Much like the 2004 Olympic men’s basketball team, the 2006 United States World Baseball Classic team got a wake up call. Both teams were loaded with talent, but both teams came up short on the international stage.
The 2008 Olympic basketball team won gold medals in Beijing and this year’s WBC team is hoping for the same feeling of redemption.
"I think United States is the team to beat," US manager Davey Johnson said. "We came in a couple years ago not fully cognizant on the competition all over the globe and how prepared they would be coming into this, but we’re ready to play and I don’t think that will be an issue again. What happened a couple years ago sticks in the minds of a couple guys and they don’t want that to happen again. They’re all pumped up and will be ready to play."
This year’s team features six holdovers from the inaugural 2006 squad—pitchers Brian Fuentes, Joe Nathan, Jake Peavy, Scot Shields and infielders Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones.
"I think the word was out that we weren’t prepared and we weren’t taking it seriously (in 2006)," Johnson said. "The guys that I talked to—both from last time and the new guys on this year’s team—‚are fired up."
But the road to redemption won’t be easy. Teams from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are loaded with talent and it’s hard to match the preparation of teams like Japan, Korea and Cuba.
Things for the US could also be more difficult from the get-go. In 2006, the United States’ opening pool included Canada, Mexico and South Africa. This year, the pool includes Canada, Venezuela and Italy.
Johnson will have some shuffling to do when writing out the lineup card. The infield includes shortstops Jeter and Jimmy Rollins, third basemen Jones and David Wright, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, plus Mark DeRosa and Kevin Youkilis.
Johnson said he’s been talking to managers about the possibility of using players at other positions to give him more flexibility. With Pedroia as the only second baseman, Johnson said he talked to Indians manager Eric Wedge about possibly using DeRosa at second, because he knows the Indians’ plan is for him to play third base. He also has talked to other clubs about having their players see time at first base, to spell Youkilis.
"We want to accommodate the player, as well as the manager and the organization," Johnson said. "I wouldn’t want to do anything that the player or manager wouldn’t want me to be doing in the Classic."
He said the catchers—Brian McCann and Chris Iannetta—will alternate games, as will Rollins and Jeter at shortstop. Johnson said he does not plan to have those players split games.
In the outfield, Johnson has Grady Sizemore, Curtis Granderson, Ryan Braun and Brad Hawpe. He got the approval of Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland to use Granderson in a corner outfield spot, if necessary.
The 14-man pitching staff includes just four starters—Peavy, Roy Oswalt, Ted Lilly and Jeremy Guthrie.
"We’re going to have quite a few relievers," Johnson said. "Early on, guys like (Brad) Ziegler are important because they can go more than one inning. So, I’m going to be making a lot of trips to the mound, getting a lot of guys work. But the big thing is that I may use guys for just a couple hitters to give everybody some time . . . The pitchers are on a pitch count and we’ve got 14, so we’re not going to overextend anybody."
Johnson said the starting pitchers will likely throw three to four innings initially, as they build up their arm strength.
"As we go, we’ll stretch them out and then it will be a concern of getting the relievers stretched out," Johnson said. "There’s some problems, but they’re fun problems."
One player that won’t be on the roster is Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez was on the United States team in 2006, but opted to play for the Dominican Republic this time around. Rodriguez is the son of Dominican parents and was born in New York. He lived in the Dominican for three years as a child.
"I knew he had some difficulty choosing his team last time and I heard that the reason he chose the Dominican Republic this year is because that’s where his mother wanted him to play," Johnson said. "But it’s not like there’s a huge drop off. Chipper Jones and David Wright—I’m tickled to death to have those guys
"The only reason I’m upset about Alex Rodriguez not being on the club is because I’m a Madonna fan and I was hoping she would show up."
The United States team has a workout on March 2 in Clearwater, Fla. and will scrimmage against the Yankees on March 3 at Steinbrenner Field.