So I've been thinking it over for the last hour, and it comes down to this.
Grady Sizemore's team isn't going anywhere — the Indians are long-shots to finish as high as third place in their own division and will fare no better in the Wild Card race. And Grady Sizemore himself isn't going anywhere — his youth, talent and long contract all made it extraordinarily unlikely he'd be traded by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, and beyond unthinkable after that date.
That being the case, is there really any good reason that Grady Sizemore wasn't competing in the Olympics?
LINEUP ROTATION BENCH BULLPEN 2B Brian Roberts Jake Peavy
IF Ian Kinsler Trevor Hoffman CF Grady Sizemore Cliff Lee
IF Brandon Phillips Brandon Morrow RF Josh Hamilton Tim Lincecum
OF Nick Markakis Mike Adams 1B Lance Berkman Justin Duchscherer
OF Nate McLouth Jeremy Affeldt DH Raul Ibañez C Kurt Suzuki Brad Ziegler 3B Ty Wigginton LF Brian Giles C Kelly Shoppach SS Michael Young
IOC President Jacques Rogge came right out and said it today; without major leaguers, there would be no point in bringing baseball back to the Olympics:
"We have Federer, Nadal in tennis, LeBron James in basketball. We have the best cyclists. Ronaldinho is here in football. We want these guys at the Games. We're not saying it should be an entire Major League team, but we want the top athletes here at the Olympics."
This raises the important question, "Who is Ronaldinho?" And also other questions, like:
- Do we really need to hold back from the Olympics every last one of the 1,200 players on the 40-man rosters of all thirty major league teams?
- Would it really be so bad if some players who aren't competing for the playoffs took a little break to compete in the Olympics, August 13-23?
- If there are sixty All-Stars every year, couldn't we put together a hell of a 23-man roster for Team USA, even while excluding players still competing for playoff spots?
- By the time the Olympics start in mid-August, don't we already know which players are still competing for playoff spots, and which ones clearly aren't?
Yes, there are logistical issues, contractual issues, lots of little details to work out. There's the messy matter of officially declaring a team's season lost before it's officially eliminated. There are incentive clauses in player contracts that would be affected, downstream roster and service time and options affected, and eligibility for batting and pitching titles. There are all the issues that already make the WBC messy.
I submit to you that these things could all be worked out without too much trouble. I submit to you that the players would want it. I submit to you that the owners wouldn't lose any significant amount of money, and they all stand to gain immensely by expanding the international marketing of their sport, their Major League, and their players. I submit to you that in a lost season, Indians fans would rather see Grady Sizemore trouncing the Netherlands in the Olympics for two weeks, even if it means that he'll play in only 140 Indians games that season.
So let's set some reasonable ground rules.
- Team selections take place on August 1, after the non-waiver trade deadline, and players report sometime August 5-10. All eight Olympic qualifying countries would be allowed to substitute major leaguers on their rosters, of course.
- Any team within 10 games of a playoff spot can exempt any or all of their players.
- Any team can exempt any player who's been on the DL this season.
- Any team can exempt one additional player just because they want to.
- Any player can exempt himself, of course.
- As an incentive to the teams to send players, any player sent to the Olympics can be traded without passing through waivers, within 24 hours of that player's final Olympic game.
Take a look at the standings as of the morning of August 1, and you'll find that fully twelve teams out of 30 were more than 10 games out of a playoff spot, and three others were also genuinely hopeless.
AL: Orioles, Royals, Indians, Rangers, A's, Mariners.
NL: Nationals, Reds, Astros, Pirates, Giants, Padres.
Also hopeless: Blue Jays, Braves, Rockies. (They can exempt their whole rosters, but we might just sweet-talk them out of Halladay and Holliday.)
Of course by August, Sabathia had already gone to the Brewers, and Bay to the Red Sox, and so on, but literally dozens of great players remained on non-contending teams. The Indians would have exempted Carmona due to his injuries and taken Paul Byrd as their one general exemption, since they would have expected to move him in a waiver deal, and other clubs would have made similar exemptions. Could we still have built an impressive Team USA out of those teams' healthy players? Hell, yes.
We'd need four starters for seven games in the preliminary round, and then two for the medal round. (You'd probably start your #1 guy in Games 1 and 5 and the Gold Medal game, but you'd probalby hold back your #2 guy to Game 4, so he could start the winner-take-all semifinal on full rest. The other games aren't as crucial.) Of course we'd need nine starting everyday players (including a DH), and I imagine we'd go with five bench players and five relievers — with absolutely no roster substitutions, better at least consider a third catcher.
Here's a quick-and-dirty take on what the Team USA roster might have looked like under these rules.
Rotation: Jake Peavy, Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum, Justin Duchscherer.
Wow, that wasn't even hard — we get the top three ERAs in the majors plus the reigning NL Cy Young, and that's assuming we can't get Halladay! If one or more of them get exempted, we can look at Guthrie, Greinke, Cain and Maholm — the Giants can't exempt both Lincecum and Cain — and we can still try to get the Blue Jays to send Halladay and/or Marcum. Other countries potentially get Volquez (Dominican), Felix (Venezuela) and Jair-Jurr (Netherlands).
Infield: Lance Berkman, Brian Roberts, Michael Young, Ty Wigginton.
What I really think is that in this situation, the hopeless Braves would do the right thing and send Chipper Jones to the Olympics, especially having already signaled a surrender in trading Teixeira. Without cheating by that assumption, however, we get Wigginton — and we could easily plug in Kinsler if we wanted to have an all-don't-mess-with infield.
Outfield & DH: Josh Hamilton, Grady Sizemore, Brian Giles, Raul Ibañez.
People ... Josh Hamilton is going to the Olympics. Josh Hamilton is going to the Olympics! Doesn't that one simple sentence make it abundantly clear that this totally would have worked? Granted, the pickings are a bit slim after Hamilton and Sizemore, but remember, we're going to try to talk the Rockies out of Holliday and Hawpe, too. Ibañez narrowly gets the call start at DH over Markakis, who would be more valuable coming off the bench.
Catchers: Kelly Shoppach, Kurt Suzuki.
Again, sticking strictly to the exemption rules leaves us without star power here, but Shoppach has slugged like crazy since assuming the starting job and was always a plus defender. Lots of good "maybes" for the roster here, as Ianetta and McCann play for teams on the fringe of a race and Doumit has been injured somewhat. Even if I got Doumit, I'd probably feel like I needed to carry three catchers in that case, where on the other hand, you're pretty safe carrying just two with the other guys. Suzuki was born in Hawaii, by the way.
Bench: Ian Kinsler, Brandon Phillips, Nick Markakis, Nate McLouth.
Kinsler, Phillips and Markakis are incredibly good options here, while McLouth is really just a placeholder; if we could get Chipper or Holliday or Hawpe, then he's out. You don't really need a backup center fielder, of course, with both Hamilton and Sizemore starting. Alex Gordon would be another good option here.
Bullpen: Trevor Hoffman, Brad Ziegler, Brandon Morrow, Jeremy Affeldt, Mike Adams.
Okay, I'm guilty of playing a lot of hot-hand here, but it's relievers, what else are you gonna do? Affeldt is your emergency starter. You'd rather take use a few major league starters as Olympic relievers, of course, as in the All-Star Game, but it might be harder to get the teams' cooperation for that. Kind of a Cinderella story for MIke Adams, by the way, and everyone knows about Ziegler.
For those keeping score, that's four Team USA members from the Padres; three each from the Athletics, Rangers and Indians; two each from the Astros, Mariners, Orioles, and Pirates; and one Giant. Out of the twelve teams named above who were ten-plus games out of the postseason as of August 1, the roster above draws from all but the Nationals and Royals, and many of those choices were borderline or arbitrary. Keep in mind, too, that this is only Team USA — no doubt a dozen or more players would have been sent to represent the Netherlands, South Korea, Canada and Japan, and if major leaguers had participated in qualifying rounds — e.g., Tejada and Mora playing for Venezuela and the Dominican — as much as half the field of eight teams might have been different.
I won't claim that this specific coulda-been Team USA roster is scientific or even particularly well chosen — based on talent alone, there probably should be a couple minor leaguers on there — but it's certainly a viable roster, and it doesn't use one player who spent August contributing to a playoff push. More to the point, it's got real star power — Hamilton and SIzemore are Sports Illustrated coverboys, and Team USA would be looking to start the leading AL Cy Young candidate in the semifinals and the reigning NL Cy Young winner in the Gold Medal Game. Team USA's closer would be the all-time leader in Saves, a slam-dunk Hall of Famer.
This is to say nothing of the biggest star MLB would be contributing — Ichiro, playing for Team Japan. I suspect this contingent of genuine major league talent, including quite a few legit stars, would satisfy the IOC, whose chief made a point of saying that they don't need every top player.
If that is indeed the case, the only question remaining is, who wouldn't want this?