MLB Should Consider Moving World Baseball Classic to Safer Time of Year for Teams and Players

The concept of the World Baseball Classic is a good one. The execution of when it is played out could use some work.

Spring training is supposed to be an important time for baseball teams to gel together, get to know each other, learn how to play with and integrate new teammates, and get ready for the long grind of a 162-game regular season schedule to come in less than two months.

Every four years, the WBC robs teams and their players of that important time. Not only that, but it puts key members of a regular Major League Baseball roster at unnecessary risk of a preseason injury.

All teams across MLB lose important players for about two to three weeks. Games start the first week of March with players having to report to their respective national teams a little before that. A squad that gets to the WBC championship game will be playing until March 22 this year.

Obviously, it is the best teams, with stronger rosters in the league, that lose multiple good players. The Cleveland Indians, fresh off their run to the 2016 World Series, certainly fit the bill of a squad with plenty of talented players worthy of representing their countries in this year’s Classic. All told, 12 members of the Tribe organization (11 players) will be playing in next month’s WBC. It is part of the reason that Cleveland, like other teams, beefed up in the winter on players invited to camp on minor league deals.

Of those 12 WBC participants, four are integral parts to the Indians’ hopes of getting back to the Fall Classic and hopefully winning it this time around. They were one run away from their first championship since 1948 last November. Up to seven members of the roster, who will be gone from the team for a few weeks, could be counted on at some point this season.

The biggest names from the Cleveland organization who will be heading off to WBC play are star reliever Andrew Miller, 2016’s Tribe co-leader in home runs Carlos Santana, emerging star and Gold Glove winning shorstop Francisco Lindor, and catcher Roberto Perez, who opened a lot of eyes during last season’s postseason run. Losing any one of those guys to any sort of long-term injury would be detrimental to the Tribe’s postseason hopes.

Reliever Joseph Colon, third baseman Giovanny Urshela, and first baseman Chris Colabello will also be representing countries in the WBC. None of those three, barring injury, are expected to break camp as members of the Indians’ Opening Day roster. All three have Major League experience and could very well be called upon at some point this summer.

Those are seven players that the Indians would hate to see go down because they are playing semi-meaningful games sooner than they should.

Granted, those players would be playing in spring training games. However, there is a huge difference between that and the WBC. Spring training games are used to prepare for the season. While there is a certain amount of effort put into those games, they are a lot more laid back and less physical than a regular season game that counts.

As for the WBC, some of the game’s top stars likely view it as a step above an All-Star Game. Winning it can bring national pride to your country. It is still not worth going all out, risking injury and ruining your regular season. However, there a lot of guys playing in the WBC where that is all that they have to play for. While some countries like the United States and the Dominican Republic are loaded with MLBers, other countries have players who are not in the big leagues or are retired from their MLB playing days. They have players who take the games seriously and may not mind a collision at the plate or the base paths or pitching inside and possibly hitting a batter. For some players, THIS is their season every four years. It is their one chance to prove their baseball worth.

The odds of a preseason injury are higher in the WBC than a spring training game. Players are pushed and motivated to play longer innings, at a higher speed sooner than they normally would. In spring training, they are eased into playing full games or pitching multiple innings. In the WBC, the importance is raised.

In 2013 the Indians were a victim of a WBC injury when important reliever Vinnie Pestano was hurt. He had been lights out the previous couple years. The preseason elbow injury basically derailed his career.

That is a nightmare scenario for Indians fans to think about when it comes to someone like Miller, Santana, or Lindor. Losing any of those three could be a fatal blow, right out of the gates, to the Tribe’s season. Any team losing a key guy now would significantly hurt their chances of reaching any sort of expectations that they may have for the coming campaign.

This is why, while it serves as an important way to grow the game on an international level, the WBC is flawed. Pushing players to go harder than they should in the preseason can present so many issues. It may be time for baseball executives to consider other options. Admittedly, none are perfect, but are surely better than risking a significant preseason injury in a glorified exhibition game.

In all of these proposed scenarios, the WBC could still go off every four years, but would be at different times of years.

On possibility is, every four years, MLB could wipe out its All-Star Game. Instead of three or four days off for teams in the middle of summer, take 10-14 days off. The league may need to start the season a week early and end a week later in this case, but it would be better for the players. Instead of trying to work themselves into baseball shape during the WBC, players would be in midseason form.

The downfalls of this involve starting a season a week earlier, especially in cold weather cities like Cleveland, where it is already cold enough for some season openers. Ending the season a week later, when the World Series can already extend to November, can also be an issue. Also, losing a player to injury midseason would be worse than preseason, limiting a player’s time to get healthy in time for the stretch run/pennant race. Still, the odds of injury would have to go down when a guy is in peak condition over spring condition.

Perhaps, in this scenario, MLB could shorten the season by 14 games, taking it to the 148 it was once played at. Any money lost by the owners could probably be recouped, to a degree, with revenue from games, advertising, and TV rights.

A midseason classic would also garner more fan interest. In March, there is the NCAA March Madness tournament and the stretch run for the NBA for sports fans to pay attention to. In mid-summer, it really is only baseball. A time with no competition from other sports, when fans are into baseball mode, could make more financial sense for the WBC.

Another slot for the Classic could be after the season. Imagine following the World Series, that had the excitement of the one played between the Tribe and Cubs, with two or three more weeks of baseball. The games could be played in warmer climates, as they are now.

Yes, a lot of Major Leaguers will have been off for a month and may not like having their offseason cut short. However, even with a month off, players would still be in better baseball shape than they are in March when they are trying to rush their conditioning. Players who are not in the postseason would be able to start practicing with their national clubs around mid-October, giving them a couple of weeks off. You would probably lose players from teams who make deep postseason runs. However, you lose some of those guys any way. Indians ace Corey Kluber is not participating in this WBC partly because of the extra pitching he did in 2017 during the Tribe’s postseason journey.

The postseason scenario is not much different from NBA players playing in the Olympics. They play for their countries, on a grander stage, shortening their offseason. It brings interest to their game at a time that it does not have much going usually.

Clearly, playing the WBC at any time comes with flaws. In a sport that starts in mid-February and goes, for at least two teams, into early November, there is not a lot of down time. Still, taking players away from their teams and training regimen during an important preparation time can be more detrimental than any other time of year. The WBC does a lot for the sport and deserves a place in the game. However, other options for when the tournament could be played should be deeply explored. No one wants to see their season go off the tracks before the train even leaves the station.

Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

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