Manfred insists MLB is committed to World Baseball Classic beyond 2017

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news conference. (AP)

LAKELAND, Fla. – Commissioner Rob Manfred dismissed speculation that the upcoming World Baseball Classic will be the final one, insisting that Major League Baseball’s commitment to the event remains strong.

During a brief interview Thursday following a spring training media day availability at the Detroit Tigers’ refurbished facility, he reiterated that the 16-team tournament still has untapped potential and underlined his desire to build it into a premier sporting event.

“I am always open to the idea – whether it’s timing, structure – that we could make the WBC or anything else better, but the idea that this will be the last WBC is not one I’d be supportive of,” said Manfred. “I devoted an entire one-per-club session a couple of owners’ meetings ago to the WBC and owner support for it. I had unanimous support among the owners that this is an important initiative for us. You may get some wishful thinking from baseball operations people who’d rather keep their guys in camp, but I don’t see it at the ownership level.”

Since its debut in 2006, the Classic has faced resistance from club executives, managers, coaches and player-development staff reluctant to see their players take part in the event. Concerns about injury and the inability to keep direct track of players have prompted that, leading to subtle pressure against participation.

Other players have been reluctant to buy in to the concept as well, leading to often depleted rosters.

Canada’s entry in the 2017 edition has been hit hard by key players like Joey Votto, Michael Saunders, James Paxton, Jameson Taillon and Brett Lawrie declining to play for varying reasons, while Russell Martin was forced to pull out when his contract couldn’t be insured.

On the flip side, the United States fared much better in attracting top players – including superstars Buster Posey, Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and Giancarlo Stanton – than in previous editions. Still, the Americans won’t have Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, two of the game’s brightest stars.

“I think the rosters are clearly better this time than they’ve ever been in the past. We made progress on that. We need to continue to make progress on it,” said Manfred. “Owner commitment – it’s why I spent so much time with the owners on this topic – is crucial to making sure that baseball operations people make the best players available to play in the event. It’s hard to make a judgment looking into the event, we have to see how everybody plays, we’ll see how it sells, and we’ll look at it when we’re done.”

The timing of the event is another primary challenge, as one past participant described playing games of such intensity so early in the spring as “brutal.”

That hasn’t detracted from the quality of play, as Classic games tend to be highly entertaining, even with limitations on pitch counts, pitcher appearances and the roster complications. Players tend to enjoy the experience, but questions remain as to what time of year it might face less resistance.

“We realize the shortcomings of an early-spring event from a timing perspective,” Manfred acknowledged. “We have had extensive conversations about timing alternatives, and we will continue to discuss those alternatives going forward.”

The Classic runs March 6-22 and Manfred plans to attend the first-round pools based in Tokyo, Japan and Seoul, South Korea, where he said the tournament enjoys “tremendous support and interest.”

Canada begins play March 9 against the Dominican Republic at Miami in a pool that also includes the United States and Colombia.