The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

MLB teams brace for their stars to leave for WBC

- By Chelsea Janes

NORTH PORT, Fla. — Brian Snitker says he’s not planning to obsess over the World Baseball Classic. The Atlanta Braves manager has his own team to worry about while Ronald Acuña Jr. and others are trying to win the seven games necessary to claim the title. He will not decide when or where Acuña hits in Venezuela’s lineup. He will not be there to wonder whether his star is taking too many swings or needs a day off.

Because for the next two weeks, Snitker and his colleagues around Major League Baseball will be watching somewhat helplessly as their stars get the rare chance to represent their countries, stuck hoping that playing competitiv­e games so soon will not disrupt those players’ routines. He and managers around Florida and Arizona will wave goodbye to those stars Monday, when players who have not yet reported to their countries’ camps do so, hoping all of them will be healthy when they return.

“I’ll keep up with them and see how they’re doing,” Snitker said Sunday, the last day he will write Acuña’s name into a spring training lineup until the electric outfielder - a key to Atlanta’s World Series hopes - returns. Sure, he talked to Venezuela Manager Omar López when López, the Houston Astros’ first base coach, was in town for a game last week. He will chat with Puerto Rico Manager Yadier Molina, who will be borrowing 2021 World Series hero Eddie Rosario, next week when the Braves host the Puerto Rican team in an exhibition game.

“We’re sending guys to people I really trust to take care of them,” Snitker said, and that probably does help alleviate concern.

But trusting that a manager will be careful with a player does not mean trusting that players will be careful with themselves - or that this fickle sport will not take its toll in early March just because the regular season does not start until the 30th. The easiest way to protect stars from injury is not to let them participat­e in the once-every-four-years tournament, though many consider it a once-in-a-lifetime honor.

For example, the Braves initially did not grant Acuña permission to play. He

missed their 2021 World Series run with a torn ACL. He limped into last year’s postseason with lingering knee pain. Better safe than sorry.

But Acuña wanted to play. He said so publicly all winter. So eventually, Atlanta let him. Teams need to keep their stars happy. Stars need to play in the still-young tournament to provide long-term interest and viability. But MLB teams need their stars to make the championsh­ip runs their team owners pay for, their fans invest in and on which everyone’s jobs depend.

“I’m always worried,” Los Angeles Angels General Manager Perry Minasian said last month, and how could he not be? Minasian will watch two of the best players in the world, two of the most carefully monitored and supervised bodies in baseball - two of the players most crucial to the success of his tenure in Anaheim - lead their countries. Future Hall of Famer Mike Trout, slowed by a back injury in recent seasons, will captain Team USA. And global fascinatio­n Shohei Ohtani, the Angels’ scheduled Opening Day starter, will lead Japan in its title defense.

“Guys can get hurt just as easy in a spring training game as they can in the WBC,” Minasian said. “To me, I trust our players.”

The problem with players, even the most cautious or conscienti­ous, is their competitiv­eness. Would Ohtani really pull himself from a start with a high pitch count in a big moment with Japan’s tournament fate on the line? Would Trout or Acuña or anyone be able to tell themselves not to dive for a ball in the outfield if a catch would save runs in an eliminatio­n game? And even if they could, would thinking

about being cautious have a deleteriou­s effect in itself ?

Baltimore Orioles and Team USA outfielder Cedric Mullins admitted he did not know exactly what the process would be like for managing workloads or handling soreness in the midst of a global tournament. He said conversati­ons with his manager, Brandon Hyde, and others left him thinking it will feel something like “a second spring training.”

“You just know you’re getting into competitiv­e games a lot sooner. I think the main priority if you’re doing that is health,” Mullins said. “I just have to make sure the body feels good again, make sure you’re not going too

crazy, because you have 162-plus after that.”

WBC managers almost certainly will be careful with their starting pitchers, knowing few will be built up to full strength. And those starters probably will have a clear sense of how much they can give, too. For example, while Clayton Kershaw eventually withdrew from Team USA because of insurance issues, he made clear that he never planned to pitch at max effort in the competitio­n.

“Everybody assumes I am ramping up early, but I’m not. I’m doing the exact same thing I usually do. That’s just an assumption,” Kershaw said when he reported to Los Angeles Dodgers

camp last month. He disputed the idea that pitching in competitiv­e games in mid-March should be cause for concern.

“Spring training games would have started [by then], too,” he noted.

Indeed, most WBC-bound players will have played in at least a handful of exhibition games by the time they arrive in their countries’ camps. Juan Soto, for one, will join the Dominicant­eam this week after going 8 for 11 with seven RBI in an electric first week of spring training for the star-studded San Diego Padres.

Soto is one of more than a dozen Padres headed to the tournament, and he is certainly not the

only star. Xander Bogaerts, Manny Machado, Yu Darvish, Nelson Cruz and others will participat­e, all probably in major roles. The Philadelph­ia Phillies will watch stars such as Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber and J.T. Realmuto play for Team USA. The entire New York Mets starting infield is scheduled to compete, too. Those three teams have invested more than $270 million each into their Opening Day rosters, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. One slip or bounce at the WBC could change their fates dramatical­ly. Of course, one slip or bounce in spring training could do the same.

“You’re always holding your breath a little bit during spring training anyway,” Padres General Manager A.J. Preller said. “We’ve had plenty of conversati­ons. [Pitching coach] Ruben Niebla talked to pitchers that are participat­ing to make sure they’re preparing from a workload standpoint and that they put themselves in the best possible position.”

The best possible position for one player is not the same for another. The best possible position for that player’s WBC team may be different from the best possible position for his MLB team. And the best possible position for the future of the tournament and even the future of the sport is having the best players in the world playing like it. Many of them cannot help it.

Within one inning of his last game before departing for the WBC, Acuña had tracked down a deep flyball in the outfield with a late leaping lunge, hustled out a close play at first in which a throw nearly beheaded him and slid hard into the path of a throw as he stole second base. The risks are ever-present. Showcasing their talents to the world, he and his fellow stars and their teams have decided, is a worthy reward.

 ?? Brynn Anderson/Associated Press ?? Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker and players during a spring training game on Feb. 25.
Brynn Anderson/Associated Press Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker and players during a spring training game on Feb. 25.
 ?? Gerald Herbert/Associated Press ?? Atlanta Braves Ronald Acuna Jr. is greeted in the dugout after driving in a run during the sixth inning of a spring training game against the Minnesota Twins Saturday in North Port, Fla.
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press Atlanta Braves Ronald Acuna Jr. is greeted in the dugout after driving in a run during the sixth inning of a spring training game against the Minnesota Twins Saturday in North Port, Fla.

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