Wednesday August 24th, 2016

Baseball’s history as an Olympic sport is a fractured one. Intermittently included as a demonstration sport starting in 1904, baseball didn’t became a medal sport until the Barcelona games in 1992, then was dropped from the Olympic program entirely after South Korea won the gold in Beijing in 2008. Earlier this month, it was announced that baseball and softball would return as medal sports in Tokyo in 2020. For the sport to return to the ultimate international stage in a country that's crazy for it presents Major League Baseball with a tremendous opportunity to raise the international profile of the league and its star players, as well as to expand the reach of the game itself.

Taking advantage of that opportunity, however, would mean allowing MLB’s top stars to participate in the Olympics. With the 2020 games due to stretch from July 24 to Aug. 9, that means either allowing players to leave their teams to represent their respective countries—as Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korea Baseball Organization have done for previous Olympics—or pausing the regular season for two weeks to allow full participation by major league talent. Either move would be unprecedented for MLB, but the latter, though more complicated, seems far more likely to result in meaningful participation.

Stopping the season would impact far more than just the United States team. In fact, it would arguably be most beneficial to the smaller Latin American countries that have provided the major leagues with many of its biggest stars. In the five summer games in which baseball was a medal sport, just six countries have won medals, and three of those six have taken home two-thirds of the hardware. Two of those three are Japan and Korea, which have their own thriving professional baseball leagues and allowed their top players to play; current Dodgers lefty Hyun-jin Ryu, then the ace of the Hanwha Eagles, was a large part of why South Korea won gold in 2008.

The third is Cuba, which dominated the medal stand from 1992 to 2008, winning three golds and two silvers. Other than the United States, which failed to medal in baseball in 1992 and failed even to qualify in 2004, Cuba is the only western nation to have won an Olympic medal for baseball (Taiwan and Australia round out the medaling countries, having taken silver in ’92 and ’04, respectively). But Cuba has lost more baseball talent to the United States in the last decade than it had in the first 45 years of the embargo and has likely been significantly weakened.

With all of that in mind, here’s an attempt to illustrate exactly what is at stake in terms of player participation. Drawing exclusively from major and minor league talent, I’ve compiled a starting nine plus designated hitter and closer for five of what could be the top countries in Tokyo. If MLB finds a way for its players to participate, we could see these players in mid-season form in the Olympics in 2020. If not, baseball could very well run the risk of lapsing back out of the Games before the end of the next decade.

Players are listed according to the country of their birth with their ages as of July 1, 2020 in parentheses; countries are listed in alphabetical order.


1B: Jose Abreu (36)
2B: Yoan Moncada (25)
SS: Aledmys Diaz (29)
3B: Yulieski Gurriel (36)
C: Yasmani Grandal (31)
RF: Yasiel Puig (29)
CF: Leonys Martin (32)
LF: Yoenis Cespedes (34)
DH: Yasmani Tomas (29)
SP: Jose Fernandez (27)
CL: Aroldis Chapman (32)

This is pure fantasy for now, but with relations softening between Cuba and the United States, it’s no longer completely unrealistic to imagine these Cuban-born major leaguers playing for their native country. What’s more, this illustrates just how much the flow of talent from Cuba to the major leagues has increased over the last decade. I find it difficult to believe that Cuba could assemble a 2020 Olympic team of this quality from players who have remained on the island.

Moncada, a Red Sox farmhand, was rated the top prospect in the game by Baseball America last month. Just 21, he has hit .296/.405/.513 with 44 stolen bases in a season split between Class A and Double A and should be a major league star by the middle of the 2020 season. Gurriel, who was on the 2004 and '08 Cuban Olympic teams, made his major league debut with the Astros on Sunday. If either fails to pan out, Cuba could sub in Yunel Escobar, who will be 37 in 2020. Also not included on the above list but worth mentioning is Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler, who will be 28 in 2020.

The case for MLB to take part in the 2020 Summer Olympics

Dominican Republic

1B: Maikel Franco (27)
2B: Robinson Cano (37)
SS: Ahmed Rosario (24)
3B: Miguel Sano (27)
C: Gary Sanchez (27)
RF: Gregory Polanco (28)
CF: Starling Marte (31)
LF: Nomar Mazara (25)
DH: Edwin Encarnacion (37)
SP: Carlos Martinez (28)
CL: Jeurys Famlia (30)

This is the deepest team on this list after the United States. The Dominican Republic, which won the last World Baseball Classic in 2013, could arrange its lineup any number of different ways. Adrian Beltre (41) and Jose Bautista (39) will likely have aged off the roster by then, but Hanley Ramirez (36) could factor in to what is something of a rotation among the players at first base, third base and DH. If Marte isn’t viable in center at 31, perhaps Polanco will be, or the D.R. could turn to 29-year-old Marcell Ozuna or a current minor leaguer, such as top centerfield prospects Victor Robles of the Nationals or Manuel Margot of the Padres, who will be 23 and 25, respectively, in 2020. One prospect I’ve already included in this lineup is Mets’ shortstop Ahmed Rosario, who ranked 18th on BA’s mid-season list and has hit .313/.363/.452 as a 20-year-old in Class A and Double A this season.

As for the rotation, Johnny Cueto (34) and Danny Salazar (30) have both pitched better than Martinez this year, but I’m more optimistic about the pitcher Martinez will be four years from now than I am about the other two.

Gail Burton/AP

Puerto Rico

1B: Kennys Vargas (29)
2B: Javier Baez (27)
SS: Francisco Lindor (26)
3B: Carlos Correa (25)
C: Yadier Molina (37)
RF: Kiké Hernandez (28)
CF: Angel Pagan (38)
LF: Eddie Rosario (28)
DH: Steven Moya (28)
SP: Jose Berrios (26)
CL: Edwin Diaz (26)

Yes, Puerto Rico, despite being a U.S. territory and subject to MLB’s Rule 4 draft, competes separately from the United States in the Olympics. In fact, Puerto Rico won its first ever Olympic gold medal at this year's Rio games, when tennis player Monica Puig took home the gold in women’s singles (Puerto Rico has nine Olympic medals in total dating back to 1948). Puerto Rico also competes as a separate entry in the World Baseball Classic, reaching the finals in the 2013 edition, where it lost to the Dominican Republic.

Unfortunately, Carlos Beltran, one of the greatest Puerto Rican major leaguers of all time, will have aged off the roster come 2020, and Yadier Molina and Angel Pagan will likely have as well. If so, Puerto Rico may be forced to resort to the likes of 30-year-old Juan Centeno, 33-year-old Martin Maldonado or 29-year-old Christian Vazquez at catcher and/or to use one of those three at DH, moving Moya into the outfield. Truth be told, this is likely the weakest of the five teams on this list.

Still, Puerto Rico's middle infield depth—with Correa moving to third to accommodate the superior fielder in Lindor and Javier Baez fleshing things out at second—may be the envy of every country save two: the United States, which has enviable depth at every position, and the Netherlands. Drawing talent from Curaçao and Aruba, the Kingdom of the Netherlands boasts Xander Bogaerts (27), Andrelton Simmons (30), Didi Gregorius (30), Jurickson Profar (27) and Braves prospect Ozzie Albies (23), who was recently moved to second base in the minors—a position at which the Dutch already have Jonathan Schoop (27).

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United States of America

1B: Anthony Rizzo (30)
2B: Devon Travis (29)
SS: Corey Seager (26)
3B: Manny Machado (27)
C: Buster Posey (33)
RF: Bryce Harper (27)
CF: Mike Trout (28)
LF: Kris Bryant (28)
DH: Giancarlo Stanton (30)
SP: Clayton Kershaw (32)
CL: Zach Britton (32)

If major leaguers are allowed to participate in the Olympics, the U.S. team would be an embarrassment of riches. Not listed above are the likes of third basemen Nolan Arenado (29) and Josh Donaldson (34); first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (32); catcher Jonathan Lucroy (34); outfielder Mookie Betts (27); shortstop Brandon Crawford (33); relief aces Dellin Betances (32) and Andrew Miller (35); and rotation options that merely start with Noah Syndergaard (27), Chris Sale (31), Max Scherzer (35), Corey Kluber (34), Jake Arrieta (34), David Price (34) and top prospects Lucas Giolito and Alex Reyes (both 25 in 2020).

The most surprising name above is likely that of Travis, whom I placed at second base ahead of Dustin Pedroia (36), Brian Dozier (33), Daniel Murphy (35), Matt Carpenter (34) and Logan Forsythe (33). That's based on both his age and the fact that he has been a five-win player over the course of his first 131 major league games, hitting .302/.345/.485 (122 OPS+) with 18 home runs and above average defense over that span. Travis is that good at the age of 25, and he might be better at his peak.

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1B: Miguel Cabrera (37)
2B: Jose Altuve (30)
SS: Orlando Arcia (25)
3B: Yangervis Solarte (32)
C: Willson Contreras (28)
RF: Carlos Gonzalez (34)
CF: Ender Inciarte (29)
LF: Odubel Herrera (28)
DH: Rougned Odor (26)
SP: Carlos Carrasco (33)
CL: Felipe Rivero (28)

Venezuela has depth. Contreras is the choice at catcher over 30-year-old Salvador Perez and 32-year-old Wilson Ramos, Solarte slots in at at third over 36-year-old Martin Prado and 34-year-old Luis Valbuena, and Arcia is the shortstop over 31-year-old Elvis Andrus. In the rotation, Carrasco could be backed up by 34-year-old Felix Hernandez (who would have a ton of miles on his odometer), lefties Eduardo Rodriguez (27) and Martin Perez (29) and perhaps even late-blooming veteran Junior Guerra (35). In the bullpen, Rivero isn’t a closer yet, but he could be by 2020, with 32-year-old Hector Rondon (32) and perhaps even 38-year-old Francisco Rodriguez as potential setup men.

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