The World Baseball Classic is a hit again. But the best pitchers in the US were left out

“México! Mexico!” cheers erupted Sunday as soon as the gates at Chase Field opened. The chorus was so loud that people on the field turned to see what was going on. It was two hours before the first game between Mexico and the United States, and the excitement was already building.

A sellout crowd of 47,354 – evenly split between passionate sides – saw Mexico beat the USA 11-5. The show was a huge success for the World Baseball Classic, now in its fifth year and first since 2017.

Interest in the WBC, a topic of constant discussion in the weeks leading up to each one, is among fans and players alike. It’s been seen from Miami to Japan, where at one point more than half the households in the Greater Tokyo Area were watching their home team take on South Korea. There have been electric atmospheres and raw emotions. The environments of October have been revived in March.

But the event is still not where everyone involved envisions it to be. Smoothing kinks exist. Most of them are off the field, but one significant obstacle remains on the field. Team USA manager Mark DeRosa, who played for the USA in the 2006 WBC, touched on the issue several times in the past week.

“From a pitching standpoint, they had to start a little earlier and they had to pitch a little earlier,” DeRosa said. “But I think if this is going to go where it needs to go, some of the major league clubs are going to have to be willing to be a little bit more … in the OK mentality of playing those guys.”

There was a stars and stripes elephant in the room.

The problem described by DeRosa is not general. While this year’s Team USA position player pool is the most talented in its WBC history, attracting the best starting pitching available is a steep hurdle for Team USA alone. Take a look at the tournament. The best pitchers from other contenders are participating.

Shohei Ohtani is playing two ways with Japan as he enters his contract season with the Angels. Julio Urías, who is set to hit free agency this winter, also left for Mexico on Saturday. Sandy Alcántara started the opener for the Dominican Republic after winning the NL Cy Young Award and leading the majors last season (228⅔).

Shohei Ohtani, one of the best pitchers in baseball, delivered for Japan against China on Thursday in the World Baseball Classic.

(Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)

Pablo López (Venezuela) and Jose Berríos (Puerto Rico) were the top starters for their respective nations last season, and both are participating. Veteran left-hander José Quintana, coming off a resurgent season, was also slated to play for Colombia before suffering a rib injury last week.

Team USA, on the other hand, has one of the top rotations in the tournament, but far from the best they could muster.

Last season, 13 American pitchers finished in the top 20 in ERA among the major leaguers and 14 finished in the top 20 in FanGraphs WAR. None of them are involved in the WBC. Only one, San Francisco Giants right-hander Logan Webb, is known to have originally committed to Team USA. He retired before the start of spring training.

Of the seven foreign pitchers who finished in the top 20 in ERA, two are not in the WBC: Quintana and Framber Valdez, who initially said he would commit to the Dominican Republic but withdrew after a heavy workload. in October for the Houston Astros.

Team USA’s rotation took two hits when Clayton Kershaw and Nestor Cortes were forced to retire. Cortes suffered a hamstring injury last month. Kershaw was unable to secure the necessary insurance to participate. Kershaw had a 2.28 ERA in 126⅓ innings for the Dodgers, while Cortes had a 2.44 ERA in 158⅓ innings for the New York Yankees. Developments reduced the star power of craft workers.

Without them, Adam Wainwright, Nick Martinez, Merrill Kelly, Lance Lynn, Kyle Freeland, Miles Mikolas and Brady Singer are the starting options on the American roster. The team has a combined seven All-Star Game appearances.

There are 10 active American-born major leaguers with Cy Young awards. No one is on the US task force.

Wainwright, 41, held Great Britain to one run over four innings in Team USA’s opening win on Saturday. Martinez, a late addition to the roster, allowed three runs on five hits in 2⅔ innings against Mexico on Sunday.

Wainwright is entering his 17th and possibly final season with St. Louis with the Cardinals. He is closing in on 200 career wins after going 11-12 with a 3.71 ERA in 191⅔ innings last season. The right-hander explained that pitching for Team USA has been a longtime goal after being cut from the 2004 US Olympic Qualifying team. This was his last chance.

“It’s a big part of my story, but it also left a void inside me that I’m ready to fill,” Wainwright said. “I’m happy to represent our country.”

Workload restrictions are imposed for the tournament, but big-league clubs take a high risk of pitching in the WBC anyway, and for good reason. Throwing a baseball is an unnatural arm movement. Injuries are common. Franchises invest millions of dollars in the best starting pitchers. Front offices rely on them to gain and maintain job security. The timing — during spring training, before the season starts — adds to the anxiety.

As a result, teams in the tournament are being careful with starters and relievers. Managers are tasked with setting plans together with local clubs to prepare for opening day while trying to win high-adrenaline matches. It’s a difficult balance. DeRosa experienced it in Sunday’s loss.

“There’s a lot of guys that mean a lot to these big league ball clubs and their seasons,” DeRosa said after the game. “I won’t do anything to jeopardize that.”

There is no perfect place on the calendar for this event. This Major League Baseball tournament is determined to succeed, and that requires some risk every time it is played. Wainwright wants interested parties to know that Team USA’s pitchers are in good hands.

“I think one thing for people to understand is for the fan base to understand and the teams to understand that the training staff that is there is a professional Major League Baseball training staff that knows how to maintain their players the way a regular training camp would.

“When we come here, we are not with (unqualified) professionals to keep us where we need to be. … Whatever program we have with our teams, they are ready to implement them here.”

MLB clubs allowed players to avoid participation if they met certain injury-related parameters. This may explain some of the absences. But it doesn’t explain why the best American starting players for the 2022 season aren’t participating in this tournament.

“If this is going to go where it should, every team, every country would want their so-called best players,” DeRosa said. “And it shouldn’t be as difficult as making a list. But I completely understand.”

Attracting America’s best starting pitching isn’t a requirement for the WBC’s success — the United States produces enough talent to make for a strong rotation, but it would further legitimize the event as it grows. There is already interest. The proof was there Sunday night at Chase Field.

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