Thursday, May 12, 2005

A True World Series

Major League baseball announced today the inagural World Cup of Baseball, to take place during spring training of 2006. It will be a sixteen team tournament, tentatively scheduled during March 4-20, with the finals to be held possibly at Petco Park in San Diego. This tournament is thought to complement MLB's eventual participation in the Olympics.

The World Cup of Hockey tournaments have produced some of the best played games in the history of the sport. It would be interesting to see how that format translates to baseball. When you think about a U.S. team that could possibly include Bonds, Helton, Jeter, Rodriguez, Giles, Edmonds, Clemens, Willis, and Brad Lidge, it would really generate a lot of interest in a tournament like this. And since star players don't play an awful lot of spring ball anyway, it would be a good excuse to have your stars play some meaningful baseball, while major league clubs have ample opportunity to look at their prospects.

The difference is this: For World Cup of Hockey, everybody played. You had 8 dream teams chock full of the best that hockey had to offer, which made for some great tournaments and some great games. NHL players understood that playing in this kind of tournament, even though it made for seasons that were 10 months long for some, were necessary to promote the sport. It was very rare that whole groups of star players would sit out. I wonder if you would get the same participation in a baseball World Cup. Major League Baseball doesn't have the problem of needing to promote their sport. So I'm not sure if the best players the United States have to offer would flock to something like this.

There's also the pitching problem. Managers are very particular about their pitchers' progression early in the spring. Do you think Ned Yost would be happy to see Ben Sheets pitching 7 innings in a March 5th qualifying game against Korea? Do you think that Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone would be pleased to see Tim Hudson fade down the stretch in September because he logged 30 hard innings in March wearing a uniform that doesn't say "Braves"? And how legitimate would a tournament be if you put innings limits on pitchers for that very reason? Would you have glorified all-star games?

So who would teams make available to play these games? The 2000 Olympics featured a lot of up and comers who no one had heard of because they were the only players that teams would release. Now some of these players became legitimate major leaguers like Doug Mientkiewicz, Ben Sheets, Roy Oswalt and Brad Wilkerson, but would these players be made available by the teams that sign their paychecks? It would be up to commissioner Selig to put legislation in place to force these teams to let these players go and promise a limit on pitchers' pitch counts. But come on, they can't decide on a drug policy, you think they can get this straight?

My preliminary prophecy is more a guess. I think you'll see a bunch of fourth outfielders like Michael Restovich. You'll see some players who will or have missed significant playing time due to injury and use this World Cup as a good way to get back into the competitive flow. Nomar Garciaparra would fall under this category. You'll see a couple of 2000 Olympic holdovers who are enamored with the idea of playing for country like Mientkiewicz and Wilkerson. And you may even see a couple of players who retire from major league baseball after this season, but make the 2006 World Cup their swan song. Roger Clemens perhaps?

The one fun thing to come out of this is to watch the Japanese team. Japan considers baseball their national pastime and is borderline obsessed with it. I think you'll see the best that Japan has to offer because the country and their players would love a chance to stack up with America's best. Imagine a team whose outfield is Hideki Matsui, Ichiro, and Dave Roberts (yes, Dave Roberts was born in Okinawa), Norihiro Makamura at third, Tad Iguchi at second, Kaz Matsui at second, a starting pitching staff of Kaz Ishii, Hideo Nomo, Tomo Ohka, and a bullpen which features Shingo Takatsu, Akinori Otsuka, and perhaps even Kaz Sasaki, the former Mariner who might consider a comeback just for this tournament if he's still in shape. Think that team might win some games?

It certainly beats spring training.

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