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MLB missing out on international showcase as active stars won’t be at Tokyo Olympics


Shohei Ohtani will, unfortunately, not be playing alongside Masahiro Tanaka in the Olympics.

Shohei Ohtani will, unfortunately, not be playing alongside Masahiro Tanaka in the Olympics.
Image: Getty Images

It’s exciting that baseball is back in the Olympics for Tokyo after having been out of the program in 2012 and 2016. It’s also going to be a weird mix of intriguing and disappointing to watch it all unfold, because while there are going to be familiar faces, the Olympics happening simultaneously with the Major League Baseball season means that the best players in the world won’t be there.

We’ve never gotten to see that kind of international tournament in baseball. The World Baseball Classic is the closest thing, but it happens during spring training and, between the fact that players aren’t in peak form at that time of year, and all the players who opt out to focus on getting ready for their seasons, it still falls short of being a showcase of the very best in the world.

The Olympic baseball tournament will most closely resemble the 2016 Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament, where the Olympic Athletes from Russia came away with the gold because the KHL took a break from play while the NHL didn’t, leading to a tournament where the top players were young guys bound for the NHL, like Nikita Gusev and Kirill Kaprizov, alongside future Hall of Famers who’d returned home like Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk (Editor’s note: All the Don Cherrys of the world are spitting out their Timbits from Hortons, but yes, Kovalchuk is absolutely deserving.). Germany won the silver after upsetting Canada in the semifinals, in no small part because the Canadian roster was mostly players who made you say, “Oh yeah, that guy,” like Derek Roy, Ben Scrivens, and Wojtek Wolski.

For the Tokyo Olympics, the U.S. baseball team offers Todd Frazier, Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir, and David Robertson, among other quasi-familiar faces. Adrian Gonzalez and Oliver Perez are on Team Mexico, Ian Kinsler and Ryan Lavarnway are on Team Israel, Jose Bautista and Melky Cabrera are playing for the Dominican Republic, Seung-hwan Oh is there for South Korea, and Masahiro Tanaka is pitching for Japan — the Kovalchuk of this tournament as the guy who could still be playing in the world’s top league, but chose to go home.

Think, for a moment, how much fun it would be to see Tanaka and Shohei Ohtani on the same Team Japan in Tokyo. Or what it would look like if the best players in the major leagues were all headed over. Here are some lineups, just going by Baseball Reference’s WAR for this season and place of birth, for a hint of what they might look like — and keep in mind that, yeah, because it’s just based on a stat for this year, there’s no Mike Trout, but there is Ronald Acuña Jr., even though he’s now injured.

United States

C Buster Posey

1B Max Muncy

2B Marcus Semien

SS Brandon Crawford

3B Manny Machado

LF Bryan Reynolds

CF Cedric Mullins

RF Joey Gallo

DH Jake Cronenworth

P Kevin Gausman

Dominican Republic

C Gary Sanchez

1B Carlos Santana

2B Jean Segura

SS Fernando Tatis Jr.

3B Rafael Devers

LF Teoscar Hernandez

CF Starling Marte

RF Juan Soto

DH Nelson Cruz

P Freddy Peralta

Venezuela

C Willson Contreras

1B Jesus Aguilar

2B Jose Altuve

SS Miguel Rojas

3B Eduardo Escobar

LF Luis Arraez

CF Odubel Herrera

RF Ronald Acuña Jr.

DH Asdrubal Cabrera

P German Marquez

Puerto Rico

C Christian Vazquez

1B Victor Caratini

2B Javier Baez

SS Carlos Correa

3B Isan Diaz

LF Eddie Rosario

CF Enrique Hernandez

RF Edwin Rios

DH Francisco Lindor

P Jose Berrios

Those wouldn’t be the final rosters, and you’d also see major league stars from Japan and South Korea joining up with the best players from their home-nation leagues. It could be everything that the World Baseball Classic wishes it was, and can’t be so long as it’s jammed into spring training.

For now, we can only dream of that, which is kind of why the “Dream Team” in basketball got its name — when the NBA players went, it actually was a dream coming true, getting them all together on the same court. The difference is, the United States could put together that team, and go out and dominate. A tournament with baseball’s best would be a whole lot more competitive.

We’ll still see a competitive and interesting tournament in baseball in Tokyo. It’s just that the winner will be more of a Curiosity Team than anything else, and without the biggest stars of the sport there, baseball — especially without Cuba there — will remain what it’s always been at the Games, a fringe interest at best, even in the countries where the sport is biggest.



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