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US National Baseball Team Plays Tune-up Game for the Olympics in North Carolina

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The Rays Minor League Baseball Road Trip through North Carolina gets some unexpected additions: The Olympics!

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Baseball was one of the sporting events planned to take place in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. That is, the XXXII (thirty-second) Olympiad, which was set to take place in Tokyo, Japan in July/August 2020. However, it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, Tokyo 2020 as those Olympic Games are still known is now schedule to start later this month.

The sport of baseball was first officially included as a part of the Olympic Program in 1992. However, baseball had not been an event of the Olympics Games since 2008, but was schedule to return in 2020. During that period of years, Team USA qualified for each Olympiad except 2004 and won a number of Olympic Metals—Bronze Metals in 1996 (Atlanta, USA) and 2008 (Beijing, China), and the Gold Medal in 2000 (Sydney, Australia).

Only six teams are permitted to play in the 2020 Olympic baseball tournament.

To participate in the Olympic Games, a country’s baseball team must play in and win a qualification tournament against other teams from its region of the world. That qualification tournament for the America’s was held in Florida from May 31, 2021 through June 5, 2021 and Team USA went 4 wins, 0 losses to gain entry into the Olympics.

The Tokyo 2020 games baseball tournament will be played at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium and Yokohama Baseball Stadium and starts on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. The other five teams that will join Team USA in the event are from the countries of Dominican Republic, Israel, Japan, Mexico, and South Korea.

USA Baseball

USA Baseball, which is located in Durham, North Carolina and has its training facility in Cary, NC, is the national governing body for organized baseball in the United States. In that capacity, one of USA Baseball’s many responsibilities is to form the rosters and train the teams for all international baseball competitions. On July 2, 2021 they announced the roster of the United States National Baseball Team that will represent the USA in the Tokyo 2020 games.

In preparation for their appearance in the Olympiad at Tokyo, USA Baseball’s United States National Baseball Team played a three game exhibition series in North Carolina from Sunday July 18th through Tuesday July 20th.

Games one and three were played at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, NC, but game 2 on Monday July 19th was played at Durham Bulls Athletic Park—the home stadium of the Tampa Bay Rays AAA affiliate in the Triple-A East League, the Durham Bulls.

The photo above shows the main entrance to USA Baseball’s Main Training Complex. I attended Games 1 at that USA Baseball complex and 2 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park and will highlight those games in posts here, on DRaysBay.

United States National Baseball Team—Player Qualifications and Team Roster

The makeup of the roster of the United States National Baseball Team is quite interesting. Players that have played Major League Baseball in the past and even those that are currently playing Minor League Baseball can qualify for the team.

The criteria for a Major Leaguer to qualify is that he must be either retired or an unsigned free agent. On the other hand, any Minor League player that is not a member the 40-man roster of the Major League affiliate of the Professional Development League club for which he plays qualifies for the team. However, players that are on their team’s 40-man roster can be temporarily removed by the Major League club; made inactive by their Minor League team; and activated by the United States.

As mentioned earlier, USA Baseball announced the players that they selected as members of the 2021 United States National Baseball Team roster in early June.

That roster consists of twenty four players—twelve pitchers and twelve field player. It is made up with players that have just played at the Minor League level. Next, a group of players that played in the minors in the past; already have made their Major League debut; but only played in the minors in 2021. Then, a few players that have extensive MLB careers and either played in the minors or majors in 2021, or are retired.

Finally, a couple of them played for international teams this year. Since everyone on the United States National Baseball Team’s roster has played some form of professional baseball, the team is also known as the USA Baseball Professional Team.

Pitchers on the 2021 United States National Baseball Team Roster

The table above lists each of the pitchers on the 2021 United States National Baseball Team.

Note that for each of those twelve players the table first gives his current age and then identifies if he is a right or left hand pitcher, hits from the right of left side of the plate, and the total number of seasons of Minor League ball he had played. The content of the next five columns tell whether or not he played Minor League ball, in the majors, or with an international team during the first half of the 2021 season.

Finally, for those that have played in the majors, the table gives the date on which he made his Major League debut, which MLB club he played for that day; and the total number of years played in the majors.

A detailed review of the table shows that the current pitching staff of the United States National Baseball Team contains four players that have only played in the minors. They are players 1 through 4 in the table—Shane Baz through Simeon Woods Richardson.

Note that pitchers Shane Baz and Joe Ryan are both currently listed as members the Durham Bulls (DUR) roster. In fact, Baz is currently are ranked as the MLB #5 prospects in the Tampa Bay Rays Minor League organization. The table also shows that they are 22 and 25 years old, respectively, both right hand pitchers, and that in 2021 Baz is playing his fourth season in the minors, while Ryan his third.

The caveat here is that Joe Ryan would not be a Durham Bulls player for much longer, having been dealt to the Minnesota Twins yesterday as part of the acquisition of Nelson Cruz.

The next three pitchers in the table (#5 Brandon Dickson (RHP) through #7 Scott Kazmir (LHP) have played in the minors in 2021, but had made their Major League debut in a much earlier year. Kazmir is a little exception. He pitched briefly with the San Francisco Giants through June 4th, but was then sent to their AAA affiliate in the AAA West League, the Sacramento River Cats (SAC).

On SAC’s website, he is still shown as a member of their roster, but not as a member of the Giants 40 man-roster. During his 13 seasons in the majors, Kazmir pitched almost exclusively as a starter and has a career 108W:97L record in 299 starts and 2 relief appearances.

Scott Kazmir delivering a pitch in a game at the USA Baseball Training Complex.

Scott Kazmir also has a connection to the Tampa Bay Rays and Durham Bulls.

After playing in the New York Mets Minor League system, he was traded to the Rays on July 30, 2004, played briefly with the Montgomery Biscuits (Southern League, AA), and then made his Major League debut with Tampa Bay on August 23, 2004 in an away game versus the Seattle Mariners. That day Kazmir started; threw 5 innings of shutout ball; and won the first game of his Major League career.

Scott Kazmir went on to pitch his first six seasons (2004-2009) in the majors with the Rays and along the way made single game rehab appearances with the Durham Bulls in both 2008 and 2009. Those two outings with Durham where starts. He threw five and six shutout innings in those game and went 1W:0L with the Bulls.

Next up are two players that did not play professional ball in 2021 and are free agents—right hand pitchers #8 Edwin Jackson and #9 David Robertson. Finally, the last three pitchers, #10 Anthony Carter through #12 Nick Martinez, played in a Foreign League in 2021. Carter played for Saraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican League (MEX), while the other two, Martinez and Scott McGough, played for teams of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in Japan—the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in its Pacific League and Tokyo Yakult Swallows in the Central League, respectively.

It is also interesting that those that have currently only played in the minors range in age from 20 to 26 years old. The youngest in right hander Simeon Woods Richardson, who is the MLB #4 prospect of the Toronto Blue Jays and played AA ball this season with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in the Double-A Northeast League (AA NE). On the other hand, those players listed in the table that have played in the majors are all 30 or more years old. The two oldest are Scott Kazmir and Edwin Jackson, who are both 37. Jackson played the most seasons of Major League ball. During a seventeen season career, he played for thirteen different Major League clubs, including three seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays (2006 through 2008). According to Baseball-Reference.com, he played his last Major League game in 2019.

Joe Ryan on the mound at Durham Bulls Athletic Park
Courtesy of or Photo by Paxton Rembis/Durham Bulls

Among the seven pitchers listed in the table that have played in the minors this season, Joe Ryan has had the best 2021 season.

Ryan was a regular starter for the Durham Bulls. At the point he transitioned to Team USA, Ryan was a leader on their pitching staff. His pitching record was 4W:3L in 10 starts and 1 relief appearance. However, he led all qualifying pitchers on the Bulls staff in strikeouts (70), earned run average (.357), and walks plus hits per inning pitched (0.79). But, Joe Ryan was also a Triple-A East League pitching leader. He ranked #1 among all qualifying AAA-East pitchers in WHIP, #2 in SO, and #4 in ERA.

Field Players on the 2021 United States National Baseball Team Roster

The table here provides the same information for the twelve field players that are members of United States National Baseball Team’s roster.

The characteristics of this group of player are quite similar to those identified for the pitching staff. Note that again all of those that have not yet played in the majors are again in their twenties, while in this case most, not all, of those that have played at the Major League level are in their thirties. The two exceptions are #9 center fielder Bubba Starling and #12 first baseman Tyler Austin. They are 28 and 29 years old, respectively.

Six of the twelve, #1 Nick Allen (SS) through #6 Jamie Westbrook (2B), have not yet made their Major League debut. Note that three of them were playing at the AA class and the other three at AAA when assigned to the United States National Baseball Team. The youngest is left hand hitting, third baseman Triston Casas—twenty-one years old. Casas was a first round pick of the Boston Red Sox out of high school in the 2018 draft. As shown in the table, in 2021 he was playing for the Red Sox double-A team in the AA Northeast League (AA NE), the Portland Sea Dogs (POR) and that it was his third season playing in the minors.

Note that the other six players had all made their Major League debut in prior years. However, three of them #7 second baseman Eddy Alvarez through #9 center fielder Bubba Starling had not yet played in the majors during the 2021 season. Among those six players, Alvarez has had the shortest stint in the majors. As shown in the table, he made his debut with the Miami Marlins in 2020 at the age of 30 and has only played in the major during that one season. Note that this season he played for Miami’s triple-A team in the AAA East League—the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.

On the other hand, #10 right fielder Patrick Kivlehan played both with the San Diego Padres and their team in the AAA-West League—the El Paso Chihuahuas.

Next, is #11Todd Frazier (1B), who is the oldest among the group of field players—35 years old. As shown in the table, during 2021 he only played at the Major League level with the Pittsburgh Pirates. However, he also has played the most seasons in the majors—eleven. This was his first year playing with the Pirates.

On MLB.com, Frazier’s profile says that he elected free agency on May 13, 2021 and then on May 28th was activated for the USA Olympic baseball team. Finally, the #12 field player first baseman Tyler Austin was a free agent after the 2019 season and played in Japan for the Yokohama Bay Stars in the Central League of Nippon Professional Baseball in both 2020 and 2021. Baseball-Reference.com indicates that Austin played his last MLB game on September 29, 2019.

Patrick Kivlehan connecting with a pitch in the Team USA game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

The player that played at the AAA class this season that had the best first half season is right fielder Patrick Kivlehan. As mentioned earlier, this season Kivlehan played both with the San Diego Padres and their team in the Triple-A West League, the El Paso Chihuahuas.

However, his stint in the majors was quite short—just five games. Kivlehan had an exceptional first half season with the Chihuahuas. He typically hit in the number 3 or #4 slot in their batting order and prior to transitioning to the United States National Baseball Team roster ranked #1 among all qualifying players on the team in six of the twelve standard batting statistic categories on El Paso’s official website: runs scored (33), hits (54), home runs (17), runs batted in (49), slugging percentage (.589), and on-base plus slugging percentage (.911).

In fact, three of those stats ranked him in the top 10 among all qualifying players in the Triple-A West League—#3 in both HR and RBI and #9 in SLG.


Walter Triebel is the author of “Road-Tripping the South Atlantic League: A Guide to the Teams, Ballparks and Cities” published by McFarland. It is available for purchase on their website as well as Amazon. Walter previously spent 15 years as an adjunct faculty member at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and has led an extensive career as a textbook and reference book author. You can follow him on twitter here.