB.com last November. “As an athlete, you have a short time frame to do some cool stuff, but obviously I'd have to go through the front office and ownership group before I put my name in the hat and say yes.”
So some of the game’s best players are skipping the classic, including many pitchers. And no matter what Major League Baseball tries, this event just lacks the pomp of the soccer World Cup. The baseball games might be a bit more competitive than the average spring training contest, but frankly, the regular season just can’t get here quick enough.