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WBC Wrap-up: USA Wins!

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United States outfielder Adam Jones grabs a catch above the wall for the out on the Dominican Republic's Manny Machado during the seventh inning of a second-round World Baseball Classic baseball game Saturday, March 18, 2017, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull) ORG XMIT: CAGB137

Jones makes the catch of a lifetime for USA; photo via USAToday (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

KW in the previous comments pointed out that I picked against Puerto Rico in every round.  Yes I did.  I’m a sucker for pitching, and I just never thought PR’s pitching staff would take them all the way.  And in the end … it came down to pitching to decide the WBC.

Here’s how the WBC ended up.

(quick links for the WBC:   Official site here, wikipedia site here with schedules, and another wiki site here with rosters).

In the semis: I predicted that the Netherlands and USA would advance, with the Netherlands winning the whole thing.  So what happened?

In the first semi: Puerto Rico and the Netherlands played a pretty entertaining game (side note: why the heck doesn’t Wladimir Balentien get a MLB contract??  He’s destroyed Japanese pitching over the last several years and wasn’t exactly awful during his short stint in the MLB; perhaps he wants to stay over there.  But he’s a beast) that went to extra innings before Puerto Rico walked off with the 4-3 win (using the 11th inning placed runners rules, which certainly make for a quick end to games but seem … well a bit abrupt).

In the other semi, the Nats own Tanner Roark (finally) got the start against previously undefeated (and, really, unchallenged) Japan.  (rant: I hate to be the cynic, but couldn’t have Roark just hung around Palm Beach the last 3 weeks and just show up in LA for this start??  NOW do you see why I hate it when our pitchers get “invited” to pitch in the WBC?).  Luckily, he pitched well, throwing 4+ scoreless innings before making way and thus not getting the W.  The US squeaked out enough runs to win.

In the final, Marcus Stroman (former Nats draftee, I remind you) threw 6+ no-hit innings and the USA bats finally wore down PR’s pitching and won going away 8-0.

Several good post-WBC wrap up columns; one I like from Jim Bowden (yeah yeah boo hiss) where he talks winners and losers, and another good one from Tom Verducci, where he talks about some high-lights and has some intelligent suggestions.

Great event, certainly more exciting and better baseball than we’ve seen in year’s past, and I agree with both Bowden and Verducci that this may have finally been the WBC to “turn the tide” on American participation.  Both visible critics Noah Snydergaard and Mike Trout have done 180-degree reversals on the event which is great to see.

Next up!  Nats roster finalization.

 

Written by Todd Boss

March 23rd, 2017 at 12:13 pm

WBC Round 2 Results and Round 3 predictions

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2017_wbc_logo

The USA has never advanced past the 2nd round of the WBC before, and they get a clutch performance to beat the defending champs (and best team on paper) to advance in 2017.  Here’s a quick review of the Round 2 results and a look ahead/predictions for round 3.

(quick links for the WBC:   Official site here, wikipedia site here with schedules, and another wiki site here with rosters).

Predictions for round 2:

Round 2 Results:

Pool E: Predicted Japan and the Netherlands

Actuals: Israel continued its hot streak early and downed Cuba in what I predict is the 3rd place game, while Japan held serve and beat the Netherlands in extras.  Netherlands turned around the next day and destroyed Israel, handing them their first tourney loss.  Japan handled Cuba to more or less guarantee it spot in the WBC finals on 3/14/17.  On the pool’s final day, the Netherlands destroyed Cuba 14-1 while Japan remained undefeated and my predictions held out; Japan and Netherlands advance to the final round.

Pool F: Predicted DR and USA.

Actuals: Puerto Rico played an inspired game and downed the DR in the first pool game, which puts the DR’s chances of advancing in jeopardy early.  USA held serve and beat Venezuela on a couple of late homers and then the DR beat Venezuela the next night to essentially eliminate them.  The DR needs some help; they would be benefitted by a USA loss to Puerto Rico …. which they got.  The US kept trying to catch up but could never recover from an early 4-0 deficit and dropped a 6-5 decision to Puerto Rico to guarantee PR’s advancement and to setup a do-or-die rematch between USA and DR.  In that game, US starter Danny Duffy wiggled out of jams early and the US’s big bats came through and they downed the defending champs DR 4-2 to advance to their first finals.  Puerto Rico and USA advance.

(tangent; really?  Danny Duffy?  That’s the best starter the US could come up with?  The USA’s three primary starters in this tourney were Chris ArcherMarcus Stroman and Duffy.  Here’s a quick link to 2016’s fangraphs pitcher WAR leaders and thus here’s a quick list of all the US-born players they could have selected ahead of any of these three guys: Kershaw, Snydergaard, Scherzer (who we know was set to attend but got injured), Porcello, Verlander, Sale, Kluber, Bumgarner, Price (also currently injured), Hendricks, Lester, Strasburg, Hill, Arrieta, Grey.  Stroman was 21st in the majors in pitcher WAR last year, behind every one of these guys.  I mean, come on.  How can we alter this event so that the US can put out a rotation of Kershaw, Snydergaard and Bumgarner??)

Round 3 Predictions:

Now we’re to the semis.  Honestly I think the two best teams are unfortunately matched up against each other in the first semi (Netherlands and Puerto Rico).  I’ll go with the Netherlands in one semi, the USA in the other, and then the Netherlands to beat the US in the final.

ps. Yes I agree with all prior commenters; having Daniel Murphy and Tanner Roark on this team has been a complete waste.  I just hope it doesn’t affect their regular seasons…

WBC Round 1 Review and Round 2 Predictions

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2017_wbc_logo

Some major surprises in round 1 of the World Baseball Classic (WBC).  Lets quickly review what happened and then make some educated guesses about Round 2.

(quick links for the WBC:   Official site here, wikipedia site here with schedules, and another wiki site here with rosters).

Here were my predictions for the four groups in Round 1:

  • Predictions for Advancers from Pool A: South Korea, Netherlands
  • Predictions for Advancers from Pool B: Japan, Cuba
  • Predictions for Advancers from Pool C: USA, DR.
  • Predictions for Advancers from Pool D: Mexico, Venezuela

Round 2 starts before round 1 ends, so this post will be slightly delayed waiting for the final Pool C/D results, but my predictions for Round 2 will have already been written.

Actual Results

  • Pool A: Israel and Netherlands.  In a huge shock, hosts South Korea were surprised by Israel to open the tourney, then were blanked by a Netherlands team that may be a dark horse to win this thing.  Two games in and both the Netherlands and Israel were 2-0, ensuring advancement.  Korea beats Chinese Taipei to at least salvage 3rd place so they don’t have to re-qualify, but this is a huge upset for the former Runners-up.  Israel topped the Netherlands after both had already advanced, though there’s no real advantage to finishing 1st or 2nd.
  • Pool B: Japan and Cuba.  The two favorites both advanced, though Cuba had to hold off a pesky Australia in the do-or-die game.  As might have been predicted, China finished dead last, scoring just one run in 3 games.  Japan scored 22 runs in three games to easily advance.
  • Pool C: went basically chalk, with the US and DR winning their opening games, Columbia securing 3rd place over doormats Canada and the DR beating USA in their big-time matchup.  However that tells little of the story; Columbia’s Jose Quintana shut down the US team with nearly 6 no-hit innings and they needed extra innings to advance.  Then in the US-DR game, the USA took advantage of some sloppy fielding to take a commanding 5-0 lead in the game, only to watch our own Tanner Roark get battered around and then World Series hero Andrew Miller cough up not one but two homers to lose the lead and the game 7-5.  Columbia hung tough with the DR, taking them to extra innings before caputulating and giving up 7 in the 10th to make the score look like a blowout.  The US finally broke out while destroying Canada, scoring 7 runs in the first two innings.  US and DR advance.
  • Pool D: Italy kicked off the group with yet another stunning upset, rallying for 4 runs in the 9th to beat group favorite Mexico.  Meanwhile Puerto Rico put a beat-down on group favorite Venezuela, surprising me and shaking up the group.  Venezuela then beat Italy in a win-or-go-home game by the amazing score of 11-10 in extra innings, a game that featured massive swings and should be an instant classic.  Puerto Rico calmly advanced past Mexico, putting themselves in the drivers seat and sending the Mexicans home early.  I had Puerto Rico finishing third; instead they go 3-0 and top the group.  In the pool’s final game, Mexico saved some face and downed Venezeula, meaning all three teams finished with a meager 1-2 record.  Italy and Venezuela advanced to a “tiebreaker” game by virtue of being less awful in the pool than Mexico and headed to a playoff.  In the final 1st round game, Venezuela needed a 3-run rally in the 9th to surpass Italy and advance.

 

Round 2 Predictions:

Pool E: the two advancing teams from each of the Far East pools, hosted at the Tokyo Dome: Netherlands, Israel, Japan and Cuba.

Israel already proved their mettle, though their decider against the Netherlands may not have had the same import had it been a win-or-go-home game.  I think on paper its still Japan and the Netherlands with the most talent.  Cuba advanced but seems to be the weakest of the bunch.  I’ll go with my gut and predict that Japan and the Netherlands advance, with the Netherlands beating Israel when it counts.

Pool F: the two advancing teams from the Northern Hemisphere pools, hosted at Petco Park in San Diego: DR, USA, Puerto Rico, Venezuela

The DR looks unstoppable and the USA was just an inning or two from beating the DR themselves.  Venezeula limped into the final round and seems like its just too old of a squad.  The big game will be US-Puerto Rico to see who joins the DR in San Diego.  I’m still not entirely convinced that the US will advance (since they never have before), but on paper they look so much better than Puerto Rico.  I’ll go DR and USA.

 

 

Written by Todd Boss

March 14th, 2017 at 8:32 am

What would a Cuban WBC team look like if everyone could play?

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Cespedes is my all-Cuba cleanup hitter. Photo via Business Insider

Cespedes is my all-Cuba cleanup hitter. Photo via Business Insider

I saw a little throw-away post at USAtoday.com before the start of the 2016 baseball season: there were no less than 23 Cuban-born players on MLB rosters on 2016 opening day.  And even more defected or were signed in the 2016 calendar year.

How awesome is that?  I think its great that we have a huge contingent of Cubans playing in the league again and I wish that a generation hadn’t been lost due to politics.  A good percentage of the teams in the majors now have at least one Cuban on their 40-man roster somewhere, and many have multiple IFA Cuban signees scattered in their lower minors.  Not the Nats though; we got kinda burned by Yunesky Maya and then blew our IFA budget last year on some D.R. players; perhaps they’ll go after some of the rising talent next July 2 window.

I’ve long hoped for a unification of the Cuban National team to compete in the WBC; I think they’d take so much pride in their team it would really add to the event.  However it looks as if the Cuban government will continue to hold a grudge and prevent any defectors from representing their country in the 2017 WBC.  The WBC rosters were announced recently, and we’ll see some of these names in the analysis below for reasons that will become apparent soon.

So, since we won’t get a full-strength Cuban WBC team, I thought I’d take a stab at what could have been.   I did a similar post in March of 2013 but with all the recent defections the roster looks much improved.

 


 

Manager: Fredi Gonzalez of the Atlanta Braves.  The only Cuban-born hall of Famer Tony Perez can be the bench coach.  They can bring out the likes of Tony Oliva and Camilo Pascual to be his assistants; they’re the most decorated Cuban ex-pros still living.

Pitching Coaches: Livan Hernandez and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez: the brothers re-unite to teach the staff how to throw junk balls and make starts despite being hooked on Marlboro Reds.

Hitting Coaches:  Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro.  These two can double as “Strength coaches.”  :-)

Positional Players:

  • C: Yasmani Grandal, starting catcher for the Dodgers, 2015 All-Star.
  • 1B: Jose Abreu, 91 homers in his first three years in the MLB, Rookie of the Year in 2014, when he also made the All-Star team and won the Silver Slugger.
  • 2B: Aledmys Diaz: debut in 2016 and made the All-Star team; prodution fell off so he “only” finished 5th in 2016 Rookie of the Year voting.
  • 3B: Adonis Garcia: a solid bat for Atlanta at the corner despite debuting at age 30.
  • SS: Jose Iglesias: 2015 All-Star for Detroit after finishing 2nd in RoY voting in 2013.
  • LF:  Jorge Soler: Flipped to Kansas City this off-season, escaping a log-jam in Chicago.  Huge power, yet to reach his potential.
  • CF: Yoenis Cespedes: just signed the largest contract of the off-season; not really a CF but played there nonetheless.  2-time All-Star and Home Run derby winner 
  • RF: Yasiel Puig: despite his demotion in 2016 has the potential to be one of the elite players in the game, which he in-arguably was his first two years in the league.  2015 all-Star.

That’s a pretty solid starting lineup; 6 of the 8 players here have already made a MLB all-star team.  Lots of power; you’d probably have a slugger like Soler batting 7th.  I think you line these guys up Iglesias, Diaz, Pug, Cespedes, Abreu, Grandal, Soler, Garcia, Pitcher.

Reserves:

  • Catcher: Brayan Peña
  • Corner Inf/PH: Yonder Alonso , Kendrys MoralesYulieski Gurriel, Yoan Moncada
  • Middle Infield: Yunel Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarria,  Alexei Ramirez,  Alex Guerrero
  • OF: Rusney CastilloHector OliveraYasmany Tomas, Leonys Martin, Alfredo Despaigne, Yoelkys Céspedes, Victor Mesa

The reserves include a number of solid veteran guys like Alonso and Morales, middle infield cover from the likes of  Hechavarria and Ramires, and plenty of OF coverage from players like Tomas and Olivera.  And one of the top prospects in all of baseball (Yoan Moncada, the centerpiece of the Chris Sale trade this past off-season) can’t even crack this lineup; he may be your starting 3B before long.  Perhaps Gurriel, a decade-long star in the Cuban series, should be starting at third over Garcia; we’ll see how he fares once he gets more time in Houston.  Despaigne is the biggest player on this list who still hasn’t come to the MLB: he opted to take up the Cuban government’s relaxing of rules and has been playing in Japan recently.  Yoelkys Cespedes is indeed Yoenis’ younger brother and is getting some attention for his abilities already.

Starting Pitchers

  • Oridismar Despaignehe’s been knocked to the bullpen in the Majors, but someone has to start for the Cuban team.  Career 4.89 ERA.
  • Raisel Iglesias: posted a 2.53 ERA in 2016 as he transitioned from the rotation to closer.  He’s gotta start for this team though.
  • Roenis Elias: 4th starter for Seattle in 2014-15, struggled/got hurt for Boston in 2016.
  • Ariel Miranda : 10 starts for Seattle last year with a 3.54 era; he may not make their rotation in 2017 but he’ll get time.

So, we’re a little light on starters.  We may be reaching out to some domestic-based pitchers.  Starter Lazaro Blanco just pitched two masterpieces in the Caribbean Series, shutting out the Dominican Republic team for 6 innings then giving up just one run in seven innings in the semis against Mexico.  Their #2 and #3 starters (Vladimir Banos and Vladimir Garcia) weren’t half bad either.  Freddy Alvarez got pummeled in his only series start but is on the WBC roster as a returning veteran and should see time.  Perhaps we should also look at promising 18-yr old Cuban prospect Osvaldo Hernandez, who was just declared a FA and may sign a multi-million dollar deal soon.

Relievers

  • Aroldis Chapman (2009 WBC team member): the most dominant reliever in the game, 4-time All-star
  • Dalier Hinojosa: setup guy with Philly, decent numbers, like a 6th/7th inning guy.
  • Raudel Lazo: lefty reliever with Miami’s farm system; closed for their AAA squad and posted a 1.78 ERA in 2016 in New Orleans.
  • Yaisel Sierra: struggled in AA for the Dodgers, demoted to bullpen.
  • Armando Rivero, RP for Atlanta
  • Yadier Alvarez: LA’s #1 remaining prospect; only in high-A but well regarded.

Past Chapman and Hinojosa, there’s not much depth here either, so again we dip into the domestic-based players.  Cuba depended on three late-innings relievers in the Caribbean series: Livan Moinelo, Miguel Lahera and Jose Garcia.  All three are named to the official WBC roster.

 


In summary, the Consoildated all-Cuban team can bash the heck out of the ball … but will struggle on the mound until the 8th or 9th inning when Chapman can take over.  But it’d be a fun team to watch play!

Did I miss anyone?  Maybe; its impossible to keep track of the dozens of Cuban signings done over the last couple of years.  Pipe up if you see someone mising.

Some references used to make this:

And Peter Gammons just posted his own version of this the day before I published (but weeks after I wrote this).  Compare and contrast his team; i did not cross check to see if I missed anyone.

2017 WBC Preview and Round 1 Predictions

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2017_wbc_logo

 

Lets preview the latest (and possibly final) iteration of the World Baseball Classic (WBC).  Its set to run March 6th-March 22nd.  Official site here, wikipedia site here with schedules, and another wiki site here with rosters.

First, some editorialization.  I have a love/hate relationship with this event.

  • I love the attempt to create a global tournament for Baseball.  It can only help promote the game.
  • I love the nationalism displayed by *some* of the teams.  The pride that players from the D.R. and other latin countries display, as well as the Far East teams, is fantastic.
  • I love the concept; to emulate a World Cup, to have an event where the best of the best play and compete.

However, I have some things about the WBC that I don’t like;

  • I hate how USA players in particular don’t rate the tournament; why aren’t the best players for the US playing?  I’m talking about you Bryce Harper and Mike Trout as a start.
  • I hate the timing; why is this event in the middle of Spring Training?  Why wouldn’t you put it at the END of the season as FIFA does with the World Cup?
  • As a side effect of the timing … I therefore hate how most pros treat this as another Spring Training game, coming out after a few innings or only pitching a couple of innings.  It detracts from the competition.
  • I rather dislike the “manufactured” teams; why create a fake team for Italy based mostly on players with Italian sounding names?  Same for Israel and to an extent the Netherlands just collecting Caribbean players of Dutch origin.
  • I think the decision by the Cuban government to prevent defectors from representing their team kind of defeats the purpose of the event and prevents the creation of what could have been a very talented team.

(Related to the Cuba rant; I’m working on a separate post that i’ve done in the past postulating on just what a combined Cuban team might look like).


Here’s a look at the pools and offer some predictions.

Round 1: Held at four sites between March 6th and March 12th: four 4-team mini tournaments with the top 2 from each group advancing.

  • Pool A: hosted in Seoul, South Korea.  Teams: South Korea, Chinese Taipei, Netherlands, Israel.

Thoughts: The South Korean team is mostly KBO League players, but its an under-rated squad and will draw energy by playing at home.  The Netherlands squad has a ton of really good players, mostly from Curacao.  The Israeli team is also filled with MLB players, but they’re mostly role players.  The Chinese Taipei team is the most intriguing, being mostly Taiwan based and possibly suffering from some internal political conflict issues.  Still, its hard to see the Netherlands team being beat.

Predictions for Advancers: South Korea, Netherlands

  • Pool B: hosted in Tokyo, Japan.  Teams: Japan, Cuba, China, Australia

Thoughts: There’s little chance the Japanese team doesn’t advance, as the other three teams all have issues.  The Australian team draws mostly from its internal weaker league, nobody knows anything about the China league, and the Cuban league (as noted above) has been significantly weakened through hundreds of defections over the last few years.  Plus Cuba has had to travel thousands of miles to compete against 3 teams playing in their same time zone.  Still, Cuban baseball is Cuban Baseball, and I think they’ll find a way to advance.

Predictions for Advancers: Japan, Cuba

  • Pool C: hosted in Miami, FL.  Teams: USA, Dominican Republic, Canada, Columbia

Thoughts: Its easy to just say USA and DR here; clearly the two best teams on paper.  But as noted above the USA isn’t exactly sending a roster of its best available players, and thus an upstart team of talented players like Columbia could easily pull off an upset.  The Columbian rotation looks like it could be better than the USA’s (led by Julio Teheran and Jose Quintana) and a hot pitcher can take a team far.  Canada looks like a stronger version of Australia; some MLB players but a lot of role players and thinner pitching.  The DR sends a strong team as always and is my prediction to win and repeat.

Predictions for Advancers: USA, DR.

  • Pool D: hosted in Guadalajara, Mexico  Teams: Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Italy

Thoughts: I can’t see the talented and nationalistic Mexican team falling here; they’re going to be a tough out for anyone who plays them.  The Italian team will again be a collection of MLB scrubs whose names end in a vowel.  So the second spot goes to the winner of a Venezuela-PR battle; both teams look strong but Venezuela seems to have better depth.

Predictions for Advancers: Mexico, Venezuela

 


 

We’ll post again once the first rounds are done to revisit these predictions, because the 2nd rounds could feature groups where any of the 4 teams could advance.  In fact the 2nd round match-ups look very tough.

 

 

Written by Todd Boss

March 6th, 2017 at 9:26 am

Roark commits to pitch in WBC: why this is potentially Bad News for the Nats

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Roark's playing in the WBC; beware Nats fans. Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

Roark’s playing in the WBC; beware Nats fans. Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

Word came out that Nats under-rated star Tanner Roark has committed to pitch for the US in the World Baseball Classic (WBC) coming up this spring.  He was invited earlier but had yet to commit, and his participation comes on the heels of word that Max Scherzer would be bowing out of the WBC thanks to a stress fracture in one of his fingers.  (Which, as a side note/tangent, is pretty distressing news that may be under reported; our $200M ace has a fractured knuckle??  Should we be worried?  anyway, back to the post).

Four years ago, I wrote a post titled “Gonzalez to play in WBC: why this is really Bad News for the Nats” and I’m recycling that post (and title) here, because the message is the same: This is not good news for the Nats and t heir 2017 season.

Simply put: Every Nationals pitcher who has *ever* participated in the WBC has regressed from previous performance in the season following.

Here’s a quick table showing every Nats WBC pitcher with their ERA and ERA+ the season before their WBC participation and subsequent to it:

WBC YrPitcher NameERA Season beforeERA season AfterERA+ season beforeERA+ season after
2006Luis Ayala2.66inj153inj
2006Chad Cordero1.823.19225134
2006Gary Majewski2.934.6113996
2009Joel Hanrahan3.954.7810989
2009Saul Rivera3.966.110970
2013Gio Gonzalez2.893.36138113
2013Ross Detwiler3.41184.0494

As you can see; every single one of our pitchers was either injured or regressed (mostly significantly) after playing in the WBC.  The worst case was Luis Ayala, who pitched against the wishes of the team and blew out his elbow on the field during the WBC.  That injury cost him the entire 2006 season.

But this is just our team’s experiences.  How about Baseball wide?  MLB has endeavored itself to argue that participation in the WBC does not lead to an increase in injuries amongst its players and especially pitchers.  But we’re not talking about injuries here; we’re talking about performance.   Here are two very well done studies that show the negative impact of pitching in the WBC:

  1. This July 2010 study on Fangraphs
  2. This Feb 2013 study from BaseballPress.com
  3. A 2014 study at BeyondtheBoxScore that does really in-depth studies of all three WBCs that uses better numbers than I do.

The BaseballPress study shows some of the same numbers I’ve shown above, but conducts the analysis across every pitcher who participated in both WBCs prior to the 2013.  And the results are pretty evident; across the board on average pitchers regressed both in the year of the WBC and in the year after.  The BeyondtheBoxScore tries to do a much more scientific approach using control groups and finds less significant/trivial regression, but depends on projection systems and not year over year performance, which is kind of the point; we live in the real world, not projection systems.

It isn’t hard to figure out why these guys regress; playing in the WBC interupts the decades-old Spring Training plans for getting a starting pitcher ready for a season by slowly bringing him along in terms of innings and pitch counts.  And, suddenly exposing both starters and relievers to high-leverage situations in February/March that they aren’t ready for either physically or mentally puts undue stress on these guys that (as we have seen) manifests itself later on down the road.

Nonetheless, as much as I like the WBC as a concept I think its “bad” that one of our key pitchers will be participating.  At least we now know that Roark’s time may be limited thanks to new rules that allow roster augmentations.  If Roark throws one 5 inning stint maybe it won’t be so bad.

I just wish the WBC would be played AFTER the season (you know, like the World Cup does it; AFTER the pro seasons have ended) instead of before it.

 

What the Cuban embargo easing means for baseball

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No more death-defying defections for cubans like Yasiel Puig.  photo mlb.com

No more death-defying defections for cubans like Yasiel Puig. photo mlb.com

With the sudden and surprising announcement that president Barack Obama plans to “normalize relationships” with Cuba on 12/17/14, one cannot help but wonder how this move will affect the market for Cuban baseball players.

Here’s a smattering of links to post-announcement baseball industry impact analysis:

If you read any of these links, read Olney’s.  Its ESPN insider only, but he extensively quotes one Joe Kehoskie, who has worked as a player agent within Cuba for years.  Kehoskie states some important points, namely and most importantly, the US-Cuba embargo is NOT what was preventing Cuban players from playing in America; it was always the Cuban government.  Proof?  Cuba does not have an embargo against it with any other country with a large organized league (i.e., Japan, Korea, Mexico, Europe, any of the winter league countries, etc) yet their players were barred from playing even in them until just recently.  The Cuban government took these steps just recently to enable its players to play elsewhere; in Sept 2013 Cuban players were allowed to play in foreign leagues, which has subsequently led to a number of additional defections (and rising player contracts) here in the states.  But as Kehoski points out, there’s still huge hurdles to foreign ownership of property in Cuba (preventing the immediate building of academies by MLB teams for example), and it is worth saying that the country is still a communist dictatorship, with huge amounts of government control over the activities of its people.

Lets dream a bit though, and imagine that the Cuban government relents and releases the market for baseball players.  Immediate questions from a baseball perspective include:

  • Can MLB scouts immediately (and freely) travel to Cuba to scout?  It seems so: the Obama press release talked about immediate easing of travel restrictions and stated limits on import/exports (they had to answer multiple questions about bringing back cigars in the press conference :-) )
  • Will the Cuban league negotiate a posting system similar to what MLB has with the Asian leagues?
  • Or, will MLB teams set up their own academies similarly to what they do in the Dominican Republic?

MLB teams will want the academy route clearly; it won’t take but a few million dollars of infrastructure to setup teams and dormitories, and 16-yr olds could be signed for a few thousand dollars outside of harsh international FA spending limits much as they are in the DR.  But the Cuban government may want to do a posting system to help protect its local leagues and to earn much-needed money.   Not to mention the fact that Cuban culture values education and they’d likely be aghast if kids started dropping out of conventional school in their mid teens to enroll in baseball-only academies for a shot at a baseball lottery ticket.  Also, can you imagine billionaire owners negotiating with the cronies of the communist Cuban sports bureaus looking to hoard cash on the backs of their penniless players?

A huge benefit that could start immediately?  The possible return of the Cuban winter league, which used to be the clear preeminent winter league, drawing future hall of famers to the island for a winter vacation.  Now, Havana in the 50s isn’t what it is today of course … but if the Cuban government relents to foreign investment, there’s no reason for Cuba not to turn into another tourist-heavy island nation in the same way that other Caribbean countries operate.

One last thing: I’ve always taken an interest in the World Baseball Classic, and one of the things I’ve always wondered is what a united Cuban team could look like.  In the wake of the 2013 event, I wrote about what such a “politics-free” team could look like.  And now, two years and a number of high-profile defections later, I think a Cuban team could be even better.  Will we get to see a united team in the next version?   Hopefully so; the next WBC isn’t until 2017, by which time we’ll hopefully have a lot more clarity.   If you look at the 2013 version of the unified Cuban team, It lists Jose Abreu as a sub; now we know he’d be the marquee hitter in such a lineup next to Yoenis Cespedes.  And more players are coming.  In fact, you may put a unified cuban team as the 2nd or 3rd favorite in the WBC (behind the DR and USA).

Here’s a quick proffer on what a unified Cuban all-star team could look like right now.  Using the 2013 team as a starter and adding in recent defectees:

  • C: Yasmani Grandal
  • 1B: Jose Abreu
  • 2B: Yunel Escobar
  • 3B: Yonder Alonso
  • SS: Yoan Moncada (backed up by Alexei Ramirez)
  • LF: Yoenis Cespedes
  • CF: Yasiel Puig
  • RF: Yasmani Tomas
  • Starters: Jose Fernandez, Odrisamer Despaigne, Miguel Gonzalez
    (Gio Gonzalez was born in Cuba, but has already played for the US, so we eliminate him from consideration).
  • Relievers: Aroldis Chapman

That’s quite a good squad to start with, even without looking at the lesser Cuban players and/or the guys in the pipeline.

Post publishing link collection: Sports on Earth’s Phil Rogers on the future of the Cuban National team: he basically does a more researched and thoughtful version of the lineup above.  Nathaniel Grow of Fangraphs does his own version of this post in general.   Chris Moran of Beyond the box Score also does a version of this post.  Craig Calcaterra pipes in too.  Thom Loverro puts up his 2 cents.  BusinessInsider quotes super-agent Ron Shapiro and his “sea of questions” regarding baseball players.

WBC Semis, Finals and Tourney Review

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Maybe Team USA wasn’t meant to make it to the WBC semis regardless; the two teams that beat them in pool play made the finals themselves.  Lets take a look at the semis and finals, and talk about the tournament in general:

Semis: Puerto Rico outsted 2-time defending champion Japan relatively easily behind the batting prowness of Alex Rios (who is earning himself fantasty baseball street cred by the bucket-full this spring).  Perhaps Japan is regretting having some of its best players bow out of the tournament just as team USA has.  Hey, that’s why they play the games, right?  Japan’s ace Kenta Maeda couldn’t find his rhythm and pitched just badly enough to lose.

Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic wore down the Netherland’s pitching staff and got some revenge over the Netherlands in the other semi, to setup a Finals rematch from pool play.  The star of the game was not one of the D.R.’s stars, it was little known Moises Sierra, who made a fantastic catch in the first and then doubled in the eventual winning run in their big 5th inning rally.

Finals: Though it seems anti-climactic, the D.R. jumped out to a first inning lead and were never really threatened, winning the final 3-0 over Puerto Rico.  The D.R. finishes the tournament undefeated and rightfully so, having easily the strongest roster of any of the teams.  And they finally win the WBC title that many thought that they were the most deserving to win (outside of the US team of course, which has yet to field a full-strength team in any of the 3 iterations of the tournament).

Tournament Thoughts: I feel like the tournament is catching on a little bit, that the patriotism factors that the smaller nations are showing is starting to wear off on the Americans who aren’t playing.   The TV ratings remain low in the US … but they’re sky high elsewhere.  I do believe MLB needs to look into moving the tournament to occur either around the All-Star break or (more likely) after the World Series ends each year so that players are at full strength, have no excuse not to play and we could have a better tournament.

Written by Todd Boss

March 20th, 2013 at 10:35 am

Starting Pitching Quality in the WBC

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I keep a little file, periodically updated, that keeps track of “Ace Starters” in the league.  There’s usually right around 20 of them at any one time.  There’s no hard and fast rule as to what defines an Ace; not every team has an Ace.  Some teams have more than one Ace.  Its essentially defined as a guy who, every time he goes to the hill, he is expected to win, a perennial Cy Young candidate, a guy who is acknowledged as being one of the best in the game.

Here’s my list of “Aces” in this league, right now; Strasburg, Gonzalez, Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Cueto, Wainwright, Lincecum, Cain, Kershaw, Greinke, Lester, Price, Sabathia, Dickey, Johnson, Verlander, Hernandez, Darvish and Weaver.    Twenty guys, some arguable with poor 2012 performances (Lester, Lincecum, Johnson, Halladay), some arguable for possibly being one-year wonders (Dickey, Greinke, Gonzalez), but by and large a quick list of the 20 best starters in the league.

How many of these Aces are pitching in the 2013 WBC?  TWO.  That’s it.  Gio Gonzalez and R.A. Dickey are starting for the US.  Not one other US Ace is taking the hill for their country.  The few foreign guys (Hernandez, Cueto and Darvish) aren’t pitching for their teams either for various reasons.

If you asked me to give you the 4 best US starters, right now, the four starters I’d throw in a World Baseball Classic to best represent this country, I’d probably go (in nearly this order) Verlander, Kershaw, Strasburg and maybe Cole Hamels.   If you asked me the NEXT four guys i’d want on the bump i’d probably go Sabathia, Cain, Price and Lee.   After that?  I’d probably still take the likes of Halladay and Greinke before I got to Gonzalez or Dickey.   And that’s only because of the poor 2012 showings by Lincecum, Lester and Johnson; if this was 2011, those three guys are absolutely in the mix for best arms in the league.  So by rough estimates, we have perhaps the 14th and 15th best American starters going for us right now.

Who else does the US team have starting?   Ryan Vogelsong and Derek Holland.  Vogelsong is the 4th best starter ON HIS OWN TEAM, and Holland isn’t much further up on the Texas depth chart.

I’m enjoying the WBC, don’t get me wrong, but you can repeat this exercise for a number of the positional players on this roster too.   Look at the post-season voting last year and look at who is playing on these teams.  No Buster Posey, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Josh Hamilton or Prince Fielder.  There is only one player who got an NL Cy Young vote in 2012 participating (Fernando Rodney for the D.R.).  I think this event needs its best players to play, and I think the league needs to come up with a way of making that happen.  No more injury dispensations, no more excuses for not having the best, most marketable guys out there.

Why in the hell aren’t Trout and Harper playing for the team USA??   This is the best duo of young, marketable players to this this league since the 1998 home run derby.  They’re on the cover of Men’s Health Magazine and Sports Illustrated in the last month.   You use what you have and market the league on the backs of players like this.  Look at the NBA; they market on top of their most recognizable names and they have grown because of it, from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James.  Why MLB can’t seem to see the forest for the trees sometimes is just frustrating.  The WBC is growing in popularity; its ratings in Japan eclipsed the TV ratings for the Olympics in that country, and the US games reportedly have gotten the highest ratings for a non-playoff game in TV history).  Team USA needs to catch on.

One Positive to having our guys in the WBC

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Mar 12, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; United States pitcher Gio Gonzalez (47) delivers a pitch against Puerto Rico at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

(Don’t you hate it when a pro writer totally scoops your blog post, and you find out 5 minutes before you go to post it?  Tom Boswell wrote on this exact topic in today’s Washington Post).

James Wagner of the The Washington Post touched on it in a 3/13/13 article, but I’ll repeat it here; we’re seeing both Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler compete, and compete well, for Team USA right now.  Gonzalez threw 5 scoreless innings in the Round 2 opener against a tough Puerto Rico side, and Detwiler finished up the do-or-die win against surprising Italy by throwing 4 innings of 1 hit ball and earning the save (and the game ball; what a fantastic souvenir).

Now, I’m on record stating that having our pitchers (specifically) in the WBC is bad, both anecdotally from past experiences and statistically (see the linked post for statistical studies showing across-the-board regression among WBC pitchers).  However I wonder if there’s an upside to having (specifically) Gonzalez pitching in this competition.  I wonder if we aren’t getting some free “seasoning” of Gonzalez by exposing him to the same playoff atmosphere that he failed in last off-season.

Gonzalez may not have factored into either decision in last year’s NLDS, but nobody would argue that he pitched well.  In two starts he only lasted 10 total innings, had 11 walks, a 1.70 whip and was just wild.  110 pitches to get through 5ip in game 1, 99 in game5.  Cardinals players were quoted as saying he “looked scared” on the mound.  Is it all because it was his first time in the limelight?  Did the pressure get to him?

Well, the pressure didn’t get to him against Puerto Rico.  If Gonzalez has “grown up” a bit because of the WBC and can go back to being the Ace/Cy Young candidate in 2013’s playoffs, the Nats will be far better positioned to advance.

Written by Todd Boss

March 13th, 2013 at 10:56 am