Coming off of minor offseason elbow surgery, Luis Ayala was a key member of the Nationals bullpen heading into the 2006 season. He had gone 8-7 with a 2.66 ERA and a save in 68 appearances in the team’s first season in D.C. since relocating from Montreal and had cemented himself in an important setup role in front of closer Chad Cordero.
The Nationals wanted Ayala to spend all of spring training with them in Viera, Fla., gradually building up strength in his elbow under the watchful eyes of their medical staff and coaches. Instead, Ayala chose to participate in the inaugural edition of the World Baseball Classic, playing for his native Mexico in the tournament.
Ayala appeared in only two games in the WBC, but the results were devastating on a personal level. Pitching to Alex Rodriguez of the United States in a March 2006 game in Anaheim, Calif., the right-hander sustained an acute ligament sprain in his right elbow. Ayala underwent Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, missed the whole season and didn’t pitch again for the Nationals until June 2007.
Ayala’s is a cautionary tale that represents why general managers across the major leagues wince at the thought of their players performing in the WBC, which will be contested again this spring. While it can be argued that Ayala’s case is an extreme one - the Nats didn’t want him to pitch in the tournament, but couldn’t stop him because he wasn’t on the disabled list and would have been pitching in spring training anyway - there are more than a few worries across Major League Baseball as the next installment of the WBC takes shape.
First the good news: The Nationals won’t have their spring training games adversely affected, as some teams with heavy WBC participation did in the 2006 and 2009 tournaments. With most major league teams losing no more than four players to the tournament, which will be held from March 9-22, there won’t be a lack of starpower in Grapefruit League and Cactus League spring training games, as there was in the first two WBC years.
Only three players currently on the Nationals’ 40-man roster have committed to play in the WBC: right-hander Max Scherzer (U.S.), second baseman Daniel Murphy (U.S.) and left-hander Oliver Perez (Mexico). Minor league catcher Spencer Kieboom (Netherlands) and minor league infielder Adrian Sanchez (Colombia) were listed on preliminary WBC rosters released earlier this offseason. Sanchez, 26, who split last season between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse, has been in the Nationals organization since he was 16. Kieboom made his major league debut in 2016.
But the rosters aren’t yet final, and more players could be added (though teams are supposed to be limited to no more than four or five players off their 40-man rosters). As players drop out, replacements will be needed. That’s when players who are already immersed in their preseason preparations will face difficult - and time-sensitive - decisions.
Scherzer accepted an invitation from Team USA manager Jim Leyland, his former skipper with the Tigers, to pitch in the WBC, saying at Nats Winterfest, “I have so much respect for Jim Leyland, that when he asks me to play, you don’t say no.”
The Nationals will be able to closely monitor Scherzer’s early WBC workload, as the U.S. team plays its opening round games in Miami, about 80 minutes away from The Ballpark at the Palm Beaches, the new spring training complex in West Palm Beach that they will share with the Astros. With a couple of veteran major league pitching coaches on Leyland’s staff - Jeff Jones and Marcel Lachemann - and Leyland’s familiarity with him, the Nationals are comfortable with the idea of Scherzer participating in the WBC for the first time. Scherzer will likely start one of Team USA’s three games in Miami, against either Columbia, Canada or the Dominican Republic.
But Scherzer will be with the Nats for only about three weeks before reporting to Team USA, and once he’s there, the Nationals will be relying on someone else’s common sense and handling. If Scherzer gradually ramps up his innings and pitches - just as he would against Grapefruit League competition - there should be no problem. But if patriotism gets in the way of process, the Nationals ace could be thrown off his training regimen.
Coming off his second Cy Young Award, Scherzer is eager to play against the best international competition baseball has to offer. He could be the best pitcher on Team USA and is looking forward to the tournament.
“I’ve seen different games and videos where the fans are going crazy, especially for the Latin American countries,” he said. “It seems like those fans are crazy out there. Seems like an environment that I want to pitch in.”
Scherzer, 32, won’t be the only marquee member of the Nationals playing for Team USA, even though outfielder Bryce Harper declined to participate. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has said he won’t stand in the way of any player wanting to participate in the WBC, but it’s clear that he and manager Dusty Baker would prefer to have their team working together in spring training, where close attention can be paid to innings limits, pitch counts and making sure that minor injuries don’t mushroom into something more serious.
Perez, 35, spent a week away from the Nats last spring as Mexico participated in WBC qualifying play. Perez had faced only 10 batters before leaving camp in March, about the same as a normal spring training. There’s obviously a comfort level in having a veteran reliever participate in the WBC. But no one on South Capitol Street wants to see Perez overused.
Murphy is the latest addition to Team USA, and the Nationals will want to carefully monitor how he reacts in baseball action before the WBC after being hampered over the final two weeks of the 2016 regular season with a slow-healing upper left leg injury. Leg strength is critical to Murphy’s game, especially his swing, which generates power from his core and lower torso. We’ll see in mid-February how diligent he’s been in his offseason workouts. But there are other practical concerns surrounding his absence for up to two weeks. Murphy, who will be playing in his first WBC, will miss time playing alongside new starting shortstop Trea Turner, and his work with Team USA will likely mean more spring training game reps at second base for Wilmer Difo, who is positioned to make the team as a reserve infielder if the Nationals don’t sign a veteran to handle that role.
Kieboom might actually benefit from playing in the WBC. As the fourth catcher on the organizational depth chart behind Derek Norris, Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino, Kieboom could get at-bats and playing time that wouldn’t be available to him in Nats camp. Kieboom, 25, could also gain experience in quickly learning to work with unfamiliar pitchers. Last spring, in his first camp with the Nationals, Kieboom played in only six games and batted 11 times.
The Nats are relying on veterans like Scherzer, Murphy and Perez to self-monitor and to quickly report any problems or injuries, no matter how minor they may seem. While MLB wants the WBC to succeed, none of its teams want to lose anyone to an injury that could have been prevented. The stakes are just too high.
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