Ex-MLB stars lead Team USA into Olympics

Who will take home the gold?

July 26th, 2021
Art by Tom Forget

With the summer Olympics underway and the baseball tournament about to begin, we understand that you might be a bit behind. After all, this is the first time baseball will be played at the Olympics since the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Perhaps you've been too caught up in Major League action, staying up each night to watch every Shohei Ohtani at-bat and pitching appearance.

Whatever the reason, it's now time to get ready for the glory of international competition. So, we've put together a quick primer with everything you need to know to get ready for the Olympic action.

When: July 27 -- 11 p.m. ET

The first opening round game will take place on Tuesday night, with the Dominican Republic taking on Japan. The coverage resumes Thursday at 6 a.m. ET when Israel plays South Korea. The gold medal game will take place on Aug. 7 at 6 a.m. ET.

Where: All the games -- except for the opening contest -- will be played at the Yokohama Baseball Stadium, where the BayStars of the NPB play. The opening match will be held at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium in Tokyo.

The games will be available to stream and on demand in the United States through NBCOlympics.com with a cable login, and the gold medal game will air on USA Network. Jason Benetti, the voice of the White Sox, will be calling these games and he's very excited -- even if he has to take a break from his usual gig. He doesn't mind the extra work, though.

"I wouldn't call it a challenge as much as I'd call it a thrill," Benetti wrote in an email to MLB.com. "We have the chance to bring new baseball players to so many casual fans. The grand fun of doing these games is introducing new, marvelous people into the lives of so many. Meeting new heroes never gets old."

Benetti has a deep love for the sport -- which you can't miss if you watch his White Sox or ESPN broadcasts -- and that extends to the Olympics.

"After having done quite a bit of KBO for ESPN over the past year, I can tell you that there's true enlightenment in learning about baseball through other cultures," Benetti said. "My partner, Eduardo Perez, has experienced baseball across the globe and is a brilliant baseball mind. Watching Salvador Perez and Shohei Ohtani and Pete Alonso and Juan Soto share the language of baseball at the Home Run Derby was captivating. There's a deep love for the game of baseball and honor for the game in so many nations. It's a beautiful display of how similar we all are."

Format: Six teams qualified for the Olympics and they are broken into two groups.

Group A features host Japan, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, while Group B features the United States, Israel, and South Korea. The teams will play within their group to determine seeding before every team enters the knockout stage on July 31. Notable teams who failed to make the cut this year include the Netherlands, Venezuela, Italy, Cuba, Chinese Taipei and Canada.

South Korea is the reigning champion, winning gold the last time baseball was held at the Olympics. Sadly, baseball and softball will once again be removed from the Olympics following these games.

You'll also notice that there will be a 12-second pitch clock -- something that has been used in the Minor Leagues and may come to the Majors in the near future. Benetti doesn't expect most fans to notice it, though.

"I've seen it come into vogue in the Minor Leagues and players quickly became acclimated to it. I know baseball is a timeless game, but I do believe the pitch clock serves the audience very well," Benetti wrote.

Now then, let's take a closer look at the teams. Note: Major League players and those on 40-man rosters are ineligible to play. That's why you'll see mostly younger prospects and older veterans.

Group A

Dominican Republic

WBSC World Ranking: No. 7

2008 Olympics: Did not qualify.

Notes: The Dominican Republic was the last team to qualify -- defeating the Netherlands and Venezuela to secure the sixth and final spot at this Olympics. While it may have just snuck in, there is reason to be hopeful. After all, the Dominican Republic always has plenty of high-profile players to watch and this year will be no different.

The names you're probably most familiar with are Melky Cabrera and José Bautista, who will be looking to deliver another epic bat-flip-worthy dinger to his collection. They are probably the most famous names, but the two didn't do much in the qualifiers, combining to go 8-for-33 with one home run.

Other former big leaguers include Emilio Bonifacio, Erick Mejia, and Juan Francisco. Francisco can still crush dingers with the best of them, including this one he smashed and stared at in the Dominican winter league:

Prospect hounds are probably most excited for the No. 5 prospect in the sport, Julio Rodriguez. Loaded with tools that drive scouts wild, Rodriguez was recently promoted to Double-A, where he posted a .910 OPS in just 14 games. He dominated in international play, too, hitting .458/.480/.708 in 24 at-bats during the qualifier.


WBSC World Ranking: No. 1

2008 Olympics: Lost in semifinals against South Korea

Notes: Japan's roster -- even without MLB players like Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani -- is perhaps the most loaded. So, it's no surprise that they enter the tournament with the No. 1 ranking. The team is filled with stars -- even if they may not be household names in America yet. MLB fans are probably most familiar with Masahiro Tanaka, who returned to the NPB this year after winning 78 games with a 3.74 ERA across seven seasons with the Yankees. Though he's the lone remaining player from the 2008 game on Japan's roster, he's far from the only dominating hurler. Japan's pitching is deep.

Yūdai Ōno won the Sawamura Award -- Japan's version of the Cy Young -- last season and Tomoyuki Sugano has won the award twice.

Japan has plenty of skill in the infield, too. Tetsuto Yamada is a power-hitting second baseman, who has hit at least 24 home runs every season since 2014 save for last year's shortened campaign. Over at the corner, 21-year-old sensation Munetaka Murakami is ready to make his mark. Murakami has smashed 108 home runs in his brief career and is surely on MLB radars should he be posted in the offseason.

With home country advantage and a talented roster, no one will be too surprised if they take home the gold.


WBSC World Ranking: No. 5

2008 Olympics: Did not qualify

Notes: There are plenty of familiar faces on Mexico's roster, with the seemingly unstoppable Óliver Pérez leading the way. Pérez pitched in five games for Cleveland this year before being designated for assignment, and since then he's been striking out 13.1 batters per nine innings while pitching for the Toros de Tijuana in the Mexican League.

He'll be joined by 39-year-old Adrián González, who hadn't played professionally since 2018 until joining up with Guadalajara to prepare for the Olympics. He posted a .340/.412/.531 batting line, so it appears the time off didn't mess with his swing much. Fellow former MLBers include Danny Espinosa, Brandon Laird, Sammy Solis, Fernando Solis and others.

While Mexico is not considered a favorite to win the tournament, it is a veteran team that can easily cause teams some problems. Proof of that was the 2019 WBSC Premier12, when it upset the USA for the bronze medal and qualified for the Olympics.

Group B


WBSC World Ranking: No. 24

Notes: Israel is the underdog of the competition and have upset expectations even to be here. It's the first time Israel has qualified for a team sport since the soccer team reached the semifinals in 1976. Still, there's enough talent on the roster that it could end up busting some brackets -- Israel beat out the Netherlands through a tiebreaker at qualifiers to reach the tournament.

Second baseman Ian Kinsler is undoubtedly the biggest name on the roster, finishing one hit shy of 2,000 before retiring from the Majors in 2019. He's joined by fellow former big leaguers Ryan Lavarnway, Jeremy Bleich, Jon Moscot, Zack Weiss, Josh Zeid, Twitter comedian Ty Kelly and Danny Valencia. Valencia played nine big league seasons and was a star at qualifiers, blasting three home runs and driving in nine in the round-robin tournament.

Though those are the most prominent names, one of the reasons to watch Israel is for the stories featuring players like Shlomo Lipetz. Born in Tel Aviv, the 42-year-old has an entirely different day job: booking musical acts for City Winery in New York.

South Korea

WBSC World Ranking: No. 3

2008 Olympics: Won gold

Notes: South Korea has a strong team and could easily wind up winning another gold, but its roster construction is a little perplexing. The team seemed to value youth, selecting eight rookies to the roster, while leaving out 39-year-old former big leaguers Shin-Soo Choo and Seung-Hwan Oh. The biggest name is Hyun-Soo Kim, who played two seasons in the Majors, and won gold with Korea in 2008 and was named MVP at the 2015 WBSC Premier12 global tournament. Third baseman Jae-Gyun Hwang, who played briefly with the Giants, is also on the roster.

Much of the lineup is highlighted by young KBO stars ready to make a grand entrance on the global stage. Twenty-one-year-old Baek Ho-Kang is hitting .395 with 10 home runs in the KBO this year, while 19-year-old starting pitcher Eui-lee Lee has a 3.89 ERA but can struggle with control.

Korea probably has the best catching duo in the tourney, too, with 18-year-old Min-Ho Kang and veteran backstop Eui-Ji Yang. The 33-year-old Jang is hitting .348 with 20 home runs this season -- phenomenal numbers at any position, but unbelievable stats for a catcher.

While Korea may not win gold, it has a talented roster that looks ready to dominate in the future as the young players develop. However, Benetti believes the path to gold still goes through South Korea and called it the favorites.


WBSC World Ranking: No. 4

2008 Olympics: Won bronze

Notes: Though the USA is missing many of its best players because of the 40-man roster exclusion, there is still plenty of reason to be excited about the USA's chances.

Todd Frazier joined up after being released by the Pirates this season and he hit .400 with two home runs in 16 at-bats during qualifying. Scott Kazmir made it to the roster, too, after pitching seven innings with the Giants following his return to the Majors after being out for five seasons.

Fourteen big leaguers are on the roster, so there will be lots of time to remember some guys, including David Robertson, Anthony Gose and Edwin Jackson, who can now add Tokyo to his list of favorite baseball cities.

There are some intriguing prospects to watch for, with the Red Sox's Triston Casas (No. 30 overall), the Blue Jays' Simeon Woods Richardson (No. 68) and the Rays' Shane Baz (No. 71) leading the way.

Of course, the best story to follow will be none other than the Marlins' Eddy Alvarez. Alvarez medaled as a speedskater at the 2014 Olympics and is now making his Olympic baseball debut. You can follow all the action through his eyes as he's keeping a diary for MLB.com.