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 A refresher on the tournament (which is admittedly a bit out of date as far as the COVID precautions in the Olympics) can be found here.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.
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.
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.
With a team primarily of Jewish players from the USA who are eligible thanks to the infamously lax eligibility rules of international baseball, the Israeli baseball team will probably prove to be quite a curiosity to the world press. However, as the 2017 WBC showed, Team Israel is perfectly capable of pulling upsets and should not be underestimated. They are managed by Eric Holtz, the owner of a baseball training facility in Westchester County who played in Israel’s short-lived professional league and coached for college teams for decades. Israel’s 24-man roster can be found here.
About the Country: Sitting ever perilously at the center of both international politics and the world’s three largest monotheistic religions, the current state of Israel came into existence in 1947. Despite its decades of tumultuous history, Israel is also a leader in science and technology.
Baseball History: Although some may joke that Israeli baseball began “in the big inning” that can be found when the beginning of the Book of Genesis is read aloud (it’s a lame pun, think about it for a second), Israeli baseball didn’t really begin until some Americans who had moved to Israel played it a bit. However, that was about it until, in 2007, a small professional league was created in Israel by American businessmen. While it folded after one season, its level of play was apparently pretty good, although only a small handful of the players in the league were actually Israeli. In fact, it has been rare for actual Israelis to play for Team Israel. Thanks to lax eligibility rules as well as the fact that it is quite easy for those of Jewish descent to be eligible for Israeli citizenship, most of the Israeli national teams that have competed in large tournaments have been made up of Americans and Canadians.
Israel lost to Spain for a spot in the 2013 WBC before making the tournament in 2017, where they made it to the second round with a stream of upsets. Dean Kremer, a pitcher born to two Israeli parents and who has lived in Israel at times during summers where he hasn’t been pitching, became the first Israeli citizen drafted by MLB in 2015 and the first Israeli citizen to play in MLB when Kremer made his debut with the Orioles in 2020.
Olympic History: This is, of course, Israel’s first appearance in Olympic baseball. It isn’t the first time that there was an Olympic baseball team primarily made up of people from outside the country they were representing, however: the Greek national team in 2004 was made up primarily of Americans of Greek ancestry (most notably Nick Markakis).
For decades, Israel’s Olympic history had been (and continues to be) centered around 1972’s Munich massacre. It would not be until 1992 that an Israeli would win a medal, and to this day the country has won only one gold (windsurfer Gal Fridman in 2000). Every medal for Israel has come in either judo or a boating sport like sailing or canoe.
This year’s baseball team will be the first Israeli representation in a team sport since the Israeli soccer team made it to the quarter-finals of the 1976 Montreal games.
Road to Tokyo: Israel was actually the first team to qualify for the Olympics aside from the host nation of Japan. They came out on top of a 2019 qualifier in Italy for teams from Europe and Africa, winning the round robin thanks to holding a head-to-head tie-breaker against the Netherlands.
Notable Names: The former MLB players on Team Israel are, of course, Americans of Jewish heritage. The most notable is certainly Ian Kinsler, the four-time all-star second baseman and two-time Gold Glove winner. He was a member of Team USA’s WBC title team in 2017. He’s played a bit in the Atlantic League this year in preparation for the tournament.
Other players with MLB experience include Danny Valencia, who played third base for a variety of teams over a nine-year career and who is perhaps best known among degenerate baseballaholics like me for the fact that he always hit David Price exceptionally well (a career .600 BA) to the point where the Orioles, Red Sox and Blue Jays all made points of having him in the lineup for series against Tampa. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway played parts of 10 seasons in the big leagues and remains active in the affiliated minors on Cleveland’s AAA team in Columbus. Utilityman Ty Kelly played parts of three seasons between the Mets and Phillies and is a career .275 hitter in the minors. While less notable, the team also has MLB-experienced pitchers in Jeremy Bleich, Jon Moscot, Zack Weiss, and Josh Zeid.
Ones to Watch: First off, I want to the pay tribute to the actual people born in Israel that are on the team simply because on a team mostly of Americans they stand-out for… actually being from the country they are representing.
Shlomo Lipetz was born in Tel Aviv, fell in love with baseball during visits to New York, and later moved to the USA to pitch in college. He’s since played semi-pro ball and in the short-lived Israeli Baseball League while also working as a music booker at City Winery in New York City. Now 42, this is probably his last ride… but a ride it has been. Another Israeli-born pitcher on the team is Alon Leichman. Born in a kibbutz in the late 80s, Leichman fell in love with the game thanks to American relatives and moved to America to pitch in college. He’s since gone into coaching, where he is currently the pitching coach for Seattle’s AA Arkansas Travelers.
Among position players, there is catcher Tal Erel, born in Ramat Gan (near Tel Aviv). After playing in leagues in the Czech Republic and Netherlands, he moved to Florida where he played college ball on the JuCo and Division II levels. The final Israeli-born player is Assaf Lowengart, who now plays for DII Mansfield University.
Among the Americans on the team that haven’t played in the big leagues, names that stand out include LHP Jake Fishman (Miami’s AAA team in Jacksonville), LHP Alex Katz (Cubs organization), RHP Ben Wanger (University of Miami), SS Scott Burcham (AAA Colorado), utilityman Mitch Glasser (hitting .345 in independent Sioux Falls), and long-time minor league/indyball journeyman outfielder Blake Gailen.
Outlook: On paper, Israel is undoubtedly the worst team in the field. No other team in the tournament is rolling out college and semi-pro players to fill the back-end of their rosters, and most of their top professionals (such as Kinsler and Valencia) are in states of near-retirement. However, although it is unlikely that they can get to the medal stand they are still a good enough team where they may be able to pull an upset or two against stronger but potentially overconfident opponents.
You can find all the current Olympic Baseball previews here.
The South Koreans are, technically, the reigning Olympic champions, having defeated Cuba in 2008. The South Koreans are managed by Korean baseball lifer Kim Kyung-Moon, who managed that 2008 team. The roster can be found here.
About the Country: Like Japan and China, the history of the Korean Peninsula is long, complicated and often violent. Its current divided state, however, can be traced back to the end of World War II. Korea had been under occupation by Japan for most of the first half of the twentieth century, and when the dust settled from the war the United States and USSR agreed to administer one half of the peninsula until elections could be done in order for the Korean people to choose their own government. Cold War tensions led to this never happening, and soon two rival governments were formed: the Soviet-supported Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north and the US-supported Republic of Korea in the south. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, leading to a US-led “police action” to save the peninsula from Communist rule. After the arrival of Chinese “volunteers” in late 1950, the two sides entered a stalemate until a truce was made in 1953. There is still no peace treaty, so the two Koreas remain at war. Since then, South Korea has grown into an economic powerhouse with a democratic government, while North Korea has become a dystopian dictatorship that spends more money on weapons than it does feeding its own people. Needless to say, the “Korea” that takes part in the the Olympic baseball tournament is South Korea.
Baseball History: Baseball came to Korea by way of an American missionary named Philip Loring Gillett, who also introduced basketball to the peninsula. However, baseball didn’t truly become popular until the Japanese annexed the Peninsula in 1910. During the Japanese rule of Korea, baseball became both a rare opportunity for conciliation between the two cultures but also a way for Koreans to challenge the Japanese. After WWII and the Korean War, baseball continued to be popular on an amateur level in South Korea, but it was not until the 1980s that a professional league was formed. The foundation of the Korean Baseball Organization was partially politically motivated, a way to give young men an outlet other than rebellious politics. Although Korean baseball has never truly lost its popularity, it was in a down period before Korea’s showings at the 2006 and 2009 WBCs, as well as the 2008 Olympics, led to skyrocketing attendance. Korean baseball saw a sharp increase in American attention in 2020 when ESPN broadcast games from the KBO to help fill time during the COVID-19 devastated sports schedule.
Olympic History: As mentioned earlier, South Korea is the reigning Olympic champion, defeating Cuba 3-2 in Beijing with a team that included future MLB players like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Seung-Hwan Oh, and Hyun-Soo Kim. Before that, Korea had also won bronze in 2000.
Outside of baseball, South Korea has competed at the Olympics since its independence, although some Korean athletes had participated as part of the Japanese Empire before then. They hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The most success for South Korea in the Olympics have generally come in archery, short-track speed skating, judo, and of course Korea’s national martial art of taekwondo. The most successful athletes in Olympic history for South Korea are sport shooter Jin Jong-Oh and archer Kim Soo-Nyung.
Road to Tokyo: South Korea qualified for the tournament by having the highest finish in the 2019 Premier12 tournament among teams from Asia or Oceania (exempting Japan, who of course already qualified). Korea ended up walking away with silver in that tournament, behind only the already-qualified Japanese.
Notable Names: There are two players with Major League Baseball experience on the South Korean roster. The more notable one is possibly Hyun-Soo Kim, an outfielder who played two season in MLB, including a 2016 campaign with the Orioles that saw him hit .302 with a .801 OPS in 305 at-bats. He was a member of the 2008 Olympic championship team. Third-baseman Jae-Gyun Hwang played 18 games with San Francisco in 2017. Surprisingly, Seung-Hwan Oh and Shin-Soo Choo are not on the roster despite being back in Korea and playing fairly well.
Ones to Watch: As expected, the roster is made up entirely of stars from the Korean Baseball Organization League. The KBO is usually regarded as being somewhere between AA and AAA in talent (compare to how the NPB is usually regarded as being somewhere between AAA and MLB), although it can vary wildly by team.
Starting with pitchers, 21-year-old righty starter Tae-In Won has had a breakout year this season and is 9-0 with a 2.59 ERA in 14 games. Won-Joon Choi has also been an impressive starting pitcher this year in KBO- the righty is 7-0 with a 2.40 ERA. Eui Lee Lee is just 19 but adds a left-handed pitcher to the starting rotation. In the bullpen, Sang-Woo Cho has 14 saves on the year. He’s one of just three pitchers who have returned from the silver-winning Premier12 team, alongside fellow relievers Woo-Suk Go and Woo-Chan Cha.
Among position players to watch, perhaps the biggest to keep an eye on is 1B Baek-Ho Kang. Only 21, he’s “slashing” (batting/on-base/slugging) a hilarious .398/.495/.571 in 309 plate appearances this season. For those of you who are big into OPS, that means he has a 1.066 OPS, which makes him essentially the Shohei Ohtani (hitting version) or Fernando Tatis Jr. of the KBO. By the way, nobody has hit .400 or over in the KBO since 1982.
Other position players to watch include veteran catcher Ul-Ji Yang (19 HRs, .352 BA, reigning Korean Series MVP), 22-year-old outfielder Jung-Hoo Lee (.342/.431/.505, considered a possibility to make a future jump to MLB or NPB), 31-year-old outfielder Hae-Min Park (who leads the KBO in steals with 28) and 22-year-old shortstop Hye-seong Kim (another threat on the basepaths with 27 SB).
Outlook: Korea is a bit of an enigma going into the Olympics. Some of the roster picks are a bit baffling. If you go to Baseball Reference and pull up the KBO leaderboard you’ll find plenty of good Korean players who probably should be on this roster who aren’t, while others on the roster seem like they don’t quite belong. Still, like Japan the Koreans are bringing (mostly) the cream of their domestic crop, and the small field means that they like most teams should have a good shot at a medal, potentially even gold.
You can find all the current Olympic Baseball previews here.
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.
About the Country: Japan is an ancient nation, traditionally said to have been founded in 660 BC. For most of that time, it existed with relatively little change and contact with the outside world, save for the occasional war with Korea or internal feudalistic battles. That all changed in 1853, when a small force of the United States Navy, led by Admiral Matthew Perry, arrived in Japan to demand that it be opened to traffic. The arrival of Western influence shocked the Japanese, leading to reforms and programs that led the nation to grow from hermit kingdom to one of the world’s leading empires within a century, a period that ended only with Japan’s defeat in WWII. Scarred by the war and with a new constitution that prevented it from actually having a military, Japan became an economic power, a hub of global trade and technological innovation, and remains the world’s third-largest economy despite slow growth since the late 1980s. Fun fact: It would have been entirely possible for a Japanese person to have been born under the rule of feudal leaders and died in an atomic bombing. This would be roughly the equivalent of somebody in the West being born in the middle ages and dying in the 20th century.
Baseball History: Japan was introduced to baseball by a teacher named Horace Wilson, who introduced it to some of his students there. And in the decades after that, its popularity skyrocketed as Japan became more industrialized, although it remained strictly amateur until the 1930s. The beginnings of Japan’s professional baseball came about because of Major League Baseball in general and Babe Ruth in particular, as a barnstorming tour by the Great Bambino caused baseball to become even more popular than before. In 1936, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper conglomerate founded the first professional team in Japan, the Yomiuri Giants, primarily out of players who had distinguished themselves against the Americans. After WWII, the Japanese again turned to baseball, founding Nippon Pro Baseball in 1950. Baseball remains the most popular sport in Japan, and the National High School Baseball Championship is a cultural phenomenon in the country perhaps even greater than America’s “March Madness” for college basketball. In international play, the Japanese won the first two World Baseball Classics before coming in third in 2013 and 2017.
Olympic History: Japan, not surprisingly, has a long history with baseball at the Olympics, although it would take awhile before they actually took part. Japan was to have played an American team at the 1936 Olympics when baseball was a demonstration sport, but withdrew. Baseball was to have again been a demonstration at the 1940 Olympics Tokyo, which was cancelled due to the war. It wouldn’t be until the last time Tokyo hosted the Olympics, 1964, that Japan would make its Olympic baseball debut in a demonstration sport game against a team of American college all-stars who beat a team of Japanese amateur all-stars 6-2. Japan would later take part in demonstration baseball tournaments in 1984 (winning gold) and 1988 (taking silver) before taking part in every official Olympic baseball tournament from 1992 to 2008, with their best showing being silver in 1996.
Outside of baseball, Japan ranks 11th in all-time Summer Olympic medals and 13th in gold. Their most success have come in judo, gymnastics, wrestling, and swimming. The most successful summer athletes historically for Japan have generally been gymnasts, such as Sawao Katō and Takashi Ono. The Japanese have also had success in the Winter Games, which they have hosted twice (Sapporo ’72 and Nagano ’98), primarily in speed skating.
Road to Tokyo: Japan being the host country is the major reason why baseball is in these Olympics at all. Tokyo beat out Istanbul and Madrid for the 2020 games in a vote in 2013.
Notable Names: Undoubtedly the player on the Japanese roster most familiar to MLB fans is Masahiro Tanaka. The former Yankees star has returned to Japan, where as of this writing he is 3-5 with a 3.00 ERA, a 1.028 WHIP, and 62 strikeouts in 72 innings pitched.
Ones to Watch: Not surprisingly, the cream of the NPB crop makes up Samurai Japan’s roster.
Yūdai Ōno, last year’s Sawamura Award-winner (equivalent to the Cy Young), is on the team, as is Tomoyuki Sugano, a pitcher who has won the Sawamura twice as well as two Central League MVP trophies. In the bullpen, expect to see pitchers like Ryoji Kuribayashi and Kaima Taira, among the leaders in NPB in saves.
At the plate, Japan will be led by players like Yuki Yanagita. The 32-year-old outfielder has been named an All-Star six times and the Pacific League MVP twice, including last season. He currently is tied for the HR lead in the Pacific League with 18. The Central League’s HR leader, Munetaka Murakami(with 24), is a 21-year-old wunderkind corner infielder who MLB teams no doubt are hoping will cross the Pacific Ocean in the future. Outfielder Seiya Suzuki was the MVP of the 2019 Premier12 tournament and also played for Japan in the 2017 WBC. 2020 Japan Series MVP Ryoya Kurihara is also on the team as an outfielder but may also be asked to catch in case of emergency.
Outlook: It is hard to really determine the favorite in such a tournament as this Olympics, but Japan must be regarded as one of them. Outside of a lack of MLB stars like Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish, Japan has basically their best roster possible and one can easily imagine them having roughly this roster (with the addition of some MLB players) next WBC. In addition, they’ll have the home crowd behind them (although it will be smaller than they no doubt hoped, given COVID protocols). At the very least, Japan should medal, and they need to be considered one of the favorites to win gold.
Check back at the Baseball Continuum as we near the 2020/21 Olympics for more previews of the teams that will be competing in Tokyo.
We are just weeks away from baseball’s return to the Olympic Games, at the COVID-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics (now 2021, but they already had printed the t-shirts). Baseball, of course, was kicked out of the Olympic program after the 2008 games, partly because MLB won’t let its stars play but also because the IOC is a European-dominated institution that probably doesn’t know a fastball from a change-up.
However, now it has returned thanks to changes in how Olympic sports can be chosen, where hosts can decide to add sports that are popular in their country. So, of course, baseball (and softball) have returned to the Olympics for 2020/21. They will be gone again in 2024 in Paris, but then are likely to return in Los Angeles in 2028. After that? Apparently Brisbane is the current front-runner for the 2032 games. Baseball isn’t exactly popular in Australia but it isn’t totally unknown either, so who knows?
Anyway, this year’s baseball tournament has a bit of an odd look to it since it has six teams, not the eight you’d usually expect. This apparently is the result of efforts by the IOC to limit the number of athletes taking part in the games as a cost-cutting move. The six teams that have qualified are (in order of the time they qualified):
They’ll be set up in two groups: Japan, Mexico, and the Dominican in one, and Israel, South Korea, and Team USA in the other. Each team will have two games in their group. There is then a double-elimination tournament until finally the medal games happen. The whole deal is pretty complicated so I just suggest you look at this PDF to get an idea of how this modified double-elimination works. Basically the major incentive for winning the group is that you have a chance of jumping straight to the quarterfinals, while the reason you really want to avoid being in third in the bracket is that you’ll have to play against the other third-place team in an elimination game before entering the double-elimination. You can see more of the schedule here.
Most games will take place not in Tokyo proper, but rather in Yokohama at Yokohama Stadium, home of the Yokohama Bay Stars. It seats over 34,000 people, although due to COVID-19 restrictions as of now it is believed that it will only have about 10,000 for the games. In addition to Yokohama, one game (the opener between Japan and the Dominican) will take place at Fukushima Azuma Stadium in Fukushima. This is meant as a primarily symbolic gesture towards that region, which bore the worst of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami as well as the resulting nuclear crisis. While Azuma Stadium doesn’t have a permanent NPB team, it is still a large, world-class stadium holding around 30,000 fans during normal times (although, again, COVID restrictions will likely keep it to 10K).
Each of the coming team previews will be formatted in a way similar to some of my previous World Baseball Classic coverage. Here’s a bit of a key:
About the Country: Self-explanatory.
Baseball History: Self-explanatory.
Olympic History: A look at the country’s history at the Olympics, both in baseball and other sports.
Road to Tokyo: How the team qualified.
Notable Names: The Olympic baseball tournament doesn’t have Major Leaguers, but it still will have notable names, such as former big leaguers who have since gone to play overseas or found themselves in the minors or looking for a job. They’ll be showcased here.
Ones to Watch: The Olympics are also filled with prospects and overseas players that we may one day see in the big leagues. This is where they’ll feature.
So, stick around in the coming days as I begin the previews for this year’s Olympic Baseball tournament.