SARASOTA, FLA. — Everyone knows why Major League Baseball is so high on the World Baseball Classic, and just about everyone working in the industry knows the important talking points about the social and economic benefits of globalizing the sport.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter obviously knows them and starts just about every conversation about the upcoming tournament with the same preamble.
"People smarter than me are trying to grow the game globally," Showalter said again on Monday. "It's a reminder that we're not in this alone. When we say these are the best players in the world, it is the world."
That's true, of course, and there is certainly a lot to be said about the beauty of international competition and cooperation, which we'll get to see when the tournament begins on March 6. But that doesn't mean there aren't fair questions about the impact of the event on spring training and on the preparation of key players for the upcoming major league playoff races.
Showalter talks a lot about the internal clock that governs each player over the eight months that begin at the start of training camp and continue through the course of the regular season and beyond. There are examples of that rhythm being disrupted in previous World Baseball Classics – Orioles reliever Pedro Strop's regular season struggle in 2013 is often cited – so the coaching staff has been in contact with each of the WBC teams to ascertain how the Orioles participants will be handled.
"There are some unique challenges this spring that we don't normally have," Showalter said. "I understand the return we're trying to get. The biggest thing probably is the clock that changes. Players are creatures of habit and routine, and every team is completely different because they're going to come back from this, and we're going to have to slow down and start the clock again."
The subject was particularly relevant on Monday because young second baseman Jonathan Schoop was playing in his final pre-WBC exhibition game against the New York Yankees at Ed Smith Stadium. He's heading off to join the Netherlands for the first round, which takes place in South Korea, so he'll have to spend about 20 hours on an airplane each way, and is leaving much earlier than the other WBC-bound Orioles.
"It's really exciting," Schoop said, "not so much for the flight – it's a long flight – but it's exciting for us to play together. Since I was little, I was playing against those guys – [Jurickson] Profar, Didi Gregorius, [Andrelton] Simmons, and with my brother there, too. It's going to be fun for the country. I'm looking forward to it."
Netherlands coach Hensley Meulens, who played for Showalter in New York in the early 1990s, has kept in contact with his old manager and kept him apprised of the way he plans to use Schoop, who celebrated his pending departure with a long home run in the third inning of Monday's spring training game.
"Hensley asked me about any limitations on Jon," Showalter said. "I asked him what he was planning on doing with him. He's planning on rotating those guys around. I really appreciated the call. We're proud of Jon. I know it's a big moment for him. He takes a lot of pride in that."
There is probably more risk involved in the accelerated early training schedule for the pitchers, so pitching coach Roger McDowell has been in contact with USA pitching coach Jeff Jones to discuss Mychal Givens and Mexico coach Rigo Beltran to check on the plans for new Orioles left-hander Vidal Nuno. The Orioles are most concerned about the proper handling of Givens because of his quick emergence as a solid major league setup guy and his relatively little experience as a pitcher.
"I think the way they've got it set up for the pitchers, there's a real protection there," Showalter said. "I think it's the position players as much as the pitchers. ... There'll be another conversation if they get through the first round because it kind of escalates a little bit.
Though the biggest concern is a serious injury that cuts into the regular season, Showalter said there's nothing he can say to Schoop on the way out of town that will make him any safer once the WBC games begin. Telling a player to play carefully might lead to the opposite of the desired effect.
"If you play with caution, you're more likely to get hurt," Showalter said. "If he just plays in the way he normally does, he's a very durable player, knock on wood. It's an emotional game for them. This means a lot to them. I'm not going to take that away from them, but I'd rather him play full out than be cautious. That's where a lot of the injuries come in. If he just follows what he's been doing, he should be OK.
The internal clock concept doesn't apply only to individual members of the team. The departure of six key players also figures to have an impact on the competitive ebb and flow of spring training for the entire club.
"Sure it does," Showalter said. "Your perfect spring training you start off sharp and everything, and then you always hit a lull in camp and then you finish up strong. We had the opposite of that last year. That's the perfect world, but because of the WBC, there's not that rhythm to spring training, where at this point we want to do this, at this point we want to have this behind us, at this point we want to start coming back to things so next year we'll be able to retain them."
When it comes to the WBC and spring training, things are tough all over. The Orioles are sending only a major league relief pitcher and a bullpen bubble guy along with Schoop and fellow position players Adam Jones, Manny Machado and Welington Castillo. Imagine how Showalter might feel if he were managing the Seattle Mariners, who have 11 possible WBC participants and have committed most of their projected starting rotation – superstar Felix Hernandez, Drew Smyly and former Oriole Yovani Gallardo.
The Detroit Tigers had an MLB-high 15 players on the original list of WBC participants released three weeks ago, though some are minor leaguers and a couple of major league pitchers are in the "designated pitcher pool" that makes them available to join teams that advance beyond the first round.