Andrew Vaughn is one of the top prospects in baseball, but does not know if he will be part of Team USA if it qualifies for the 2020 Summer Games. Photo courtesy of USA Baseball
Feb. 11 (UPI) -- The U.S. baseball team might not qualify for the 2020 Summer Games because Major League Baseball most likely will refuse to let its best players compete in the Olympics.
Baseball and softball are returning to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. Baseball competition is set for Tokyo between July 29 and Aug. 8.
While USA Baseball can use free agents, the U.S. team -- composed of prospects and a few veterans -- has yet to qualify for the Summer Games.
The team missed its first chance to qualify by losing to Mexico in extra innings in the WBSC Premier12 tournament in Tokyo during November. But it will get one or maybe two more shots.
Team USA will be among eight squads playing in another qualifier in March in Arizona, trying to earn a spot in the six-team Olympic field. Mexico, Japan, Korea and Israel have clinched the right to play at the Games.
Whoever wins the Arizona tournament will go to the Olympics, while the second- and third-place finishers will battle in Taiwan during April for the final Olympic spot.
Also in the mix in Arizona will be the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela, Canada and Colombia.
MLB shuns participation in the Games by its players because franchises fear diminished attendance and potential injuries to key players during the Olympics, which coincides with the U.S. professional baseball season.
Star players sometimes feel the same way, particularly about avoiding injuries that could affect their entire season or even their careers.
No official word
MLB hasn't said officially that players on the 40-man rosters for its 30 teams will not be eligible to participate in this year's Olympics, but that has been the rule in the past. The architects of the current Team USA squad anticipate that will be the rule again in Tokyo.
"I have a free agent list now, but that will change daily up to spring training," USA Baseball national team general manager Eric Campbell said.
MLB franchises still can sign players and declare them ineligible for the Olympics, making the U.S. team of today look completely different when the Games start. Campbell described the status of his roster as a "holding pattern."
Team USA catcher and 10-year MLB veteran Erik Kratz recently signed a Minor League Baseball contract with the New York Yankees. He wants to focus on cracking the big league roster, but still is preparing for Japan.
"I have to stay ready for qualifying and eventually be ready for the Olympics. I hope I'm still going to be able to do it, but it's not up to me," Kratz said.
MLB and the MLB Players Association did not respond to several requests for comment regarding future player participation.
About half of the U.S. team from the last qualifier in November will be ineligible for the next one in March as a result of being signed by MLB teams or because of injuries. The roster turnover gives teammates just a few days to practice together before taking the field.
"You can't look too far ahead, but it's definitely something I would consider a disadvantage as far as building a team and team camaraderie," Kratz said.
Kratz said a friend received his first promotion to the major leagues two days before the 2008 Olympics, making him ineligible to represent the United States. That friend was sent down to the minors a week later and would have been eligible -- except that the Olympics already had begun.
While focusing on qualifying for the Olympics, USA Baseball is tracking star free agents. Players have mixed feelings because they want to represent the United States in Japan, but they'd also like to get snapped up by a major league team.
"It's truly up in the air," Team USA's Andrew Vaughn, one of the Chicago White Sox's top prospects, said about his status on the team. "I really don't have a clue yet. I would obviously love to play in the Olympics. There is no doubt about that."
While Team USA's goal is winning, MLB franchises scout players from Olympic qualifiers they might consider for their rosters. This conundrum means a player's performance helps and hurts USA Baseball's prospects of Olympic success since contributions to the U.S. effort can help the team advance or result in a talented player being signed by a big league team and being forced off the roster.
"It's such a great development tool," Kratz said. "I would encourage any organization with any player they want to have an impact on a big league team [to participate]. Playing international baseball is the best way to learn how to win. Ultimately, that's what I assume all the big league teams want to do."
Team USA catcher Erik Kratz, 39, was named to the All-World Team after hitting .381 with two home runs in 21 at-bats during November Olympic qualifiers. Photo courtesy of USA Baseball
Despite the tight loss to Mexico, Team USA players aren't focused on recruiting star free agents to help win a slot in the next qualifying round.
"We are going to try and win the games. That's our strategy," Kratz said.
Baseball is excluded from the 2024 Olympics, but could return at the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles due to popularity of the sport in the United States.
"Playing in the Olympics is something that's an incredible honor and opportunity," Kratz said. "I don't know of anybody who wouldn't be willing to do it. If you opened it up to guys on a 40-man roster, the team we could put together would be incredible. It would be really good for baseball."
Baseball's lack of star participation not only weakens Team USA, but also the entire Olympic field. More than 250 players from 20 countries outside of the United States were on MLB opening-day rosters in 2019.
Japan will halt play in its Nippon Professional Baseball League during the Olympics, helping the host country field a strong squad. That's something MLB has been unwilling to do, unlike the National Hockey League, which has suspended play to allow players to compete in the Olympics.
"There is no way Japan wanted to host an Olympics without baseball. That's their sport," Campbell said. "The local host will have a great influence. We think the same thing will happen in 2028 with Los Angeles."
The World Baseball Classic could be another obstacle for the Olympics. The international tournament is a joint venture between MLB and its players association. The tournament takes place during spring training every four years.
"If Major League Baseball didn't own the WBC, I think they would allow players to play," Kratz said. "But it's tough. It's not free to stop your season.
"But what it would do for the Olympic competition would be incredible. [MLB] started the WBC, and I think that is part of the driving force of not sending big league players or even Minor League 40-man roster guys."
Campbell doesn't see the World Baseball Classic a roadblock, but rather as a barometer for the interest level of MLB players representing their home countries.
"I think the World Baseball Classic shows year in and year out how much players want to play for their country," Campbell. "If a player agrees to play in the World Baseball Classic, that's not going to dilute his stance of playing in the Olympics.
"Contractually, he might not be able to play, but his love for playing in the uniform isn't going to change."