Fernando Martinez and the Astros show why the World Baseball Classic still has so far to go

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Fernando Martinez stands as one of several players in the mix to make the Houston Astros’ outfield. But he has more up against him in that quest than just competition from Rick Ankiel, Justin Maxwell, J.D. Martinez and Brandon Barnes. He has up against him his participation in the World Baseball Classic, where he will play for Spain.

His general manager, Jeff Luhnow, admitted as much. From Brian McTaggart’s story at Astros.com:

“The big challenge is … a guy like Fernando Martinez, who’s trying to make our club, [being] gone for an extended period of time. I think that potentially hurts him, even if he does well in the Classic,” Luhnow said. “It hurts him because he’s not there with our coaches, being seen firsthand. It makes it a little bit more difficult. The fact he’s playing for Spain means he’s not going to be gone the whole month. Nothing against Spain, but they’re not likely to make it past the first round.”

I understand that we’re supposed to be all-in on the World Baseball Classic and that players who don’t take it seriously have the wrong attitude and are otherwise “idle heroes,”** but I’m sorry: if a general manager for a baseball team is saying that participating in it is going to have negative implications for you, you should not be playing in the WBC. If I’m Martinez’s agent I have him call the Spanish manager, say “smell you later,” and make sure my client’s butt is in Osceola County Stadium from the first day of Spring Training until the team breaks camp so as to give him the best chance to win a job.

As for what this says about the Classic itself, yes, I acknowledge that Martinez is a borderline major leaguer at best, and I acknowledge that Morosi’s point yesterday was that the big stars should be participating, not the Fernando Martinez’s of the world. But this little example is still telling with respect to the WBC’s true place in the baseball hierarchy and still explains why many big stars, quite understandably, choose not to participate.

For one thing, for Spain anyway, Fernando Martinez is a big star. He’s the best they can do in their outfield. And if the WBC is to become what Morosi and everyone who rah-rahs it wants it to be, every team has to put its best possible lineup out there. Watching all the American, Japanese, Korean, Cuban and Dominican superstars trounce the relatively empty rosters of other teams — which is what will happen if Jeff Luhnow’s sentiments are shared by GMs of other players like Martinez — will not turn this into the World Cup Part Deux, which is the ultimate aim Morosi and those who think like him about the WBC want it to be. It will keep it as a curious exhibition, best ignored until the late rounds at the most.

But more broadly, this little episode reveals that the teams and executives don’t value the WBC anywhere close to how they value the MLB season, even if they’re strongly encouraged to say they do by Major League Baseball and strongly wished to by WBC backers like Morosi. That has direct consequences for guys like Martinez, but you can’t tell me that superstars aren’t impacted by this too. They want to win in the MLB season and they want to be on the same page as their manager, their coaches and, yes, their front office.  No, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper won’t lose their jobs if they don’t play for Team USA, but it’s bleedin’ obvious that they have greater priorities and, if forced to be truthful, Jerry Dipoto and Mike Rizzo would prefer them to be in camp all spring rather than playing in the WBC.

It is not a lack of patriotism or a poor attitude that keeps all the superstars from playing in the WBC. It is the disconnect — the tremendous, tremendous gulf between the importance of the MLB season and the importance of the WBC — that keeps all the superstars from participating. And, contrary to what Morosi and other say, this gulf cannot be crossed merely by putting a nation’s colors on the uniform and simply asserting that it matters for flag and country.

**An earlier version of this post characterized Jon Paul Morosi’s criticism of players who do not participate in the WBC as one based on the players’ lack of patriotism. My reason for saying so was that it was my view, based on the entirety of his column, that he was, in fact, questioning players’ patriotism even if he did not intend to.  

In the past few hours Morosi and I have had an offline discussion in which he explained what he was getting at with yesterday’s column. Rather than lack of patriotism, he explained, he was criticizing the attitude of players who have an “insufficient perspective and awareness” of their obligations and the importance of the WBC.  While Morosi and I still likely disagree about all of this, I appreciate that questioning the patriotism of others is a serious charge and that, whatever my takeaway from Morosi’s column was, it was not his intention to do such a thing.

Padres may have more interest in Dallas Keuchel than Bryce Harper

Dallas Keuchel
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An interesting tidbit today from The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, who noted that ongoing talks between agent Scott Boras and the Padres have focused more on starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel than slugger Bryce Harper. Earlier this week, there were conflicting reports on the Padres’ level of interest in Harper — MLB Network’s Jon Heyman heard the club had not ruled out another big signing after getting Manny Machado, while Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune talked to multiple sources who believed otherwise — but any agreement between the two is looking unlikelier by the day.

As for Keuchel, Rosenthal cautions that a potential deal is still a “longshot,” especially as the team has other, cheaper options in mind. The 31-year-old southpaw turned down a qualifying offer from the Astros last year and is likely angling for something north of the five-year, $90 million contract extension he rejected from the club in 2016. He’s coming off of another solid performance in Houston, where he went 12-11 in 34 starts with a 3.74 ERA, 2.6 BB/9, 6.7 SO/9, and 3.6 fWAR through 204 2/3 innings in 2018.

While Keuchel has failed to garner substantial interest around the league this offseason, Heyman points out that the Phillies are looking to establish themselves as frontrunners for the lefty — and they’re far less likely to have hang-ups about his asking price, too.