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What can top MLB prospects get out of the Olympics? One big thing, actually

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YOKOHAMA, Japan — Scott Kazmir – exactly two months removed from his last major league start and another five years removed from the bulk of his career and also he has long hair now – said that even without fans or famous big leaguers, the Olympic tournament taking place in Japan right now is great because of the ever-present sense of stakes.

“It almost feels like a World Series game, every single game, every single pitch,” he said.

It’s been 13 years since Kazmir appeared in a World Series game. But that’s gotta be the kind of experience you commit to memory, so he would know: Going for a gold medal over a maximum of six games is an adrenaline-fueled passion project. And for the young, someday-stars he’s playing alongside and against in Yokohama this week, that’s exactly the point.

Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has something very specific in mind that he hopes that Julio Rodriguez, currently No. 4 on MLB’s prospects list, gets out of his trip to Japan to play for the Dominican Republic team.

“What it feels like to play with the urgency required to win championships,” Dipoto said over text. “Tough thing to replicate in most other non-postseason environments.”

That’s about all the 20-year-old outfielder, who has a .319 batting average and .938 OPS through three minor league seasons, could be working on at this point in his meteoric rise from 16-year-old international signee to pressing promotion question facing Dipoto and the Mariners.

“I mean, sometimes it's not the level of play, it’s the emotional level you put into a game. I feel like that's the biggest thing I'm here [for],” Rodriguez said after Team DR’s loss to Team USA, sealing their spot in the bronze medal game.

“It’s not anything I haven’t seen before,” he said about the actual talent in a tournament devoid of guys either in or especially close to the majors, which explains why he’s hitting .400. “But the emotion you put into the games every single day is way different than playing in the minor leagues.”

“Playing for his country, high stakes, big stage,” Dipoto said, “it suits him.”

The level of competition at the Olympics isn't anything Julio Rodriguez hasn't seen before. But the level of intensity? That's a different story. (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)
The level of competition at the Olympics isn't anything Julio Rodriguez hasn't seen before. But the level of intensity? That's a different story. (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)

After hitting his third home run in four games with Team USA, Red Sox No. 1 prospect (29th overall) Triston Casas echoed that sentiment.

“I think the level of competition here, I wouldn't necessarily say it's better. But the atmosphere makes it better,” he said.

Meaning the must-win mentality that teams have to have here to avoid getting sent home.

“In affiliated ball,” Casas said, “sometimes you can get out of that mindset.”

The minor leagues are a slog of sophisticated baseball development and subpar everything else. Individual stats matter more than the box score, which can drain at-bats of their intensity, even if you have the talent. Here — at the literal Olympics instead of playing for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs — Casas knows his individual performance matters less than the end result. And he’s playing better than he did back home.

“At the end of the tournament, nobody's gonna remember really how many home runs I hit or how many runs I drove in, it's just whether we came up with that gold,” he said. “And I feel like I have my best games when I just think that way.”

Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom agreed that there are some learning moments that just Casas and company just won't find in the minors, no how much effort is committed to their growth. 

"Part of our responsibility in development is to try to simulate everything a player will experience at the highest level so that he’s prepared for it all when he arrives," Bloom said. "But one thing we can’t simulate is the pressure — what it feels like to compete when winning is all that matters and the stakes are so high. Now Triston is experiencing that in Tokyo. He’s playing for his country and every game matters so much. We all believe that’s going to help him and our other Olympians down the road."

Another Red Sox youngster, 24-year-old Jarren Duran, performed so well in the Olympic qualifiers that his opportunity to join Casas in Japan was replaced with a much shorter trip from Triple-A Worcester to Boston. And some organizations have been reluctant to let players participate. But Casas credited the Red Sox for encouraging (and, well, allowing) him to be here.

The Rays sent two minor league pitchers — although one will return home as a member of the Twins — to what GM Erik Neander called a “unique, once in a lifetime experience,” in a text to Yahoo Sports.

For Shane Baz, who has made one start so far in the tournament, the Olympics also offer something like a break in the middle of a season that many teams worried would be a struggle for pitchers. Ramping up from a lost or limited 2020 to a full season this summer was a source of concern. On Team USA, Baz, the Rays’ No. 5 prospect, throws fewer innings than he would with the Triple-A club — “Plenty of innings will be there for him when he gets back,” Neander said — while also reaping the intangible benefits.

“He’s around a lot of people that have accomplished so much in the game, and he’s competing alongside them while representing the United States,” Neander said. “So much to be gained from that.”

Rodriguez said the same for himself about playing with veteran teammates, some of whom were drafted before he was born. In the village, he rooms with Emilio Bonifacio. Next door is Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista.

“So I really get a lot of knowledge from them every single day,” he said.

Knowledge, and some well-deserved validation.

“Being honest, they like watching me play,” Rodriguez said. “Getting some veterans to recognize my game is really, really special for me.”

Teams trying to justify slow-playing their top prospects with stats like Rodriguez’s often talk about maturity and how the player needs more of it. The Mariners, in particular, deserve some skepticism on that subject. But if that’s the reason to let exciting Futures Game guys go abroad in the middle of the season to provide some pop and pep to rosters made up mostly of recently and somewhat begrudgingly retired veterans, we might as well enjoy it.

And Rodriguez himself said, “I've been growing a lot mentally here.

“Sometimes it's not the level of play, it’s the emotional level you put into a game.”

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