Team USA Can Bring Stars, Fans to World Baseball Classic by Winning It All – Bleacher Report

FT. MYERS, FL - MARCH 9: Giancarlo Stanton and Eric Hosmer of Team USA warm up before a Spring Training game against the Boston Red Sox on March 9, 2017 at Fenway South in Fort Myers, Florida . (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterMarch 10, 2017

TOKYO — There are Americans who love the World Baseball Classic. One of them is here at the Tokyo Dome this week, managing China.

“It’s a wonderful event,” Philadelphia Phillies catching coach John McLaren said Thursday.

Another one is here this week, working for MLB Network.

“When we lost [in 2006], I cried,” said Buck Martinez, who managed Team USA that year in the first WBC. “It broke my heart.”

But when Team USA lost in 2006, most American baseball fans shrugged. When the Americans lost again in 2009 and 2013, shrugs would have been preferable to the total indifference shown by most.

The latest version of Team USA, which opens WBC play Friday night in Miami against Colombia, has a chance to change that. This is a group that can start pushing the WBC towards relevance in the one country where it should matter most.

For example, the star-studded USA vs. Dominican Republic battle at the 2013 WBC drew just 880,000 viewers, according to Forbes.com. For context, the NHL All-Star game drew 2.28 million this January, and the 2016 Home Run Derby grabbed 5.52 million.

The Americans just have to win.

“I think for it to happen, we need to see the USA in Los Angeles playing in the final game,” McLaren said.

They have to win, and they could. For all the talk about American stars shunning the WBC—plenty of them have, especially pitchers—Team USA manager Jim Leyland has a lineup that can match any in the tournament.

Remember when Team USA lost to Puerto Rico in the last WBC? No, you probably don't.

Remember when Team USA lost to Puerto Rico in the last WBC? No, you probably don’t.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Leyland has at least one All-Star at every position. He has a lineup so deep Andrew McCutchen batted eighth in an exhibition game this week.

Joining the former MVP are the likes of Giancarlo Stanton, Nolan Arenado, Buster Posey, and Paul Goldschmidt—not to mention 2016 MLB All-Stars Daniel Murphy, Jonathan Lucroy, and Eric Hosmer.

This offense should have no problem posting crooked numbers on the scoreboard, but can the pitching follow suit?

The starting staff is headlined by Chris Archer and Marcus Stroman, two arms with ace potential coming off disappointing years. Tanner Roark had a fantastic 2016 season (16-10, 2.83 ERA), but no one would confuse him with a bona fide MLB ace. 

While a lot of the best starting pitchers aren’t participating, some of the best bullpen arms are. Tournament rules won’t allow Leyland to use Andrew Miller exactly as Terry Francona did for the Cleveland Indians in the postseason, but Miller could still be the key guy.

Add Sam Dyson, Mychal Givens, Nate Jones, and David Robertson, and Team USA’s relievers will be piling up the strikeouts.

The WBC, with its mandatory pitch limits, is a tournament built for strong bullpens.

The Americans could win. They have to win, although not for the same reason the Japanese have to win or the Dominicans or the Venezuelans have to win.

For those countries, it’s national pride. They’re playing for themselves and their country.

The Americans are playing for the WBC as a concept. They can make it work, and they can make people care enough that next time around, more stars will feel public pressure to go, rather than indifference or even a pressure to stay away.

“Ain’t nobody made it to the Hall of Fame or win a World Series playing in the WBC,” New York Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard told Newsday‘s David Lennon, last week.

Mets fans (and executives) no doubt approve, because Syndergaard is committed to a team they care about instead of an event they don’t.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 05:  Noah Syndergaard #34 of the New York Mets reacts during their National League Wild Card game against the San Francisco Giants at Citi Field on October 5, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Elsa/Getty Images

But will American fans be able to maintain that indifference if Team USA plays for a championship March 22 at Dodger Stadium? Will American players be able to watch coverage of it without any thoughts they ought to be there themselves?

Maybe it won’t matter. Maybe players like Syndergaard, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper will always say the WBC is just too inconvenient to interrupt spring training preparations.

But maybe all it would take is for Americans to feel the excitement of a championship game.

“I understand the guys who don’t play,” Martinez said. “If you have not seen what this is in person, you don’t really get it.”

Martinez knows it’s not all about just recruiting the big stars. His 2006 team had Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones and Roger Clemens, among others. Jeter was so committed he offered to help Martinez recruit other players. Jones was so into it he told McLaren (a coach on that team) he was more nervous than when he played in the World Series.

Perhaps if that team had won, the perception of the WBC would have changed. But Team USA didn’t win in 2006, or in 2009 or in 2013. The Americans have only made it out of the second round once (in 2009, when they lost to Japan in the semifinals).

Do they lose because no one cares, or does no one care because they lose? Probably a little of both, but Leyland’s team is strong enough to test the theory.

Win it this year, and see what happens.

 

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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