It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The 2020 Summer Games were looking to be a throwback Olympics with minimal issues. Sure, it would cost too much, the weather would have been a bit too hot, and there undoubtedly would be some political and/or drug-related issues, but at least it wouldn’t be a case of a city biting off far more than it could chew. There wouldn’t be a seemingly endless number of venues left behind empty, gathering dust as a reminder of games long-since past. The city hosting the games wouldn’t go bankrupt from it all, either. Tokyo was going to have the best-run Olympics since London in 2012.
And while to varying degrees all that is still true, it will be barely a shadow of what it should have been. It’s because COVID-19, of course. So instead of what was looking like one of the best Olympics in history, this may well go down as one of the worst. Or at least one of the biggest bummers of a game.
The Olympics are often a complicated thing. On one hand, the idea of having athletes from all around the world come together in some great global city and then have competitions in over two dozen sports over a two week span is inherently dramatic, appealing, and awe-inspiring. On the other hand, it is run by the IOC, an organization that has shown time and again to be varying degrees of elitist, sexist, corporate, autocratic, out-of-touch, corrupt, and various other unflattering things. Perhaps that’s more true than ever this year, where they are quite literally holding an event in the middle of a pandemic without fans and apparently not even giving Tokyo a make-up date sometime in the 2030s or 2040s where they’d actually be able to see it and get the money from all those fans.
And yet, ultimately, once the games begin, most of us will probably forget it all, because we always do.
Anyway, now that that rumination is done, it’s time for some final predictions on Olympic Baseball. A refresher on the tournament (which is admittedly a bit out of date as far as the COVID precautions in the Olympics) can be found here. As a recap, here are the teams involved, in order of when I did previews of them. Click to go to the previews (please note these do not reflect recent changes due to injuries or COVID tests, I will likely have another update before the start of the tournament):
For gold, I think this is ultimately the homestanding Japanese team’s tournament to lose. Behind them I’m going to say that Team USA will be able to beat out Korea or the Dominican for the silver before falling to Japan. The Dominicans will edge out Korea for bronze. Mexico and Israel, thanks for playing.
However, it should be noted that as always in baseball, and especially during international play where series aren’t things, this is ultimately a crapshoot. If a team’s pitching is clicking and hitting is opportune, any one of these teams, even Israel, could conceivably win gold. On the same coin, some bad days of pitching or dead bats could lead to one of the top teams having an early trip home.
The only way we’ll be sure is when the teams take the field late on July 27.
Since my previews went up, there have been some changes to the rosters:
First off, two members of the South Korean team were removed from the roster as part of a punishment for breaking social distancing. Those players, 2B Min-Woo Park and P Hyun-hee Han, have also been suspended the rest of the KBO season. Their replacements are rookie left-handed reliever Jin Uk Kim and former MLBer Seunghwan Oh, arguably the best reliever in Korea’s history. Jin-Uk is a bit of an odd choice, however, as his stats haven’t been very good this year. Also of note is that they did not add a new 2B to replace Park. Korea is facing other COVID-19 related issues: the first of their warm-up games, which would have been against a team of under-24 KBO All-Stars, has been called off due to pandemic restrictions.
Two members of Team Mexico have tested positive for COVID-19 and will not be making the trip. Hector Velazquez and Sammy Solis tested positive on Sunday before the team was set to leave for Tokyo, and now the team is in quarantine while they await further tests. It isn’t clear if Solis and Velazquez are being re-tested in case of a false positive and may end up making the trip, and I haven’t found anything yet to suggest who (if anyone) will replace them. The bigger question is what might happen should a large portion of the team have COVID. Would they forfeit all their games? Would they be allowed to quickly add a bunch of new players? These are some of the issues facing all the sports in this pandemic Olympics.
Team USA has been playing exhibition games against the USA National Collegiate Team to prepare for Tokyo. While obviously they are college kids, they are hardly slouches and most of them will likely go on to have professional careers. The Olympians won the 7-inning Game 1 8-3 on Sunday behind good days at the plate by Eddy Alvarez (3-4, HR, 2 RBI, SB) and Patrick Kivlehan (2-3, 2B, HR, 3 RBI). Scott Kazmir had 5 IP giving up 3 hits (one a home run to the University of Arizona’s Jacob Berry) and 2 ER while striking out 9. Game 2 was much closer as a pitcher’s duel took place, with Team USA edging the college team 1-0 thanks to a 6th-inning RBI by Alvarez. The teams are set to finish their exhibition series today at 1 p.m.
Team Israel, meanwhile, has been barnstorming through the East Coast. They have gone 6-2 against an eclectic bunch of amateur teams ranging from the FDNY baseball team to all-stars from the Cal Ripken College League. They have one more warmup game remaining.
I’ll have more on Olympic baseball as the start of that tournament nears.
It’s time for a look at what you can expect from the Baseball Continuum in the week ahead:
Olympic update. There have been some late changes to some Olympic rosters due to things like injury or suspension (two members of the Korean team have been replaced after they were found to have ignored social distancing during a recent increased COVID outbreak, for example), so I’ll note that.
Final Olympic preview and thoughts on the Olympics in general: Exactly what it says on the tin, complete with my prediction as to how the medals will turn out.
Potentially a “Neat Site” will be shared.
Possibly the first of a new feature that isn’t about baseball.
Appearing in an Olympic baseball tournament for the first time, Mexico is a serious medal contender. They are managed by former Major League infielder Benji Gil, who now manages in the Mexican League. The roster can be found en españolhere.
About the Country: Gaining recognized independence in 1821 (11 years after it was declared), Mexico is built where the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs once lived. Mexico is home to a rapidly-modernizing economy, the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere (Mexico City, beating out New York), and a diverse ecology. However, it has also had to deal with inequality and crime, particularly related to the drug trade.
Baseball History: Although it is not nearly as popular in Mexico as futbol, baseball still holds a long and storied history there. Nobody is quite sure how it was first introduced, although it is likely the Americans were involved in some way. Notable events in Mexico’s baseball history include the formation of the Mexican League in 1925, the back-to-back victories of a Monterrey team in the 1957 and 1958 Little League World Series, and Fernando Valenzuela‘s debut with the Dodgers in the early 1980s.
Olympic History: Mexico has never participated in the Olympics in baseball.
Outside of baseball, Mexico debuted at the Olympics in 1900, but didn’t return until 1924. They’ve taken part in every summer games since, including hosting the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. They have also had sporadic participation in the winter games. Mexico has seen its most success in track, boxing, taekwondo, and diving. The top medalists in Mexican history are diver Joaquín Capilla, equestrian Humberto Mariles, and taekwondo practitioner María Espinoza.
Road to Tokyo: Mexico qualified for the Olympics through the 2019 Premier12 tournament by finishing as the best-finishing team from the Americas thanks to a bronze medal upset against Team USA.
Notable Names: The Mexican National Team possesses several former MLB players from Mexico or of Mexican descent. The most notable, no doubt, is Adrian Gonzalez. Born in San Diego but raised in Tijuana, the five-time all-star is now 39 and a member of the Mexican League team in Guadalajara.
Notable MLB experienced pitchers include but are not limited to Oliver Perez (now playing in Mexico), Manny Banuelos (who most recently was in Taiwan’s CPBL but who has returned to the Mexican League ahead of the Olympics), Hector Velazquez (now in the Astros system), Sammy Solis (now in Mexico) and Fernando Salas (who has a 0.00 ERA in 19.1 IP in Mexico this season).
Ones to Watch: As expected, most of those without MLB experience on Team Mexico are active in the minors or the Mexican League (this is also the case for those with MLB experience, of course).
Joey Meneses, for example, has spent his career bouncing between Mexico, Japan, and affiliated baseball, winning the International League MVP award in 2018. The 29-year-old 1B/OF is currently playing in the Red Sox system. Another outfielder, Jonathan Jones, is a 31-year-old was a member of the all-tournament team in 2019’s Premier12. Now playing in Mexico, Jones also has experience in the affiliated minors, independent ball, and even a brief stint in Australia. A third outfielder, right-hander Jose Cardona, got as high as AAA but has now been in Mexico the last few years. Cardona has been hitting over .300 this season between two teams. In the infield, middle-infielder Isaac Rodriguez is a 30-year-old veteran of the Mexican League who is hitting .389/.455/.520 this season
Among the pitchers without MLB experience, notables include righty Manny Barreda, who joined the Orioles organization this season (primarily in AAA) after several years in Mexico after his initial affiliated career flamed out. Another notable is lefty starter Juan Oramas, who has a 3.17 ERA in 10 starts in Mexico this season. Like Banuelos, Teddy Stankiewicz (who is Mexican on his mother’s side) was active in the CPBL but has moved to the Mexican League ahead of the Olympics. Daniel Duarte is a 24-year-old righty in the Reds system, while Carlos Bustamante(3.20 ERA in 19.2 IP in Mexico this season) will be another right-hander out of the bullpen.
Outlook: The selection for this team have not been without controversy, with some saying that Benji Gil overly-favored players who have played for his Culiacan club. Regardless, Mexico is a dangerous but likely outgunned team in these Olympics, and would likely fall behind Japan, Team USA, the Dominican and perhaps Korea (in no particular order) in a power rankings ahead of the games. However, in a field this small and with a playing format so strange, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they’ll pull out a medal.
You can find all the current Olympic Baseball previews here.
Here are some semi-organized thoughts on this past All-Star Game break, in rough order of events save for the preamble at the beginning:
First, the elephant in the room: it being in Denver instead of Atlanta. Outside of the occasional quick joke in some of my less-serious fare or things included for historical context, I generally avoid politics on this blog. I will do so here as well. However, from a pure event standpoint, it was unquestionably a good thing that this year’s All-Star Game and surrounding festivities were in Coors Field. The Coors Field factor and the flying baseballs that come with it helped make the Home Run Derby one of the best-ever, and also no-doubt helped contribute to one of the signature moments of this year’s All-Star Game: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.‘s 468-foot bomb that led Fernando Tatis Jr. to put his hands over his head in awe.
One neat change this year to the ASG festivities was having the draft in the ASG city beginning on Sunday night, mere hours after the Futures Game. While the Futures Game itself continues to be unfairly ignored due to being played even as regular season MLB games take place, I think having the draft on Sunday night instead of the traditional “final ESPN game of the first half that no team wants to be in because it makes their stars late to get to the All-Star Game city and takes away precious hours from their other players’ mid-year break” is a good move that in most years (not this year because of how screwed up the sports schedule continues to be due to COVID) will allow it to get much more attention than it traditionally has. Having the first round be on ESPN as well as MLB Network also puts it more on par with some of the other leagues like the NFL, allowing fans two different broadcasts and sets of analysts to choose from for more perspectives.
I’m still surprised Kumar Rocker fell all the way to the Mets, though.
As I said earlier, the Home Run Derby was one of the best-ever. While the ever-changing format (now you don’t have to wait for the ball to hit the ground for another pitch to happen) clearly causes some problems as far as the TV broadcast since they can’t really let how far some of these balls are sink in (perhaps they can add a 10-second break if someone goes over 480 feet?), it was a fun night all around. We had Juan Soto‘s upset of Shohei Ohtani (which no doubt annoyed ESPN’s producers but was still great television), we had Trey Mancini making it to the finals less than a year since finishing chemotherapy, we had baseballs going over 500 feet, and we had Pete Alonso. Nobody seems to love anything as much as Pete Alonso loves the Home Run Derby. My only big disappointment was that Joey Gallo apparently decided to have the worst possible time to have the worst BP of his life.
Speaking of Alonso, it’ll be interesting to see how his role in the Home Run Derby is going forward. He obviously is now going to get invited basically every year, and he seems to genuinely love the event in a way that even people like Ken Griffey Jr. or David Ortiz didn’t. If I rewrote Monday’s post he would almost certainly be on it. However, there is also the fact that his cockiness and supreme confidence rubs some people the wrong way, which may lead him to become the villain of the Derby. This isn’t a bad thing, per se: it’d allow MLB to build up a storyline around it (“Can anyone stop Pete Alonso?) and could possibly draw in some players to challenge the champ who otherwise might want to skip it.
Moving on to the game itself: It was a classy tribute to Henry Aaron to begin, which followed the classy tribute of having everyone wear 44 during the Home Run Derby.
It was bad enough that they were wearing league uniforms instead of their team uniforms during the All-Star Game, but the fact that the uniforms looked like some sort of space-age slow-pitch softball pajamas made it even worse. Next year, get back to the uniforms of the players’ teams.
While it wasn’t what many people hoped (no strikeouts, 0-2 at the plate), it’s hard to call Shohei Ohtani’s performance in the game a failure, especially considering how exhausted he looked after the Home Run Derby just one day before. Besides, getting Tatis Jr., Max Muncy and (homecoming favorite) Nolan Arenado out 1-2-3 is impressive by itself.
It was ultimately Vlad Jr.’s show. Whether it was hitting that bomb of a home run, driving in an RBI on a ground-out or hugging Max Scherzer after nearly beheading him with a line-drive, “Vladito” was the center of attention while he was the in the game and was a highly-deserving MVP.
Two moments from the All-Star Game that people are going to forget but shouldn’t: Freddy Peralta‘s striking out of the side (I mean it wasn’t Pedro Martinez or Carl Hubbell, but it was still really impressive), and Jared Walsh‘s nice catch in left to end the last attempt at a rally by the NL. Walsh is primarily a 1B and when he does play outfield it is usually RF, this was the first time he was in left.
Cedric Mullins should have gotten a hit on that ball up the middle and the official scorer of the game should feel bad.
Liam Hendriks being mic’d up went as gloriously wrong as we all would have expected.
As MLB itself said: It was a global game. The winning pitcher was Japanese, the save was by an Australian, the MVP was born in Canada and raised in the Dominican, other home runs were hit by people from Florida and Oklahoma, and the best “caught on microphone” moment besides Hendriks’ swearing came when a Canadian-American (Freddie Freeman) complained about looking small next to Aaron Judge.
The only remaining Olympic Preview left to go is Mexico,so it is fitting that this week I’m sharing the neat site of Baseball Mexico. Calling itself the “world’s leading English language source for Mexican professional baseball news,” there is about an update a week. And, yes, it includes updates about how Bartolo Colon is doing in the Mexican League.
One of the traditional baseball powers, the Dominican Republic is managed by Hector Borg, a former minor leaguer who now runs Latin American development for the San Francisco Giants. The Dominican has never won a medal in the Olympic Games, and in fact has only qualified once before (not counting an appearance at the 1984 games, when baseball was a demonstration sport). Will this be a games of firsts? Their roster can be found here.
About the Country: Taking up the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola (the rest of the island is Haiti), the Dominican Republic was visited by Christopher Columbus during his 1492 voyages, and its capitol of Santo Domingo is the oldest permanent western settlement in the Americas. Having gained independence in the 19th century and moved towards democracy during the 20th, it became fully democratic during the second half of the century. Although problems with corruption and poverty continue to at times plague the nation, it has also been one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Fun fact: Pico Duarte, the Caribbean’s tallest mountain, is located in the Dominican Republic.
Baseball History: The Dominican Republic’s great passion was introduced to it by Cubans in the 1890s fleeing the civil war there. The rest is history, as the Dominican slowly but surely grew into the hotbed it is today. Baseball may be a pastime elsewhere, but in areas of the Dominican it is a way of life, with entire towns staking their futures on their top players. The Dominican Republic won the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Olympic History: As mentioned earlier, the Dominicans have been in two Olympic baseball tournaments before, although only once where baseball was an official medal sport. A team that featured Ramon Martinez (not to be confused with his little brother, Pedro) went winless at the 1984 games in Los Angeles, while the Dominicans came in sixth in Barcelona in 1992.
Outside of baseball, the Dominicans have won seven medals in their history, including three golds. Two of those golds came thanks to Félix Sánchez, an American of Dominican descent who twice won the 400 meter hurdles. The other gold came from Félix Manuel Díaz, who won the boxing gold in the light welterweight class in 2008.
Road to Tokyo: The Dominicans were the last team to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Their first attempt came at the 2019 Premier12, but that team was eliminated in the first round. Next, they took part in the Americas Qualifying Tournament, where they came in second to Team USA. So, they had to take part in the final qualifying tournament. That tournament had a greatly reduced field after three teams (“Chinese Taipei”, China, and Australia) had to drop out due to COVID-related travel precautions, meaning the DR was competing with Venezuela and the Netherlands for the final spot. The Dominican would end up winning the tournament, defeating Venezuela 8-5 in the final to finally advance to the Olympics.
Notable Names: The most notable name by far is six-time all-star Jose Bautista. He hasn’t played in MLB or affiliated ball since 2018, and at 40 this may be his last ride. He was the starting 1B for the Dominican during early qualifiers (although he missed the final round where they finally qualified) and it is likely that will continue. While the rest of the infield lacks the sort of pedigree that “Joey Bats” has, there are still some who may be familiar to MLB fans, such as corner infielder Juan Francisco (who played parts of six season in the majors) and utilityman Erick Mejia (who had cups of coffee with Kansas City the last two seasons and remains active in their farm system).
On the pitching mound, the player with the most MLB experience is Jumbo Diaz, the 315 lb. reliever who pitched in 173 games between 2014 and 2017. Since then, he’s been playing in the Dominican and Mexico. There is also Jhan Marinez, who pitched in 103 games in relief over parts of five seasons between 2010 and 2018. Other pitchers on the team with MLB experience include LHP Dario Alvarez, righty reliever Jairo Asencio, former Met and Mariner Gerson Bautista, Cuban-defected LHP Raul Valdes, and 31-year-old Angel Sanchez, who pitched eight games for the PIrates in 2017 before going to Asia where he has had some success in Korea and Japan.
Ones to Watch: Like Team USA, the inability to use players on 40-man MLB rosters has forced the Dominican to draw not just from former MLB players like above but also those overseas or in the minors who have never tasted MLB ball.
Probably the biggest name among these players is Julio Rodriguez. A top-five prospect regardless of what list you are reading, the Mariners-system outfielder is hitting .327 between High-A and AA this season and has been named to the Futures Game. The highest-achieving player on the roster without MLB service time, though, is Christopher Crisostomo. The left-handed pitcher has been a member of Japan’s Yomiuri Giants since 2018, having joined their system in 2017 after topping off at low-A in America.
While those are perhaps the two you should most keep an eye on, they are far from the only ones. Beginning our look on the mound, LHP Junior Garcia is in AAA for the Diamondbacks organization, where he has a 2.93 ERA in 15.1 innings pitched since being promoted. 24-year-old right-hander Denyi Reyes is at AA in the Red Sox organization and has a 2.72 ERA in 36.1 IP. Luis Felipe Castillo has, like Garcia, also reached AAA for the Diamondbacks. The reliever has a 2.25 ERA when combining his time in AA and AAA this season in 20 IP.
Looking at position players, the most notable player without MLB experience besides Rodriguez is possibly Johan Mieses. An outfielder in the Red Sox system, he has an OPS over one this season in time split between AA and AAA, with 14 HRs to help get him there. Shortstop Jeison Guzman, a Royals farmhand, is hitting .278 in high-A this year with nine stolen bases.
One area of concern for the DR is at catcher. Their only two listed catchers are Roldani Baldwin (who has struggled this year at AA in Red Sox organization) and Charlie Valerio (who has spent most of the past five-to-six years primarily in Indy ball).
Outlook: It could be argued that no team, not even Team USA, is hurt as badly by the inability to use 40-man roster players as the Dominican Republic, and it is further hurt by the fact that for various reasons the Dominican has often had lower participation rates in international play to begin with. Still, this is a team with some definite experience and, in some cases, upcoming talent. While I do not think they should be considered likely to make it to the gold medal game, they are a threat to get onto the podium if they can catch a break or two.
You can find all the current Olympic Baseball previews here.