The Highest Prestige of International Baseball, The Olympic Baseball Breakdown
Baseball is getting into the heat of things. With the Trade Deadline approaching in the League and teams setting their trajectory on the direction of their franchises, the soap opera that is the Deadline will for sure have all eyes watching throughout the week heading into the weekend. But tonight, and for multiple days there after, eyes will be set on Tokyo, Japan too, one of the biggest baseball cities in the World, as Baseball makes it return to the Olymtpics, and for fans of Baseball and International Competition, its been a long time coming.
Before I breakdown what you need to know heading into the event and the 6 teams represented, we must take step back to before Baseball struck out on being brought back to the Olympics. In 1904, in the early years of the Olympics, baseball would be considered an unofficial sport in the the Games and would debut that year. However, it would take the Olympic Committee, 88 full years to officially move the status of the sport from an unofficial competition to a sanctioned, medal receiving competition in the games. The 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona would see the Cuban National Team take home the Gold in the inaugural year of the sport being an Olympic competition. This year’s Inaugural Medal-receiving games would feature 10 countries and some prominent players, including NPB legend Hiroki Kokubo representing team Japan and Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek, and Jason Giambi representing team USA. Over the course of the 5 years Baseball was in the Olympics, we would see Cuba win 2 more gold medals, the US winning their first Gold in the 2000 Games, and many other prominent players their on out, even if at the time they may have been young prospects. But in 2008, Baseball in the Olympics was closing on what would be, at the time, the strike 3 call if you will. Beijing would penultimately play host to what was the final time Baseball was played as an event in the Olympics. That year we would see Korea take home the Gold in China and Stephen Strausburg, Jake Arrieta and Dexter Fowler would play on what, at time, was the last Olympic USA Baseball team. It was a bittersweet ending in 2008 and the MLB would try to keep International competition alive in the form of the World Baseball Classic. The WBC has done its job in keeping international play thriving and is still being played every 4 years, similar to the Olympics, but the Olympics is a special event and its another way for Baseball to be on a National Stage and highlight the top, young stars around the world.
Well tonight that will all change! After 13 years of waiting, the Olympics will kick off with the opening of Group Play as teams will try to vie for a chance at receiving a coveted Olympic Gold Medal. This year’s event will feature 6 Countries, all of whom qualified via a WBSC-hosted event, except Japan, the host country of the entire games. The other 5 teams that will be in the event will be Israel, USA, Korea, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Their will be 2 groups that will be used for play with Group A consisting of Japan, Mexico and the Dominican Republic and Group B featuring the USA, Korea and the underdogs in the event, Israel. Group Play will take place starting tonight and finishing out on Saturday, July 31st. Thereafter, the teams will be placed into tournament-style play in the Knockout Stage, which will kick off as well on Saturday and finish with the final game of the Baseball portion of the Olympics on Saturday, August 7th with the Gold Medal Game.
Now with some of the basic information covered for the Baseball Olympic Games, let’s get into breaking down each team indivdually.
Japan, World Rank #1: Japan enters this year’s event with some familiarity. Not only are they going to be playing in their home country, but they are also making their 6th Appearance in the Baseball portion of the Games. The big name that jumps out on the Japanese team is former Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka, this most recent offseason, left the Yanks and returned to his home country to play for the team he spent his first 8 seasons of his pro career with, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. So far through 13 games, Tanaka is 4-5, however he has an impressive 2.86 ERA in league play. Even though Tanaka is the most recognizable name on the team among MLB fans, this Japan squad is filled top to bottom with players who haved racked up awards and accolades in the NPB and JPPL. Ryoya Kurihara, catcher on the team, is a former Japan Series MVP, winning it last year with the SoftBank Hawks, and has 4 Japan Series championships on his resume. This team also features 6-time Japan Series Champion and 2-time Pacific League MVP, Yuki Yanagita, just showing the amount star power that this team has. They are going to be hard to stop in this years games and their are some positive factors that help Japan’s case for them being the favorite in the event.
Korea, World Rank #3: The defending Olympic Gold medalist in the Baseball event comes into this year’s 2020 Games built very similar to the way Japan is built, as all the players on the roster are currently with a Korean-based league, such as the KBO. This team does feature notable players, as Hyun-soo Kim is probably the most recognizable, as he spent 2 seasons in the MLB with the Phillies and Orioles. Kim should be able to add a veteran presence to the Korea squad and should be a reliable part of the lineup. He will also be paired up with another veteran, Min-ho Kang, who was apart of the 2008 Korean National Team that took home the Gold. He enters the Games at age 35 and is a 5-time Golden Glove Award winner in the KBO. Again, just like Japan, this team is filled with proven talents, most of which have been very successful in the KBO and some of whom, in the case of Kim or even infielder Jaegyun Hwang, have a nice track record in the MLB. This Korea team will be a very tough team to beat this year as they are on almost the same level, if not at the same level as Japan as both teams should be vying for the Gold, but Korea is in a more favorable Group to start play as they will have to contest against a USA team with a few key losses and a Israel team that many people believe may not even notch a win.
USA, World Rank #4: Coming in ranked in the middle of the pack in the event, the US team this year is a nice mix of veterans and prospects, however the team is not the same from back in late May when they took the Americas’ Qualifier. The big name on this list would be the “Todd Father” himself, Todd Frazier. Frazier is one of the few players that are in this year’s games who was on a big league team at some point this season, as Todd spent some time this year off and on the Pittsburgh Pirates MLB roster. Frazier is going to be an important piece to this year’s USA squad and will be a great leader figure to have for the younger players on the roster. Other names that standout on the team is Scott Kazmir, former Rays starter, who is currently with the Giants organization at the Triple A level. Kazmir has pitched in high intensity games over his career, including a start in the 2008 World Series, which is a positive in the case of the USA pitching staff to have a guy who has pitched in big moments that are similar to the Olympics. The team also has some key contributing prospects that will help the USA team tremendously this year, with players such as Shane Baz, Simeon-Woods Richardson and Joe Ryan, who was traded to the Twins while in Tokyo in the Nelson Cruz deal, leading the core of the youthfulness with the team. However, the team will be lacking some key players who were big helps in the Qualifier such as Cardinals pitching prospect and former Ray, Matthew Liberatore, recent call up Luke Williams and veteran outfielder Matt Kemp. This USA should still make some noise in this year event and should at least contend for a medal, but we will have to see if the team losses will play any factor into their Olympic success this year.
Mexico, World Rank #5: The Mexico team is one of two teams to make its first appearance for Baseball in the Olympic Games, but even though they are first timers, they do bring some faces that will make an impact this year in the event. The big time name on the Mexico roster, and the leader of the squad, Adrian Gonzalez, is a nice add to the team and is a good player to have that could help boost the success of the team. Adrian Gonzalez, the former Boston Red Sox, has also done it all in the sport, having 5 MLB All Star appearances and 4 Gold Gloves under his belt. He also has over 2,000 career hits in the big leagues. He will be joined by two other notable MLB veterans, pitchers Oliver Perez and Hector Velasquez, a former Red Sox himself. Both should have a decent part in the pitching staff. A-Gon will also be joined by fellow veteran fielders Danny Espinosa, who spent time with the Nationals, and Efren Navarro. Mexico going to be a difficult team, however they may be toyed around in Group A with them going through Japan and the Dominican Republic, both teams that should have a shot a medal, and possibly a Gold.
Dominican Republic, World Rank #7: The Dominican Republic could very well be the dark horse to win the event and for good reason. With some names in the lineup that should provide some pop and a good pitching staff, this team could have a chance to win the Gold. The DR will be bringing in some big named vets and some highly touted up-and-coming prospects, as Jose Bautista leads the DR team in Tokyo as one of the bigger, more recognizable faces in this year’s game. Bautista, a 6-time MLB All-Star and 3-time Silver Slugger Award winner, should provide not only great leadership on the team, but home run pop in the lineup. Bautista will be joined by fellow veterans and former big leaguers Melky Cabrera, who was a teammate with Bautista as well in Toronto, and former Marlin, Emilio Bonifacio. These 3 veterans will be joined with two of the more exciting players coming up in the game, as Julio Rodriguez, the #5 ranked prospect in the MLB and #2 in the Mariners syetem, and Royals prospect shortstop Jeison Guzman will be two players who can make an immediate impact with team. The DR will have a tough road though as they do have to meet Japan in the Opening Game of Group Play tonight and are in the tougher of the two groups, but this team has what it takes to possibly make a splash and a reach for a Olympic Gold Medal win.
Israel, World Rank #24: The final Olympic roster that will be broken-down is handily the underdog team in this year’s event, Israel. Team Israel compared to its competition isn’t as complete as other team’s as they are lacking on both the pitching and offensive sides. Team Israel, making their first Baseball appearance in the Games, will bring a few former MLB vets, including catcher Ryan Lavarnway, Danny Valencia, and 4-time MLB All Star and 2018 World Series Champion, Ian Kinsler, who tops the list. The pitching staff will also feature some big league names as Jake Fishman and Jeremy Bleich will be with the team and Alex Katz, a pitcher who has made his name outside of baseball with his custom sneaker brand and being featured on YouTube sensation Zack Hample’s channel will be in the Games as well. The Israel team isn’t a favorite heading into this event, however with the way the Baseball format is set, Israel could suprise some people by taking advantage of the format, especially when we get to the Knockout stage.
Now that you have an in-depth look on what to expect for this year’s 2020 Baseball Olympic Games, all there is left is to let the games get played and see who will come out on top as the Gold Medalist team. For fans, who plan to watch the event, the games will be played at either 6am or 11pm EST on the NBC Olympic Channel, with certain games being nationally televised such as the medal winning games. It will be an exciting two weeks of baseball and even though there will be drama happening here in the States this week, there will be surely a rollercoaster ride of an event in Tokyo.
Olympic Gold Medal Odds (via William Hill Sportsbook)
- Japan: +150
- Korea: +300
- USA: +300
- Dom. Republic: +600
- Mexico: +1000
- Israel: +2500