The United States should be the favorite in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
The U.S. has the world’s best professional league, has the world’s deepest baseball tradition and the largest population of baseball-playing countries (sorry, China, you don’t count as a baseball country yet). And the 27-man provisional roster should make Team USA the favorite. Manager Joe Torre has the stature to convince a strong lineup of major leaguers to commit to play for their country.
The roster he recruited relies heavily on Team USA veterans and has 10 players age 30 or over, with the average age of 29. It’s one that should compete for the WBC title, with an offense featuring premium righthanded power in corner outfielders Giancarlo Stanton and Ryan Braun, who combined for 78 home runs last season; and third baseman David Wright, center fielder Adam Jones and second baseman Brandon Phillips, who combine excellent defense with their offensive prowess.
Lefthanded-hitting catcher Joe Mauer and a trio of switch-hitters in first baseman Mark Teixeira, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and versatile Ben Zobrist, lend balance to the lineup and credence to the belief that the U.S. lineup should be the most formidable in the WBC.
Braun, Wright, Rollins and fourth outfielder Shane Victorino played for the 2009 U.S. WBC entry, while Mauer, Teixeira and reserve Willie Bloomquist played for U.S. amateur teams. Zobrist played for USA Baseball as a minor leaguer in the 2005 World Cup club.
There’s little doubt the U.S. lineup is a stout one. Armchair general managers might tweak the team here or there—there’s no Buster Posey or Mike Trout, no Andrew McCutchen or Prince Fielder. But this lineup should be plenty good enough.
It’s on the mound where the U.S. lacks star power the most, and USA Baseball is used to that by now. Power pitching is always in demand wherever baseball is played; major league teams have a hard time finding enough, so it’s natural that USA Baseball would have a tough time procuring that kind of player. It’s what made the 2000 Olympic team stand out, with righthanders Ben Sheets, Roy Oswalt and Jon Rauch in the rotation in Sydney. They carried Team USA, with Sheets emerging as the hero with a complete-game shutout of Cuba in the gold-medal game.
Now it’s almost impossible to imagine major league organizations allowing premium power arms such as that trio—the reigning Minor League Player of the Year in Rauch and two pitchers who went on to earn a combined 257 big league wins—pitching for Team USA. As Team USA president/CEO Paul Seiler said, “At every level, (power pitching) is the most highly valued asset and the hardest to access. That’s true at this level, with minor leaguers, colleges, even high schools. On paper, there’s a group we want, and we never end up where we want.”
Dickey As U.S. Ace?
Team USA’s pitching staff is not the first run of starters the United States could provide, or the second, or the third. R.A. Dickey, the 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner, highlights the staff, with the other starters including lefthander Derek Holland and righthanders Kris Medlen and Ryan Voglesong. These are above-average big league starters. But there’s no David Price, Stephen Strasburg, Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw.
Dickey has a unique USA Baseball history, having played for the 1996 Olympic team as an amateur. Seiler said he was anxious to see if the 38-year-old Blue Jays knuckleballer, who has gone through so much in his long, winding career, still draws motivation from the ’96 team, which was upset in the semifinals in Atlanta by Japan and won the bronze by beating Nicaragua.
With strict WBC pitch limits in place, Torre will not lean too heavily on his starters anyway, and the American bullpen should be strong, led by closers Craig Kimbrel and Chris Perez, setup men Vinnie Pestano, Mitch Boggs, Steve Cishek and Luke Gregersen, and lefties Tim Collins and Glenn Perkins. There will be a 28th player added to the roster, likely another starter.
These are the players who said yes to Torre—13 of whom have played for USA Baseball before—and the desire to play matters as much as talent for an opt-in tournament such as this.
“Having talked to all of these players I sense a great deal of excitement about representing the United States in the World Baseball Classic,” Torre said in a statement. “I share their excitement and look forward to managing this talented group in March.”
The WBC needs a strong U.S. presence, to get fans to care about the event and, perhaps more importantly, to get players to care about it. Team USA didn’t even make the semifinals in 2006, then lost in the semis in 2009. This roster isn’t a lock to reach San Francisco for the semifinals and finals in 2013, but it has the offense to make a deep run.
What it needs is an ace, as Japan had in its two Classic victories in Daisuke Matsuzaka in ’06 and Yu Darvish in ’09. And like it had in 2000 with Ben Sheets.
Pitchers: Jeremy Affeldt (Giants); Heath Bell (Diamondbacks); Mitchell Boggs (Cardinals); Steve Cishek (Marlins); Tim Collins (Royals); R.A. Dickey (Blue Jays); Luke Gregerson (Padres); Derek Holland (Rangers); Craig Kimbrel (Braves); Kris Medlen (Braves); Chris Perez (Indians); Glen Perkins (Twins); Vinnie Pestano (Indians); Ryan Vogelsong (Giants)
Catchers: J.P. Arencibia (Blue Jays); Jonathan Lucroy (Brewers); Joe Mauer (Twins).
Infielders: Willie Bloomquist (Diamondbacks); Brandon Phillips (Reds); Jimmy Rollins (Phillies); Mark Teixeira (Yankees); David Wright (Mets); Ben Zobrist (Rays).
Outfielders: Ryan Braun (Brewers); Adam Jones (Orioles); Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins); Shane Victorino (Red Sox)