First, exactly what is the World Baseball Classic?
The World Baseball Classic would put players from around the world on teams built with players from specific countries. China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Korea, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, The United States, Cuba, Panama, The Netherlands, Puerto Rico, Australia, The Dominican Republic, Italy and Venezuela would all send teams to compete. Basically, countries could fill their roster with any players who are citizens of that particular country, whether or not they are under contract to a Major League club or even a professional team in Japan or Korea along with other professional leagues from around the world.
The World Baseball Classic will feature 16 teams in a four-round tournament. Teams will be divided into four "pools" and compete in their respective pool with the top two teams advancing to form two new pools of four teams each. From there, the top two teams in each of those pools would advance to the semi-finals leading to a tournament championship which would be played at PETCO Park in San Diego. The earliest players would have to report would be February 26th and the Tournament Final is slated for March 20th.
So, is all of this a good idea and what impact might it have on Major League Baseball clubs and players?
It is estimated that 60% of the players in the tournament will be under contract - either a Major League deal or a Minor League deal - to a Major League club. The remaining players will come from various professional and amateur leagues from around the world. So far, Dontrelle Willis (USA) and Carlos Delgado (Puerto Rico) have already signed letters of intent to play for their respective homelands. Other players are likely to follow in the not too distant future.
Since the tournament takes place in the middle of spring training, the first concern may be how it affects players who are on the international teams. The tournament will be different from spring training in that teams will be competing and playing competitively, an element that is missing from spring training. Spring games - particularly the early games - are more for getting in shape and for young players to show what they may be able to do if added to their Major League clubs roster. Many veterans play somewhat sparingly, which will be different in the WBC.
Pitch counts could be a concern. While there isn't anything definite, WBC rules may be amended to limit pitch counts, but that hasn't been decided. Willis for instance, could conceivably pitch in the opening round game on March 8th, followed by an outing in the second round opener on March 13th and then pitch in either a semi-final match-up on the 18th or the Tournament Final on the 20th. Willis threw 28 innings in spring training last March, but over the last three springs has averaged 18 innings of work. With three potential starts on the agenda in a competitive situation and then another ten days of spring training to return to, it can be figured that he would go over his usual numbers. Would the Marlins be comfortable with that?
As players, coaches and organizers have all pointed out, injuries can occur in spring training. With the added competitiveness of the World Baseball Classic though, there may well be an increased number of injuries.
For now, the WBC's future isn't set in stone. The plans call for the inaugural tournament to be played in 2006 and then not return until 2009. The tournament organizers hope to expand the number of teams taking part in the competition as time goes on. That begs the question of just how long the tournament would last and would it eventually extend into the regular season?
There is a lot of enthusiasm for the WBC from various corners. Players believe it is a great opportunity to represent their homeland. Coaches and scouts believe it may actually increase the spotlight for young players from around the world to impress major league clubs. Organizers - Bud Selig in particular - see the WBC as an opportunity to grow baseball's boundries. To truly take the game to an international level, while not needing to depend on Olympic organizers for exposure. It will be interesting to see how that enthusiasm may change if key Major League players come up lame during the tournament or simply run out of gas late in the regular season thanks to the increased playing time.