WBC: Highlighting Baseball’s Best/Putting Baseball’s Best at Risk

The WBC can make baseball a truly global game.

STEPHON JOHNSON: As the World Baseball Classic attempts to make our pastime truly global, MLB organizations’ reluctance to send players stunts the sport’s growth.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Baseball, as great as it is, is not a true global sport. Yes, baseball is played in the Far East, Latin America, Canada and a few other nations, but that doesn’t make it global. If not for the Far East, most baseball is trapped in the Western Hemisphere. Our true global sporting export comes from the league that’s run by David Stern (much to the chagrin of many people who can’t stand the NBA). That’s why the World Baseball Classic would make our beautiful game a lot more popular.

But if some Major League Baseball franchises have their way, we’d take a time machine back to 2005, the year before the WBC, and rewind it whenever we approached January 1, 2006 to avoid the tournament. This does not make for good business.

Understand, I don’t mind teams sitting out the really big stars. Johan Santana left the decision to play in the WBC for his native Venezuela up to the New York Mets. It looks like he won’t participate simply because he can use all of the rest he can get after pitching in September with a torn meniscus in his left knee. The Mets have invested $137.5 million in Santana. Keeping him out of harm’s way is expected.

But let’s take someone like Robinson Cano of the New York Yankees. Last January, he signed a contract that guaranteed him $30 million over four years and proceeded to have his worst season as a pro with a .305 on-base percentage, .410 slugging and an 86 OPS+. If I’m Hal and Hank Steinbrenner, I’d make him play in the WBC regardless of his personal feelings. Cano could use the extra work against pitchers who are throwing for their country and not just a league championship.

The more the WBC can get airtime elsewhere, with at least some MLB stars involved, the more our non-baseball playing nations can recognize its relevance. This opens the chance for the one kid in France who’s interested in our sport to watch the elite in action. If the elite aren’t involved, it means nothing. The tournament would be a farce. While some object to the WBC’s games being played in March, you couldn’t play the tournament at any other time. If any compromise could be reached, the semifinals and finals of the tournament should be played in the middle of the season like the NHL taking a month off for the Winter Olympics (although this wouldn’t last as long). However, the tournament’s standing in the third month of the year can benefit MLB teams in several ways.

Not only does the WBC benefit with more recognizable players, it also benefits bench players and most importantly: a franchise’s prospects. While some of the stars are hitting singles and doubles for their flag, your Triple-A and Double-A stars can show their stuff in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. This is the perfect chance for that top-rated third baseman to work on fielding bunts better or for that pitching phenom to work on his changeup.

Not only do MLB teams benefit from the WBC, the sport of baseball benefits from the WBC. Without it, the planet’s kids will most likely grow up to be Tim Duncans than Derek Jeters.

HOWARD MEGDAL: As someone who craves more baseball, who would support doubling MLB’s year to a reasonable 324-game schedule, the WBC makes a lot of sense. The players are legitimately excited to participate, the WBC provides for a tournament that is better than anything the Olympics can come up with, and who cares about spring training, anyway? Right?

The problems: both the issues of timing of the event and forcing players to choose between their employers and their country are untenable, and I don’t see how either can be resolved.

Let’s start with the fact that the WBC is in early March. Now, I’ve seen where pitchers and catchers generally are by early March. There are still a fair amount of cobwebs to get out. Pitchers generally can’t go more than three innings as starters, and relievers don’t tend to have all pitches working yet. And hitters definitely haven’t gotten in the reps against live pitching to be ready for top competition.

So what does the WBC mean? Well, pitchers and hitters have two choices-either get into top form earlier, stretching an already-long season, or go in cold. Neither one bodes well for avoiding injuries, particularly for pitchers.

Take Pedro Feliciano for example. About two months after his 2008 season ended for the Mets, he was back on the mound for his Puerto Rico Winter League team, Leones de Ponce. (That gap would have been even smaller had the Mets made the postseason.)  In essence, his 2009 season began in early December, 2008-rather than March.

Leones de Ponce just clinched the Puerto Rico Winter League title. Now they turn around, and will participate in the Carribean World Series. Depending on how far Leones go, Feliciano will have very little rest prior to pitching for Puerto Rico in the WBC-then reporting to the Mets just in time for the start of a major league season the Mets hope lasts until the end of October.

Think this can’t have an effect? Look at Luis Ayala, who posted ERA+ marks of 154, 168 and 153 in his first three seasons. But after pitching for Mexico in the 2006 WBC, Ayala hurt his arm, missed all of 2006 and much of 2007, and posted an ERA+ of just 76 in 2008. Ask any Mets fan if he was the same pitcher.

And when something like this happens to Luis Ayala, it doesn’t make headlines. But if something similar happens to, say, Felix Hernandez this time around, expect the few top-flight pitchers who currently get cleared for the WBC to bail out of the next version.

That is a shame, too. Who wouldn’t love to see the best vs. the best by country? But should Johan Santana really put himself at risk when he’s likely to go throw another 230 innings for the Mets? He’s got a huge long-term contract- is patriotism really worth more to him than earning a living?

So the WBC, merely by existing, makes the players choose- be a bad guy, or put your career at risk.

There’s a reason there was no WBC for a long time, and not just because of these inherent problems- the major league baseball season is too good to mess up. Let the best play against the best- and enjoy it right in your backyard. Someday, MLB will expand to countries around the world, as it should. In the meantime, let’s not prematurely rush progress, and wreck some careers as we do.

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