Olympic baseball gets a huge talent-pool boost

February 28th, 2020

The upcoming Olympic baseball competition received a significant boost late this week, with an agreement to allow 40-man roster players who are not in the Major Leagues to represent their countries in the Tokyo Games and in two qualifying tournaments preceding it.

Short of halting the Major League Baseball schedule in order to allow 26-man roster players to compete, the deal among MLB, the MLB Players Association and World Baseball Softball Confederation ensures the next-highest competitive tier of players will be involved.

Practically speaking, national federations will have access to high-level prospects and MLB veterans who were optioned to Triple-A in the late stages of Spring Training.

According to a source, the agreement will be in effect for the Americas qualifying tournament that will be held March 22-26 in Arizona, the intercontinental qualifier in early April in Taiwan, and the Tokyo Games themselves.

Most immediately, the development improves the talent pool available for national federations arriving at a critical stage in the selection process for the Americas qualifier. That group includes the United States, which was denied an Olympic bid when it suffered a walk-off loss to Mexico in the bronze medal game of the WBSC Premier12 in November.

Thus, Team USA has the option of requesting that top prospects like MacKenzie Gore (Padres), Jo Adell (Angels), Casey Mize (Tigers), Nate Pearson (Blue Jays), Joey Bart (Giants), Andrew Vaughn (White Sox), Dylan Carlson (Cardinals), and Matt Manning (Tigers) join their roster for the qualifier, as none of them are expected to make Opening Day rosters. To be clear, teams are not obligated to allow these players to participate in the qualifier or the Olympics themselves (should Team USA qualify), but the fact that they are eligible adds much intrigue to this year’s events. Back in 2000, a U.S. team led by then-prospect Ben Sheets won gold after upsetting Cuba in the finals.

Adell and Vaughn competed for a youthful Team USA at the Premier12, where four Americans -- Bobby Dalbec (Red Sox), Brent Rooker (Twins), Erik Kratz (Yankees) and Brandon Dickson (Orix Buffaloes, Nippon Professional Baseball) -- were named to the All-World Team. After the disappointing fourth-place finish, some observers indicated that the next U.S. roster ought to prioritize experience -- even if that meant including more veteran Minor League players than emerging prospects.

The eight-team Americas qualifier will yield one bid, following three games in pool play and a single-elimination, four-team super round. The U.S. is in Group A along with the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Nicaragua. Group B features Cuba, Venezuela, Canada and Colombia. Games will be held at two MLB Spring Training sites, Surprise Stadium and Diablo Stadium in Tempe.

The expanded talent pool could help Team USA’s competition as much as -- or perhaps more than -- the U.S. itself, because USA Baseball has the greatest number of players (40-man or non-40-man) from which to choose. Rays shortstop Wander Franco, the No. 1 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com, is eligible to play for the Dominican Republic, as is Braves outfielder Cristian Pache (No. 13).

Canada stands to benefit greatly from the agreement, as Canadian right-hander Cal Quantrill and right fielder Josh Naylor are on the Padres’ 40-man roster but not assured of Opening Day roster spots. Phillies right-hander Nick Pivetta could be another option for Team Canada if he doesn’t win the fifth-starter’s job in Philadelphia.

The runner-up and third-place teams in the Americas qualifier will travel to Taichung, Taiwan, to determine the final bid to Tokyo. The six-team tournament there will take place April 1-5 and also include China, Chinese Taipei, Australia, and the Netherlands.

Japan, South Korea, Mexico and Israel have claimed four of the six bids to the Tokyo 2020 baseball tournament. Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korea Baseball Organization have arranged for mid-summer breaks in their 2020 schedules, so players of all nationalities in those leagues are expected to be available to their national teams.