Injuries can happen anywhere, but the WBC is easy to blame
Hanley Ramirez's thumb injury could have happened just as easily in a spring training game, but you can bet some will blame it on the World Baseball Classic. For all the talk about star players shunning the WBC, the bigger problem the tournament faces is that many major-league teams quietly encourage players not to participate.
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jim Leyland isn't alone in his opinion. He's just more honest than most.
"The only thing I enjoyed [about the World Baseball Classic] was that when the game was over, none of my guys had gotten hurt," the Tigers manager said Thursday. "[The WBC] served its purpose. I know the commissioner believes in it, and I support that 100 percent. But I can't sit and lie and say I got excited about it."
Leyland's players did come back healthy. Not all others did.
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The Dodgers found out Thursday that shortstop Hanley Ramirez will need surgery on the right thumb he hurt in Tuesday's WBC championship game, and that he could be out for eight weeks.
Ramirez could just as easily have hurt his thumb if he had played in a spring training game on Tuesday. Just days earlier, another National League West infielder, third baseman Chase Headley of the Padres, was lost for 4-6 weeks, after he hurt his thumb in a spring game.
Headley's injury obviously won't have teams looking to keep their players out of spring training games, but you can bet that teams will remember Ramirez's injury when their players want to play in the WBC the next time around.
More than you realize, they do want to play.
The dirty little secret of the WBC is that the biggest problem in getting baseball's biggest stars involved isn't in convincing the players themselves to participate. The biggest issue is keeping their teams from discouraging them.
No one involved in the process of building Team USA would admit it on the record, but multiple officials confirmed privately that getting team officials on board with the tournament has been a much tougher challenge than getting players excited about it. Teams aren't supposed to stand in the way, unless a player has had a previous injury, but the fact is that many do.
It's not just true for Team USA. People involved in the WBC point to Felix Hernandez's decision not to pitch for Venezuela, and say that the Mariners strongly suggested that their ace shouldn't pitch. Team Dominican Republic general manager Moises Alou spoke during the tournament about being denied permission to put some stars on his team (he wouldn't say who).
Justin Verlander of Leyland's Tigers was one of the most notable Team USA absences, but Verlander said Thursday night that the decision not to pitch in the WBC was his alone, and that the Tigers didn't try to influence him one way or the other.
Verlander repeated Thursday what he had said in February, that he would like to pitch for Team USA, but that the timing was wrong this year. Because the Tigers went to the World Series last October, Verlander started his preparation for the season a little later and felt that he wouldn't be ready to pitch in a competitive game when the WBC began in early March.
He feels just as strongly about that now, especially since he has spent the last couple of starts tuning up his mechanics and working to get a better feel for his slider.
Verlander allowed three home runs in 6 2/3 innings Thursday night against the Astros, a result he was able to dismiss in part because of the wind but even more because it came in a game that didn't count. He threw 84 pitches, the only number that really mattered because it will help get him ready to throw 100 or more in his April 1 opening day start in Minnesota.
"I'll probably be ready for 110 on opening day," he said.
"Sure," said Verlander, who routinely is allowed to throw more pitches than any starter in the big leagues. "Maybe 120 the next start, 130 the start after . . . by the end of the season, I'll be throwing 700 pitches."
Verlander got through his spring training start healthy, and you can be sure that Leyland enjoyed that.
In that one way, spring training is exactly like the WBC.