2020/2021 Tokyo Olympics Baseball Preview: Team USA

Flag of the United States of America

Managed by Mike Scioscia, Team USA comes to the Tokyo Games with an eclectic team that features former big leaguers looking for jobs and/or one last ride before retirement, prospects looking to make their name, and players who have gone overseas to ply their trade. Although among the tournament favorites, how Team USA does ultimately is anyone’s guess. You can see their roster here.

About the Country: …Seriously? Do I have to do an “about the country” for the USA? Look at your history books or something. Okay, fine: Declaring independence from Great Britain in 1776, the United States of America has grown from a 13-state experiment in Republican Democracy to a 50-state union that is a global power (in some cases the global power) in economics, politics, science, technology, military, sports and entertainment, amongst other areas.

Baseball History: The history of American baseball is, more or less, the history of baseball. While it is no longer the most popular sport as far as TV ratings or public-opinion polls go, its cultural impact in American history and its yearly attendance (more people attend MLB games than the other three major sports leagues combined, although admittedly MLB seasons are longer) remain unchallenged.

Olympic History: Team USA has played in every single Olympic baseball tournament save one (a meltdown during 2004 qualifiers prevented them from playing in Athens). After some sort of demonstration event at the 1904 Olympics that has been shrouded in mystery (and may not have even happened), America took part in every single demonstration game/tournament and won all of them save for 1984 (won by Japan). It proved harder once baseball officially joined the games, with Team USA winning only one gold (2000, when Ben Sheets threw a three-hit shutout against the Cubans in the final) and two bronze (1996 and 2008).

Outside of baseball, of course, Team USA is a giant of the Olympics, leading the all-time summer and overall (summer+winter) medal count in both golds and total medals overall even if you combine USSR and Russia. Of particular fame are Team USA’s track and swimming teams, whose dominance alone would probably be high up in the medal count most Olympiad.

Road to Tokyo: The road to the Olympics was a bit rougher than hoped for Team USA. Their initial shot came at the 2019 Premier12 tournament in Japan, which is sort of a World Cup-style contest between the top 12 teams in the WBSC’s world rankings. The top-finishing team from the Americas would be guaranteed a spot in the Olympics, but ultimately that would be Mexico after America’s bullpen blew the lead in the ninth and then fell in the 10th during the bronze-medal game. So, after a COVID delay of a year, Team USA played in the Americas Qualifier tournament. That went better, as Team USA went undefeated while outscoring their opponents 29-10 to clinch a spot in the games.

Notable Names: Like during the qualifiers, the roster contains some players who are MLB veterans who either have found themselves elsewhere (such as the minors or overseas) or out of a job (whether by choice or by simply being unable to get on a roster).

In all, 14 members of the team have MLB experience, including former all-stars in Scott Kazmir, Todd Frazier (who was impressive in qualifying), David Robertson (the lone player who was on the USA’s 2017 WBC title team), and Edwin Jackson. Other former MLB players who you might recognize on the roster include Anthony Gose, Tim Federowicz, and Bubba Starling. Eddy Alvarez, a primarily-defensive infielder who had a cup-of-coffee with Miami last season, already has an Olympic medal since he was part of a silver-winning relay speed-skating team in Sochi. Patrick Kivlehan can play both outfield and infield and has 137 career MLB games, mostly with Cincinnati in 2017.

There are also some players with MLB experience who now work internationally. Although he has now returned to the USA and is part of the Cardinals system, Brandon Dickson went to Japan after two cups of coffee in the bigs and became a regular with the Orix Buffaloes. Tyler Austin played parts of four seasons in the big leagues before going to Japan, where he is hitting .348 with 17 home runs this season for Yokohama. RHPs Nick Martinez and Scott McGough similarly had time in MLB but have found better luck in Japan.

Somewhat surprisingly, Adam Jones was not picked for the team despite the fact that he had expressed interest and would be by far one of the best historical resumes, possibly because he has been having a rough year in Japan where he’s only batting .233. It’ll be interesting to see if he is potentially added if there are any late injuries or pull-outs, since presumably he wouldn’t need to go through nearly as much COVID-related protocols going into or out-of Japan.

Ones to Watch: The Olympics have a long history of featuring prospects on Team USA, including players like Barry Larkin, Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Stephen Strasburg (the lone amateur on the 2008 team), Nomar Garciaparra, Roy Oswalt, and Jason Varitek. This year is no different. While the team’s inability to use any players on 40-man rosters keeps them from using much of the cream-of-the-cream, it’s likely that at least some of the prospects on this roster will end up big league regulars.

The three “ranked” prospects on the roster are 1B Triston Casas (Red Sox organization), RHP Simeon Woods Richardson (Blue Jays organization), and RHP Shane Baz (Rays organization). The other prospects on the squad, although not as well-regarded by scouts, are still hardly pushovers and will likely make it to the bigs. Middle-infielder Nick Allen is hitting .333 with an .882 OPS in AA for Oakland and was part of the qualifying team. OF/1B Eric Filia (Mariners organization) hit .313 with a HR and 5 RBIs during qualifiers. C Mark Kolozsary (Reds organization) showed good pop in the qualifiers with two home runs. Jamie Westbrook (Brewers organization) and Jack Lopez (Red Sox organization) will provide some defensive flexibility, which is important since these rosters only have 24 men on them.

There will also be a minor league “lifer” on the team in Anthony Carter. The 35-year-old RHP has been in pro ball since 2006 but has never appeared in an MLB game. He’s currently playing in the Mexican League.

Somewhat surprising omissions from the roster are Boston’s Jarren Duran and the Cardinals’ Matthew Liberatore, both well-regarded prospects who impressed in the qualifiers. It’s likely that they may now be on the verge of being called up to the big leagues, which of course would have meant that they would no longer be available. Luke Williams, who was so impressive during qualifiers that he was dubbed “Captain America” by some teammates and observers, is similarly ineligible since he has now been called up to the show (where he’s doing quite well!).

Outlook: While the prohibition on players on 40-man rosters means it doesn’t have the uniform excellence and up-down depth of Japan’s all-NPB team, Team USA needs to be considered one of the favorites for a gold thanks to its mix of experienced veterans and talented prospects. They are also aided by the fact that they are in a slightly-easier initial bracket (with Israel and South Korea instead of the other bracket, where Japan is with Dominican and Mexico). However, the randomness of baseball and the unforgiving format of the tournament leaves little room for error. One bad pitching performance or a ill-timed slump by some of the team’s players could be the difference between going for gold and not being on the medal stand at all.

You can find all the current Olympic Baseball previews here.

2 thoughts on “2020/2021 Tokyo Olympics Baseball Preview: Team USA

  1. Pingback: The schedule ahead | The Baseball Continuum

  2. Pingback: Final Olympic Preview/Predictions | The Baseball Continuum

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