Once upon a time, the finest amateur athletes in the world met every four years in the Olympics. For baseball, that meant Olympic games with players such as Southern California’s Mark McGwire, Michigan’s Barry Larkin and Jim Abbott and UCLA’s Troy Glaus.
Now, in USA Baseball’s bid to win the 2008 Olympic gold medal—the last Olympics with baseball on the slate of sports—manager Davey Johnson and general manager Bob Watson have decided to go back to the future, tabbing San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg for a spot on the Olympic team.
Strasburg, who pitched for USA Baseball’s college national team this summer, went 3-0, 1.33 for that club, striking out 40 and walking four in 27 innings. He beat Japan and Taiwan in a pair of starts during Haarlem Honkbal Week earlier this month, just continuing the mastery he showed this spring for coach Tony Gwynn’s Aztecs. As a sophomore at San Diego State, Strasburg established himself as the top prospect for the 2009 draft, going 8-3, 1.57 and posting a 133-16 strikeout-walk ledger in 97 innings. He allowed only one home run as he commanded a mid-to-high 90s fastball that regularly hit 99 mph and a power slider.
“Our reports from (Team USA college national general manager) Eric Campbell were very good. He was on our radar before this summer. He throws high 90s and he throws strikes. He pounds the strike zone awfully good and he was lights out in the tournament. He’s one of my starters,” Team USA manager Davey Johnson said.
Power arms have proven vital for Team USA in past international tournaments, including recent gold-medal victories in the 2007 World Cup and 2006 Olympic qualifier. Strasburg has the biggest arm on the roster but not the only one, as a quartet of young starters likely will join him in the rotation: Athletics farmhands Brett Anderson, a lefthander, and Trevor Cahill, a righthander, along with Orioles righthander Jake Arrieta and White Sox lefthander Clayton Richard. All four pitched well in Sunday’s Futures Game, as did reliever Casey Weathers (Rockies), who competes with Strasburg for the title of the team’s hardest thrower. He topped out at 98 mph in the Futures Game.
Johnson said that he plans to divide his bullpen into two sections. While the closer, which could be Weathers or Indians righthander Jeff Stevens, will pitch whenever needed, the rest of the bullpen will likely be divided into pitchers who are used every other day. Righthander Brandon Knight, a pitcher with experience pitching in Japan, will likely serve as a long reliever while also giving the bullpen some experience.
“That’s how I’ve always done it,” Johnson said. “Relievers are setup to pitch every other day. You want to give them a day’s rest. If you have a great (group) a and (group) b you always send a guy up there that is pretty fresh.”
Several other Futures Gamers made the cut, though the Olympic roster is not dominated by Futures Game participants as was anticipated. Shortsop Jason Donald (Phillies), outfielders Dexter Fowler (Rockies) and Matt LaPorta (Indians) and catchers Lou Marson (Phillies) and Taylor Teagarden (Rangers) all played Sunday at Yankee Stadium, as did lefthander Clayton Richard (White Sox).
Outfielder Colby Rasmus (Cardinals) and righthander Jeff Stevens (Indians) were members of the World Cup roster in the fall.
The lineup also features several Triple-A veterans with some big league experience, such as corner infielder Terry Tiffee (Dodgers), who’s hitting .393 to lead the Pacific Coast League; third baseman Mike Hessman (Tigers), whose 30 homers rank second in the minors; outfielder John Gall (Marlins), a veteran of the college national team from his college days at Stanford; and righhanders Mike Koplove (Dodgers) and Blaine Neal (Tigers).
With only 23 players named, Team USA still has one spot left open. General manager Bob Watson said that they hope to fill the final roster spot shortly. The roster doesn’t have to be officially finalized until July 22. And with trades and callups still on the horizon, it is possible that some of the players named today will not be headed to Beijing.
“The trading deadline is July 31,” Watson said. “Just like Matt was traded from Milwaukee to Cleveland, we have some players who might be included in one or more deals. We just hope the club who is getting the player will have the mentality to let us have him, like Cleveland has with Matt.”