Baseball Is Back in the Olympics (for Now)

After much anticipation, the US National Baseball Team is heading to the 2021 Olympic Games. Given the 13 years since baseball was last played in the Olympics, the lack of overlap between this roster and the last Games’ is no surprise. But that’s not to say the team is entirely without Olympic experience. Eddy Alvarez competed for the United States speed skating team at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, where he earned a silver medal in the 5000 meter relay. When he told reporters after those Games that he planned to hang up his skates in favor of pursuing a baseball career, it’s unlikely he did so knowing the decision would start him on a path back to the Olympics.

Far-fetched as it may have seemed back then, Alvarez was indeed one of 24 players named to represent the US in the six-team Olympic baseball tournament later this month. The US and the Dominican Republic both qualified in June, joining Japan, South Korea, Israel, and Mexico, all of which qualified over a year and a half ago, when the Games were still slated to take place in 2020 (just one of many ways in which the global pandemic has already shaped this year’s Games, a topic I’ll examine in greater depth next week). This will be the first time baseball is played at the Olympics since the 2008 Games in Beijing, after which the sport (along with softball) was removed from Olympic competition. The 2008 roster featured Double-A versions of Trevor Cahill and Dexter Fowler, a Single-A Jake Arrieta, and a soon-to-be-drafted college pitcher named Stephen Strasburg.

It’s been a while, to say the least.

Baseball’s inclusion this year is thanks to an update to IOC regulations that saw a shift from a sport-based to an event-based model of competition selection, allowing host cities to propose the inclusion of non-Olympic sports of particular national interest. It’s no surprise that baseball made the cut on Japan’s watch, but it also means this will be the last time it’s included in the Olympics for the foreseeable future, pending the announcement of future host cities (it’s already been nixed from the 2024 Games in Paris). In other words, this may be our last Olympic roster for quite some time. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at who will be representing the United States on the diamond in Tokyo.

As was often the case with past Olympic rosters, Team USA features several familiar names, including up-and-coming prospects as well as players from MLB’s recent past:

2021 US Olympic Baseball Roster
Player Position Org Level
Nick Allen INF Oakland A’s Double-A
Eddy Alvarez INF Miami Marlins Triple-A
Tyler Austin OF Yokohama NPB
Shane Baz RHP Tampa Bay Rays Triple-A
Anthony Carter RHP Saltillo MEX
Triston Casas INF Boston Red Sox Double-A
Brandon Dickson RHP St. Louis Cardinals Triple-A
Tim Federowicz C Los Angeles Dodgers Triple-A
Eric Filia OF Seattle Mariners Triple-A
Todd Frazier INF N/A N/A
Anthony Gose LHP Cleveland Triple-A
Edwin Jackson RHP N/A N/A
Scott Kazmir LHP San Francisco Giants Triple-A
Patrick Kivlehan OF/INF San Diego Padres Triple-A
Mark Kolozsvary C Cincinnati Reds Double-A
Jack López UTL Boston Red Sox Triple-A
Nick Martínez RHP Fukuoka NPB
Scott McGough RHP Tokyo NPB
David Robertson RHP N/A N/A
Joe Ryan RHP Tampa Bay Rays Triple-A
Ryder Ryan RHP Texas Rangers Triple-A
Bubba Starling OF Kansas City Royals Triple-A
Jamie Westbrook INF/OF Milwaukee Brewers Triple-A
Simeon Woods Richardson RHP Toronto Blue Jays Double-A

The 2021 roster includes two of our Top 100 Prospects in Triston Casas (No. 42) and Simeon Woods Richardson (No. 76). Over the past few weeks, Casas’ numbers have taken a bit of a slide, but his performance prior to that was enough to warrant an FV bump up to 55, which is higher than most 1B/DH types tend to inspire. That optimism is driven largely by his poise at the plate, which the Red Sox prospect recently discussed with David Laurila, and which Eric Longenhagen described thusly when he included Casas in his Daily Prospect Notes a few months ago: “[H]e presents you with literally every aspect of offensive ability that you could want: a sentient approach at the plate, including one with two strikes, power, and feel for the barrel.”

One of only a handful of players younger than Casas in Double-A is pitcher Simeon Woods Richardson, who doesn’t turn 21 until September. In his first start for the Blue Jays in spring training this year, the young righty impressed right away, with two hitless innings against the Yankees, including a three-pitch strikeout against Giancarlo Stanton.

His regular season got off to a hot start too: he issued 31 strikeouts in 19 innings over his first four starts for Double-A Dayton. His command has faltered from time to time, and what his four-pitch mix will look like against a pool of international hitters remains to be seen, but the personal importance of Woods Richardson’s visit to the Olympics is already evident. Despite his age, he has a well-documented appreciation for the Black athletes who paved the way for his participation in this year’s Summer Games.

Shane Baz hasn’t quite cracked the Top-100 list yet, but at No. 102, he’s poised to earn his spot soon. He started the year at Double-A, where he issued 49 strikeouts across 32.2 innings and only walked two batters (that equates to a 40.8% strikeout rate against a 1.7% walk rate). That early dominance earned him a promotion to Triple-A in early June, where he has continued to find success: in his first four starts, he’s already fanned 28 over 19 innings. His walks have increased at the higher level, but that’s likely a credit to the better patience displayed by Triple-A hitters rather than any real cause for concern for Baz (his walk rate is still only 8.1%). He’s been used as a starter this year, but historically his velocity has seen a 2-3 mph increase when he’s in the bullpen, which is how we project him and how he’ll likely fit on Team USA’s pitching staff.

Neither Baz’s Triple-A Durham teammate Joe Ryan nor A’s prospect Nick Allen are as close to Top-100 honors as Baz is, but they’re each on our prospect lists for their respective clubs. Both prospects show a lot of promise in very specific ways but also have significant hurdles to overcome on their way to the majors. Ryan (No. 18 on Tampa Bay’s list) has a unique arm slot and short levers that combine for rising action on his fastball resulting in a high whiff-rate but he hasn’t yet cultivated the secondary stuff to complement it in a way that will allow him to translate his minor league success into the big leagues. Allen (No. 5 on Oakland’s list) is often described as one of the best defensive shortstops in all of the minors but that praise is typically followed in short order by the caveat that he hasn’t shown an ability to hit enough to make his defense as valuable as it could be. That said, Allen hit a grand slam in Team USA’s game against Puerto Rico during the Olympic qualifiers, so perhaps his hitting will be better matched to the pitching he faces in Tokyo than it has been in his professional career so far.

Of course, prospects aren’t the only familiar names on the 2021 Olympic roster. In addition to minor leaguers and US citizens currently playing abroad, Team USA also features a number of well known former big leaguers, including three former All-Stars: Todd Frazier, David Robertson, and Edwin Jackson. Those three account for a combined 55.8 career WAR, and more than 33 of the 57-plus years of major league service time on the national squad. Before the team was contracted to its current 24-man Olympic roster earlier this month, the Team USA games in the qualifying tournaments included big-leaguers Matt Kemp, Jon Jay, Logan Forsythe, and Homer Bailey, as well as prospects Jarren Duran (No. 72 overall) and Matthew Liberatore (No. 118 overall). And that doesn’t even count the prospects and veterans representing other countries (more on them next week, too).

Since Olympic eligibility only requires that a player not be listed on a major league 40-man, the resulting roster inevitably brings together players at either the very beginning or the tail end of their major league careers, making for a unique blend of skills and experience. In a few years we may look back on these Games and reminisce about the days when Triston Casas and Simeon Wood Richardson were still prospects, or kick ourselves for not recognizing the untapped potential in one of the unranked minor leaguers on the team. But regardless of the roster construction, it’s exciting to be able to watch baseball at the Olympics again, fleeting as the experience may be.

Team USA’s first Olympic matchup will be against Team Israel on Friday, July 30, at 6 AM Eastern Time.





Tess is a contributor at FanGraphs. When she's not watching college or professional baseball, she works as a sports video editor, creating highlight reels for high school athletes. She can be found on Twitter at @tesstass.

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OrangeJoos
Member
OrangeJoos

Outside of 2018 Nick Allen has hit pretty well. He is currently hitting 330/388/492, in 2019 he hit 292/363/434. He hits a lot of doubles and triples and is already up to 6HR’s this season. He definitely can’t hit.

cmill20
Member
cmill20

Right? That he’s already surpassed his 2019 HR total in less than half the games, and is now adding to that pretty regularly is an encouraging and impressive indicator. Dude has 7 homers in real competitive play this summer if you count that qualifier granny. Not bad for a 5-9 SS with GG D…hitting .330…what are we missing here? Doesn’t EL love the little guys with pop?