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January 15, 2009

Prospectus Today

Bad Timing

by Joe Sheehan

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For some time now, we've been treated to a daily update on which MLB players will participate in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, which kicks off in just seven weeks.

Now, I started out as a vocal opponent of the tournament, objecting to the first event primarily on the grounds of its timing, but also its relevance and entertainment value. I came around on the concept after attending some of the opening-round games in Phoenix and seeing the enthusiasm of the crowds and the participants. The WBC is a really good idea, one that can bring baseball fans together every four years the way soccer's World Cup does for its global fan base every six. It can grow baseball's popularity in nations new to it, which can only be good for the long-term health of the game.

In practice, though, the WBC remains hampered by its spot on the calendar. Slotted in early March, the WBC can never be the priority for most of the best players in the tournament outside of Cuba and, perhaps, Japan. Because of the unique role of "pitcher" in baseball, because of the length of the baseball calendar, and because of the massive amount of money invested in the very best baseball players in the world, the WBC is never going to be a baseball World Cup. Short of suspending the MLB and NPB seasons for a month in June-and we're six or seven recessions away from that happening-you cannot schedule the WBC in a way that allows all of the best players to participate freely. The best you might do is schedule the thing for late March and early April, pushing the opening of the MLB season back two weeks and slotting some doubleheaders to make up for it (or, more radically, playing a 154- or 148-game schedule in those years). Of course, that involves a level of sacrifice few owners are going to countenance. When it comes to the WBC, it's the players alone who are expected to be patriots.

For the MLB players who comprise the US roster, as well as the MLB players and prospects who make up the bulk of other rosters, the March tournament is not more important than preparation for the MLB season. This is particularly true as you move up the MLB food chain, and is reflected in the decisions that players have to make: focus entirely on the upcoming championship season, for which you're being handsomely compensated, or alter preparations to pitch in an exhibition and risk injury or ineffectiveness once the regular season begins.

Take Johan Santana, for example. The Mets are paying him $20 million this year to be their #1 starter as they try to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2006, coming off of two straight heartbreaking finishes. He's kind of important to their chances. Following a season in which he may have been the best starter in the NL, Santana underwent minor knee surgery, and as February approaches, he is unsure as to whether he will pitch in the WBC. This isn't entirely his decision-the Mets will have a say-but it's indicative of the choices the players have to make. With all due respect to Venezuela, Johan Santana's first loyalty should be to the Mets. I would not question Daisuke Matsuzaka's patriotism, but his first thought needs to be about the Red Sox. Matt Holliday isn't any less an American for passing on the red, white, and blue to wear the green and gold.

The WBC is going to be the pinnacle for Cuba and its team, because it's their only chance to play against major leaguers. It will be important to Japan and its players, mostly non-MLB players, because that's the second-best professional league in the world. It will no doubt be important to the citizens, the baseball fans, of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and Puerto Rico, because you always want to see if your guys are better than their guys, especially in something as much a part of the culture as baseball is in those places. In the biggest baseball market in the world, though... WBC, they're just not that into you. Baseball fans in the US are fans of their teams. Given a choice between seeing our boys on the field for their country in March and seeing them on the field for our favorite team in October, 99.9 percent will choose the latter.

Is that the choice? I can't say for sure, and I submit that no one really can. What's an acceptable risk, anyway, of injury or diminished performance? One percent? Two percent? Twenty percent? Does it vary by talent level, by salary, by position, or by franchise? I don't have good answers to any of these questions, which is why I think there is no bad decision to be made by players, and why I think each and every one of them should be above criticism when it comes to the choice they make.

So don't begrudge Santana, or Josh Hamilton, or Nick Markakis, or anyone else who chooses to pass on the tournament. It's not that they're rejecting their country; it's that they're putting the WBC in its proper place, which is behind MLB.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  WBC

41 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Andrew
(38)

Isn't the WBC every 3 years (2 occurrences thus far), and the World Cup every four years?

Jan 15, 2009 12:25 PM
rating: 1
 
ubrnoodle

The world cup is definitely every 4 years, not sure where he got 6 from.

Jan 15, 2009 12:32 PM
rating: 0
 
MichavdB

Yep. 4 years.

Jan 15, 2009 13:01 PM
rating: 0
 
bflaff

The national teams in soccer play tournaments pretty much every year. There are regional tournaments (ie., Euro Cup, which is huge) as well as the WC, and WC qualifying starts about 2 years before the actual World Cup tourney. They keep those guys busy.

Which is to say, the WBC at this stage plays more like a one-off novelty, like the off-season games in Japan, than a full-fledged competition. It would be fun to see it become a bigger deal, though. Anything that helps internationalize the sport is ultimately in its best interests.

Jan 15, 2009 14:10 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Because my first experience with it was offset from the Olympics, I simply have it in my head that it's every six years. Just a brain lock.

WBC will be every four years, I believe. The three-year gap this time is intended, I believe, to get it off the other major international event tracks, which happen in even-numbered years.

While I'm here...the other problem with the WBC timing is that the U.S.'s attention is focused elsewhere. I love baseball to death, but March has become all about the NCAA tournament. I know three years ago I missed a lot of WBC action because of the tournament, and I imagine the same will happen this year.

Jan 15, 2009 14:01 PM
 
jramirez

I think the plan is for the WBC to be an every 4 years occurance but they wanted to get the thing kicked off then get on an "off year" schedule. An '09/'13/'17 schedule takes it out of competition with Olympics (winter and summer) and World Cups.

Jan 15, 2009 12:58 PM
rating: 0
 
jelder

The plans for future WBC's are for it to be every 4 years, not sure why they decided to go for a 3 year gap the first time around. Not sure where the 6 year idea for the World Cup came from, but its been held every 4 years since it was founded.

Jan 15, 2009 13:02 PM
rating: 0
 
AlCracka

World Cup is every 4 years.

Professional European soccer clubs are always at odds with FIFA over just this issue--player A is released to play for his national team for a qualifying game and comes back injured. I believe FIFA may have to pay some costs related to injuries and salary now.

Jan 15, 2009 13:43 PM
rating: 0
 
captchris

You're absolutely right. It's a huge bone of contention for soccer clubs, when their star players get injured on international duty. And yes, if this happens, the clubs do now get compensation, but it doesn't really make up for having one of their star players out of action for x weeks or months.

Jan 15, 2009 14:03 PM
rating: 0
 
ecarrero

That's not true my friend. FIFA is the ruling body so teams must let their players play for their national teams in official games. It is a rule. That's it.

Jan 15, 2009 21:39 PM
rating: 0
 
Matt L.

It is the national football organizations, not FIFA, that pay compensation claims for players injured on international duty. The English FA is currently paying Theo Walcott's wages for Arsenal as a result of Walcott being hurt while training for an England match during the club season.

Jan 16, 2009 10:11 AM
rating: 0
 
Rob_in_CT

Apparently Posada wants to play but the Yanks are saying no. I don't blame them one bit. They need to know if he can throw, they need him to work with the new pitchers, and they really don't need him getting hurt (even if he only DHs, it's possible). His injury killed them last year.

Jan 15, 2009 13:44 PM
rating: 0
 
Clonod

Joe Sheehan will not be moving to Soccer Prospectus, we now know.

Jan 15, 2009 13:55 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

I guess I should have read all the comments.

No, there wasn't much danger I'd be writing about soccer. That or cars-turning-left.

I'm staring open-mouthed at the TV right now. This landing, what the USAirways pilots did today, is truly one of the most heroic things any of us will ever witness.

These guys took a plane that took a birdstrike on takeoff and lost both its engines, landed it in the middle of the freaking Hudson River on the coldest day of the year, and didn't lose a single passenger.

If this flight crew ever has to buy its own drinks again, it's just a mistake.

Jan 15, 2009 14:06 PM
 
Evan
(47)

It reminds me of the Gimli Glider.

In 1983, a 767 flying from Montreal to Edmonton ran out of fuel near Winnipeg (there'd been a metric conversion error on the ground in Montreal). With no power, they glided to a dragstip in the town of Gimli (converted from an airforce base). But they were going too fast and were still too high when they got there, so the pilot (an accomplished gloder pilot) put his 767 into a sideslip, where you cross the controls to turn to top of the plane in the direction of travel (so the wings and fuselage act as a big sail to slow you down) and then landed the plane without incident.

Jan 15, 2009 14:27 PM
rating: 0
 
billm21

I really liked the idea of a World baseball classic when it first came up. But I agree 100% with Joe right now. I would prefer that my favorite team(s) not send their best players and instead focus on getting ready for the regular season. It was fun to watch the first time around, but now I really don't have much interest in this year's WBC. I'd sooner watch a spring training game in March.

Jan 15, 2009 14:02 PM
rating: -1
 
Evan
(47)

As an M's fan, I'm actually hoping Kenji Johjima gets injured.

Jan 15, 2009 14:23 PM
rating: 1
 
howlingmoon

Now, that's just mean, but true.
Drew

Jan 16, 2009 14:13 PM
rating: 0
 
Matt_BaseballGB

I seem to recall that the initial plan was for the WBC to launch in 2005, but it was held off for a year and they wanted to stick to the original schedule of '09, '13, '17 etc. I might have dreamed that up though!

AlCracka is right, the 'club versus country' debate is always a massive issue in soccer. To an extent the situation is helped because international competition including the top players is an established part of the soccer calendar. However, as shown by Joe's examples, teams invest a lot of money in players nowadays. They are incredibly valuable assets and handing them over to someone else, risking them getting injured, is obviously a contentious issue.

Jan 15, 2009 14:04 PM
rating: 0
 
bflaff

Joe (or anyone else), can you elaborate on slash remind us why the games can't be played in mid-November into December? Is this b/c it doesn't jive with the schedules of other int'l leagues (in which case, since MLB is supplying most of the players, the other leagues should adapt), or is it that players really really *really* don't want to play games 'after' the season? If that's the objection, it doesn't seem insurmountable either.

Anyway, the write up seemed only to consider early or mid-season games, and I was wondering why end of season games were non-starters.

Jan 15, 2009 14:20 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Fear of football is part of it.

From the players' standpoint, you'd never get a free agent. Or maybe even an arb guy. Too risky. You might not ever get a player who reached the postseason.

From the teams' standpoint, would you want the potential for players to risk injury as you're trying to make moves in the offseason?

I may be making too much of the injury factor. Remember, this isn't the Japan Series, which is clearly an exhibition. This is supposed to be serious. Can you do serious after six, seven, eight months of baseball?

I think the best time for it is late-March/early-April. It seems to solve the most problems.

Jan 15, 2009 14:34 PM
 
Christopher Taylor

"Can you do serious after six, seven, eight months of baseball?"

Is the world series any less serious because it has been played after about 6-7 months of baseball?

I have no problem with the WBC not getting playoff teams, the world championship of hockey happens every year and the Canadian team is composed of players who didn't make the playoffs or were turfed in the first round; the quality of play is quite good. This would also handicap the US as several of the best players would be unavailable. Not a terrible idea.

Jan 15, 2009 19:40 PM
rating: 1
 
oira61

My wife is Japanese. She was very emotional about the last WBC. I can report that Japan-Korea is far more important to fans than some minor club match like Yankees-Red Sox.

We have tickets to this year's finals. I'll probably end up rooting Japan on because, just like last time, the US players will all follow Joe's logic, play at half speed and get eliminated early. This is not a country with national pride; we're a consumer country and we root for corporations.

Jan 15, 2009 15:04 PM
rating: -1
 
penski
(286)

I don't disagree with you that the U.S. is a consumer country, but aren't professional Japanese baseball teams literally corporations?

Jan 15, 2009 18:45 PM
rating: 0
 
WaldoInSC

You say that as if it's a bad thing.

Jan 15, 2009 20:01 PM
rating: -3
 
Tony Mollica

If your wife is a big fan of Japan's baseball team you'd better be rooting for them; or enjoy sleeping on the couch!

Jan 16, 2009 03:08 AM
rating: 1
 
wonkothesane1

99.9% maybe a little harsh. I suspect there may be others like me who faced with the idea that our team doesn't have a good chance at a championship (I'm a Padres fan), the prospect that my WBC rooting interest (USA) has a chance to win something if they get good enough players makes me want my guys to play in it. Of course, there's only one Padre who is good enough to play (Peavy, although if Gonzalez wasn't playing for Mexico he wouldn't be a bad choice at 1B after the top players declined).

Jan 15, 2009 15:06 PM
rating: 0
 
frankg

Heroic.... acting correctly to save their own hides, fer sure. Let's call it skillful with blessed results.

Jan 15, 2009 15:24 PM
rating: 2
 
Richie

I agree, myself. But if we can call athletes heroic when they do something athletic incredibly well - as we do - then this can qualify, too.

Jan 15, 2009 16:09 PM
rating: 0
 
lajolla

Joe, nice article, but how many veterans have you interviewed during spring training who were excited at the chance to get injured playing against other MLB minor league prospects in March games that have absolutely no meaning except for sportswriters? The majority of veteran MLB players, if allowed, will gladly participate in the WBC, on various different national teams, simply to avoid the boredom of the grapefruit and cactus leagues, and the habitual regimens of spring training. As for the WBC schedule, it is no big deal for MLB players to find a way to travel to these few games, if they are so inclined? But there are real and substantial financial costs and/or contractual risks for MLB organizations, and that is why many MLB players are being discouraged from participating.
Let us hope the '09 USA team, with better pitching and offense this time around, can somehow find a way to the LA March 23rd finals. In any case, the WBC games I attended last time around in '06 in San Diego were far, far superior to any '06 Cactus league action that I observed in Arizona within the same time frame. And while the WBC games begin early in March, as you note, the actual semifinals and finals do not occur until later. I hope to see you in SD and LA?:

Game Date Match-Up Time (Local) Time (ET)
Game 1 Thu., March 5 China vs. Japan 6:30 p.m. 4:30 a.m.
Game 2 Fri., March 6 Chinese Taipei vs. Korea 6:30 p.m. 4:30 a.m.
Game 3 Sat., March 7 Game 1 Loser vs. Game 2 Loser 12:30 p.m. 10:30 p.m. (Fri.)
Game 4 Sat., March 7 Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner 7:00 p.m. 5:00 a.m.
Game 5 Sun., March 8 Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Loser 6:30 p.m. 5:30 a.m.
Game 6 Mon., March 9 Game 4 Winner vs. Game 5 Winner 6:30 p.m. 5:30 a.m.

Game Date Match-Up Time (Local) Time (ET)
Game 1 Sun., March 8 South Africa vs. Cuba 1:00 p.m. 3:00 p.m.
Game 2 Sun., March 8 Australia vs. Mexico 8:00 p.m. 10:00 p.m.
Game 3 Mon., March 9 Game 1 Loser vs. Game 2 Loser 8:00 p.m. 10:00 p.m.
Game 4 Tue., March 10 Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner 8:00 p.m. 10:00 p.m.
Game 5 Wed., March 11 Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Loser 8:00 p.m. 10:00 p.m.
Game 6 Thu., March 12 Game 4 Winner vs. Game 5 Winner 7:00 p.m. 9:00 p.m.

Game Date Match-Up Time (Local) Time (ET)
Game 1 Sat., March 7 United States vs. Canada 2:00 p.m. 2:00 p.m.
Game 2 Sat., March 7 Italy vs. Venezuela 8:00 p.m. 8:00 p.m.
Game 3 Sun., March 8 Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner 8:00 p.m. 8:00 p.m.
Game 4 Mon., March 9 Game 1 Loser vs. Game 2 Loser 6:30 p.m. 6:30 p.m.
Game 5 Tue., March 10 Game 3 Loser vs. Game 4 Winner 5:00 p.m. 5:00 p.m.
Game 6 Wed., March 11 Game 3 Winner vs. Game 5 Winner 6:30 p.m. 6:30 p.m.

Game Date Match-Up Time (Local) Time (ET)
Game 1 Sat., March 7 Netherlands vs. Dominican Republic 12:00 p.m. 11:00 a.m.
Game 2 Sat., March 7 Panama vs. Puerto Rico 6:00 p.m. 5:00 p.m.
Game 3 Sun., March 8 Game 1 Loser vs. Game 2 Loser 4:30 p.m. 4:30 p.m.
Game 4 Mon., March 9 Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner 6:30 p.m. 6:30 p.m.
Game 5 Tue., March 10 Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Loser 6:30 p.m. 6:30 p.m.
Game 6 Wed., March 11 Game 4 Winner vs. Game 5 Winner 5:00 p.m. 5:00 p.m.
Round 2

Game Date Match-Up Time (Local) Time (ET)
Game 1 Sun., March 15 Pool A Winner vs. Pool B Runner-Up 1:00 p.m. 4:00 p.m.
Game 2 Sun., March 15 Pool A Runner-Up vs. Pool B Winner 8:00 p.m. 11:00 p.m.
Game 3 Mon., March 16 Game 1 Loser vs. Game 2 Loser 8:00 p.m. 11:00 p.m.
Game 4 Tue., March 17 Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner 8:00 p.m. 11:00 p.m.
Game 5 Wed., March 18 Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Loser 8:00 p.m. 11:00 p.m.
Game 6 Thu., March 19 Game 4 Winner vs. Game 5 Winner 6:00 p.m. 9:00 p.m.

Game Date Match-Up Time (Local) Time (ET)
Game 1 Sat., March 14 Pool C Winner vs. Pool D Runner-Up 1:00 p.m. 1:00 p.m.
Game 2 Sat., March 14 Pool C Runner-Up vs. Pool D Winner 8:00 p.m. 8:00 p.m.
Game 3 Sun., March 15 Game 1 Loser vs. Game 2 Loser 7:30 p.m. 7:30 p.m.
Game 4 Mon., March 16 Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner 8:00 p.m. 8:00 p.m.
Game 5 Tue., March 17 Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Loser 7:00 p.m. 7:00 p.m.
Game 6 Wed., March 18 Game 4 Winner vs. Game 5 Winner 7:00 p.m. 7:00 p.m.
Semifinals & Finals

Game Date Match-Up Time (Local) Time (ET)
Game 1 Sat., March 21 Pool 1 Runner-Up Winner vs. Pool 2 Winner 6:00 p.m. 9:00 p.m.
Game 2 Sun., March 22 Pool 1 Winner vs. Pool 2 Runner-Up 5:00 p.m. 8:00 p.m.
Game 3 Mon., March 23 SF1 Winner vs. SF2 Winner 6:30 p.m. 9:30 p.m.

Jan 15, 2009 16:21 PM
rating: -2
 
jillsinmo

Why not ask recent retirees if they'd like one last hurrah? Mike Mussina, Greg Maddux, and Paul Byrd have all recently announced their retirement. I bet they have 2 weeks of pitching left in 'em. Maybe even Ben Sheets would like a chance to prove his health if he doesn't get signed.
Get creative. Keep this thing alive.

Jan 15, 2009 18:31 PM
rating: 2
 
mcbellows

Soccer players are also paid very well by their clubs but never turn down the chance to play for country. I think at an early age soccer players have playing for their country as a top priority.

With baseball, playing for a winner or a big market club takes precidence. If the WBC can keep going maybe the attitude of baseball players will change as well over time.

Jan 15, 2009 19:32 PM
rating: -2
 
ecarrero

Dino Zoff was the Italian goal keeper until his 41st birthday. Oliver Kahn (38) the german goalkeeper was livid when he was replaced for Jans Lehman (34) who in turn was thrilled. Spanish striker Raul Gonzalez has played for Spain for almost 15 years. He's only 31 and was left out of the European Cup. He was crushed. In soccer, playing for your national team in the World Cup is everything. Most soccer players don't want their careers to end.

Jan 15, 2009 21:49 PM
rating: 0
 
saigonsam

Of course if you perform well for your national football team(sorry, i live overseas), it can result in millions of dollars in endorsements. Just ask Maradona what a few goals in a WC can do for your life. I don't see this happening with the WBC.

Jan 15, 2009 23:06 PM
rating: 0
 
96Starlings

My problem with the WBC is that I think that it is risky
for the MLB starting pitchers to go to meaningful
game situations so early in spring training. If they
began training earlier, that would be one thing, but they
don't. A number of WBC pitchers had troubled seasons,
last time. Jake Peavy and Freddie Garcia come to mind.
Of course, I have done the work necessary to back this up,
but I'd be very concerned about turning over a prize asset
to Davey Johnson's tender mercies, were I a MLB G.M..

Jan 16, 2009 08:28 AM
rating: 1
 
daantart

It's very interesting to see the difference in attitudes towards international play between Americans and Canadians. For us, representing Canada in international tournaments takes precedence over one's professional clubs. This is especially so with hockey, but not much different with the WBC. Besides, many of today's crop of Canadian MLB players got to the Majors partly because of Baseball Canada, a national organization that promote the sport and help develop players, so many of these players probably feel the need to give back to Canada by playing in the WBC. There's no similar structure in the US--American players are the products of individual high schools and colleges; there's no national body for the Americans to give back to.

Jan 16, 2009 11:02 AM
rating: 0
 
mrm11201
(862)

Green and gold? You mean Matt Holliday is going to play for Australia?

Jan 16, 2009 13:10 PM
rating: 1
 
mjraimer

"Of course,[playing a 154- or 148-game schedule]involves a level of sacrifice few owners are going to countenance. When it comes to the WBC, it's the players alone who are expected to be patriots."

Sorry Joe, have to call unfair shot at the owners on you. Given that contracts are guaranteed, players will be paid for the entire season. Playing fewer games is revenue that is not recoverable. For smaller markets who are more gate-dependent than TV-dependent, the loss of 4 or 7 home dates is a hit.

Jan 16, 2009 13:15 PM
rating: 0
 
bprocks1

Hi Joe:

The WBC is great. The baseball is as good or better than the Spring Training Baseball in Fla. or Ariz. The U.S. has a good team, maybe not its best, but still dangerous. I fail to see how pitchers pitching 3, 4 or 5 innings at the WBC is that much different than a Spring Training game. The WBC points out that baseball is a global game, and not just an American pastime. The U.S. players are not asked to be "patriots" any more than the players repsenting any other country. The plain and simple fact is that all the players SAVE AND EXCEPT the U. S. show more enthusiasm for the tounament, borne out by the 2006 results. The same may occur in the 2009 tournament. I do agree that the timing of the WBC in March could be tweaked somewhat, and with split gate doubleheaders the schedule could be slightly adjusted to accomodate the WBC.

Jan 16, 2009 20:51 PM
rating: 0
 
James Martin Cole

Get rid of the all-star game, extend the allstar break for a week, and play qualifiers every year. During the championship year, extend the allstar break even further, shave 8 games off of the major league schedule, and make it a big event. Mandate participation from healthy players, but limit the number of players that can go from each major league team.

Jan 17, 2009 11:45 AM
rating: -1
 
krazycanuck



I can see how it would be easier to schedule qualifiers every year, but it would take away from the momentum of the series of games. Pitching can be tweaked with more pitchers on staff and having them pitch less per game.

Jan 19, 2009 23:21 PM
rating: 0
 
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