YOKOHAMA, Japan – At 7:30 am on Joe Ryan’s first day in Japan, the Team USA pitcher was getting used to everything about those weird Olympics as he and his teammates sat down for breakfast at Athletes Village. Soon he was facing something far more unusual.
As a member of the Tampa Bay Rays, he sat down for breakfast. He got up as a Minnesota twin.
“It’s kind of weird,” says Ryan. “The return will definitely be different from what I expected.”
What’s stranger is that he’s not even alone in this strange situation. A week later, Team USA’s pitcher, Simeon Woods Richardson, was also traded – from the Toronto Blue Jays to the Twins, who managed to win two Olympians within a few days.
Ryan was America’s main thrower en route to Saturday’s championship game against Japan. It also reflects the dynamism of the gold medal showdown. Japan has all stars. In the US there are players who were traded against all-stars.
The American baseball roster is a collection of players who have one thing in common: They don’t currently play in the major league. You may be one day. They may have been major leagues before. But they are not there now. Because of this, a US win against a team made up of most of the best players Japan has to offer would be a phenomenal surprise.
Unlike MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball – Japan’s top professional league – has cut its season for the Olympics, so the Japanese line-up has most of the best players in the country to offer. The team consists of the reigning MVP of the Central League, pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano and Power Bats like second baseman Tetsuto Yamada and 21-year-old third baseman Munetaka Murakami. It has been widely considered to be the most talented team in the field, even though Japan misses the world’s towering Japanese baseball player for busy destroying MLB: Shohei Ohtani.
With no access to MLB players, Americans had to compile a list of everyone else that was available. There are players like Todd Frazier, a longtime Big League player who was dropped by the Pirates in May, and Scott Kazmir, a 37-year-old who played in the big leagues for more than a decade and made a brief return to the Bigs in 2021 five years away. American Designated Hitter Tyler Austin, who hits .429 for the US, feels at home in Japan because he plays for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars, the NPB team that normally plays at Yokohama Stadium. The team’s second baseman, Eddy Alvarez, is a former Olympic speed skater who learned baseball and made his way to the majors when the Miami Marlins had a Covid-19 outbreak in 2020.
The rest are pretty much like Joe Ryan.
“We have a group that is both seasoned players who have played in the major leagues and young players on their way to the top,” said manager Mike Scioscia. “We also like our offspring.”
While Team USA could not poach Jacob deGrom or Mike Trout, it could still use players who were not in the 40-man roster of the MLB teams. Triston Casas is a highly respected first-base contender for the Red Sox. Shane Baz could anchor the rotation of the Tampa Bay Rays at some point in the near future. Ryan had been Baz’s teammate for Rays’ triple-A daughter the Durham Bulls for two weeks.
Ryan and Baz actually had a hunch that they could be traded halfway across the world. The Rays are one of the best baseball teams out there, and the trading deadline happened randomly during the Olympics. They are young and talented, which makes them a valuable trading chip a team can use to attract an established big league player.
The first message that surfaced was who had acquired the Rays: star slugger Nelson Cruz. Then Ryan and Baz turned to each other and said, “Well, it’s probably one of us.”
Then they checked their phones. Ryan had a missed call from a Tampa Bay executive. He knew that meant he was now a Minnesota twin.
He didn’t let himself be deterred from being the most loyal in the American rotation. He has an earned run average of 1.74 over 10 ⅓ innings, five frames more than any other American has thrown in the tournament to date. In the team’s opening game, he allowed only one run in six innings against Israel. In the semi-final against the South Koreans, Scioscia gave him the ball again and didn’t regret it when Ryan only allowed one run again.
Ryan is now the twins’ tenth best candidate according to FanGraphs, and it is testament to his potential that Minnesota rated him highly enough to consider him an important part of the package when they abandoned Cruz. Nor is he the only Team USA pitcher who has experience of being traded as a prospect. Baz and Woods Richardson were already familiar with the drill.
In 2018, Baz was part of the package that went to the Rays when the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Chris Archer, a then-top-notch pitcher. In 2019, the New York Mets Woods sent Richardson to the Toronto Blue Jays for Marcus Stroman. Then Woods Richardson, who had been in Double-A and has not yet served in those Olympics, was dealt to Minnesota for pitcher Jose Berrios last week.
It was so blurry for Ryan that he could hardly think about finding a new home after his return from Japan. He said he was already losing money every month due to the notoriously poor salary bracket in the minor division and that he had to figure out what to do with all of his furniture while adding a new apartment.
“It’s going to be difficult,” he says.
His current plan is to fly back to Durham, pack his apartment with his girlfriend, and then drive from Durham to Minnesota with all of her belongings. He doesn’t really know any other details, but says that members of the Twins’ front office kept saying the same thing to him when he asked about the logistics:
“Win the gold – we’ll talk when you come back.”
Write to Andrew Beaton at [email protected]
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