By John Manuel
September 24, 2003
In international baseball, the United States’ gold-medal victory at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, means little now.
Team USA must qualify for the eight-team field in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, and will have to earn one of two spots allocated to the Western Hemisphere in a qualifying tournament in Panama City, Panama, beginning Oct. 31.
In an attempt to qualify for the Olympics, USA Baseball has assembled its most talented professional team yet with the help of Major League Baseball and the union. The 30-man roster announced today, which will play a 12-game training schedule in the Arizona Fall League, features eight first-round picks, the reigning Minor League Player of the Year and a teenage phenom heading up the pitching staff.
“We’re very enthusiastic about the club we have assembled,” said Dean Taylor, a co-chairman of the Team USA steering committee that has pared players from a 60-man roster for the last two months. “It’s a highly talented group of players. It will be very difficult to trim the roster to 24 players at the end of the Fall League.
“We’re going to Panama with one thing in mind: to head to Athens and defend the gold medal.”
Twins catcher Joe Mauer and Phillies lefthander Cole Hamels are the two top prospects on the team, and rival USA Baseball pro alums like Mark Mulder (1999 Pan American Games), Roy Oswalt and Ben Sheets (2000 Olympics) as being the best prospects to play for a USA Baseball professional team.
Mauer, the Minor League Player of the Year and No. 1 overall pick in 2001, hit .339-5-85 this season and is perhaps the best defensive catcher in the minor leagues. Hamels dominated two Class A levels during a 6-3, 1.34 season.
Mauer, a three-time alumnus of USA Baseball at the youth and junior levels, isn’t the only player to have donned the Team USA uniform before. Journeyman minor leaguers Todd Williams (Devil Rays) and Ernie Young (Tigers) were members of the 2000 Olympic team. Young was the team’s cleanup hitter and emotional leader, batting .385-1-8 in 26 at-bats, and has remained involved with USA Baseball ever since.
The same summer, second baseman Chris Burke (Astros) was playing for the college national team and shortstop J.J. Hardy (Brewers) was a teammate with Mauer on the junior team. Lefthander Jason Stanford (Indians) played on the last USA Baseball club to use affiliated players, in the 2001 World Cup in Taiwan.
“For me to (have played for Team USA) from the junior level, now it’s pretty exciting for me to do it at the highest level,” Mauer said during the announcement, which was broadcast on MLB.com radio. “I was hoping to get an invitation. I had a great experience playing with the junior team.”
Taylor, co-chairman Bob Watson and manager Frank Robinson hope Mauer makes this experience a good one, too. The last time the U.S. tried to qualify for the Olympics, it wasn’t easy. Playing in the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada, Team USA needed a 10th-inning pinch-hit single by Mike Neill to beat Mexico 2-1 in a semifinal game and earn one of the two Olympic berths. The U.S. lost in the gold-medal game as current Yankees righthander Jose Contreras, pitching on one-day’s rest, struck out 13 in Cuba’s 6-1 victory.
|Van Benschoten, John||R-R||6-4||210||23||Pirates|
|Williams, Todd||R-R||6-3||210||32||Devil Rays|
|Gross, Gabe||L-R||6-3||200||23||Blue Jays|
|Reed, Jeremy||L-L||6-0||180||22||White Sox|
Gerald Laird, Rangers
Above-average defender who profiles as a backup for Joe Mauer . . . has some power but considered just average offensively because of a long swing . . . threw out 39 percent of opposing basestealers in 100 attempts . . . accuracy as much of a plus as arm strength . . . improved walk-strikeout ratio
Joe Mauer, Twins
Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year has extensive Team USA experience . . . hit .559 with 15 RBIs in just 34 at-bats in leading Team USA junior team to silver medal in 2000 world junior championships . . . teammates on that club with current Team USA roster member J.J. Hardy . . . three-time USA Baseball alum also played for ’99 world junior team that won gold in Taiwan.
Garrett Atkins, 3b, Rockies
Has hit at every level and brings key righthanded bat to lineup that leans to the left . . . provides more gap power rather than over-the-fence pop (just three HRs away from Triple-A Colorado Springs’ home park) . . . has had fielding issues at third base in the past with range and footwork, and still needs work in those areas.
Chris Burke, 2b/ss, Astros
USA Baseball alumnus who played on 2000 college national team with teammates such as Mark Prior and Mark Teixeira . . . has played shortstop but profiles better as a second baseman and leadoff hitter . . . thrived in second year in Double-A Texas League . . . good baseball instincts, especially offensively . . . Southeastern Conference player of the year in 2001 at Tennessee.
J.J. Hardy, ss, Brewers
Joined Mauer on the junior team in 2000 as an outfielder (Orioles farmhand Bryan Bass was the shortstop) . . . hit .438 for that team . . . only tool that isn’t above-average is running . . . rated best defensive shortstop in Double-A Southern League, has excellent arm and good savvy . . . makes all the routine plays; follows in Team USA shortstop tradition of defense-first players (Gookie Dawkins, Adam Everett) but has a much better bat.
Graham Koonce, 1b, Athletics
Minor league veteran who has broken out the last two years, particularly in 2003 . . . led the minors in home runs and paced the Pacific Coast League in RBIs with career highs and has excellent plate discipline . . . originally a 60th-round pick of the Tigers in 1993, also a veteran of independent Western League (1997-98).
Mike Lamb, util, Rangers
Brings plenty of big league experience, having played more than 300 games in majors with Texas and carried a .287 big league average into the season . . . catcher in college and could be emergency catcher for Team USA, also can play third or first base.
Justin Leone, 3b, Mariners
Had breakout season at age 26 to help Double-A San Antonio win Texas League title . . . career .250 hitter ranked fourth in the TL with 21 homers and third with 92 RBIs while batting career-best .288 with .405 on-base percentage . . . versatile enough to fill in at shortstop if necessary (nine games with San Antonio).
Mike Rouse, ss, Athletics
Lefthanded hitter with gap power (33 doubles) who didn’t hit for as much power as expected in Double-A this season . . . bat is his best tool, power dip could be attributed to broken hamate in 2002 . . . range at short is fringy but has enough arm for the position . . . could play second or short . . . had excellent college career at San Jose State and Cal State Fullerton.
J.J. Davis, Pirates
Big righthanded hitter with feast-or-famine reputation–lots of home runs, lots of strikeouts . . . made progress in making more consistent contact in 2003; 85 K’s in 426 at-bats was best ratio of his career . . . 1997 first-round pick finished the season in the big leagues . . . athletic for his size and an efficient basestealer (23-for-29) . . . strong arm (was a high school pitcher) in right field; could be good platoon partner for lefthanded-hitting Gross as he crushed lefthanders (.398-7-24 in 98 at-bats at Triple-A).
Gabe Gross, Blue Jays
Former Auburn quarterback had a bounce-back year at the plate after struggling offensively in 2002 . . . improved plate discipline and better swing mechanics helped him recover from a .238 season last year . . . solid arm and athletic ability profiles him as a right fielder . . . could platoon with Davis, as he hit .317-8-50 in 363 at-bats against righthanders between Double-A New Haven and Triple-A Syracuse.
Jeremy Reed, White Sox
One of the minor leagues’ top seasons in 2003, including a .373 average and .474 on-base percentage that led all minor leaguers . . . USA Baseball experience, having led college national team in hitting at .366 in 2001; played first base for that club . . . has the speed and arm to play right field or center for Team USA . . . hit .431 in August and September at Double-A Birmingham . . . praised by Southern League managers for hitting lefthanders well . . . more of a gap-power, doubles hitter but almost tripled his home run total from 2002.
Grady Sizemore, Indians
Futures Game hero who was the Larry Doby MVP of the game . . . Division I football recruit signed for $2 million bonus and was part of Expos’ Bartolo Colon trade last summer . . . below-average arm is only tool he lacks, and his above-average speed makes him a center field candidate for Team USA along with Reed . . . excellent power that’s still developing, has been compared to Johnny Damon with more power.
Terrmel Sledge, Expos
Had career year with Triple-A Edmonton, but didn’t get a big league callup due to MLB-owned Expos’ finances . . . had career-high 22 homers and has line-drive swing to go with solid speed . . . short stroke, uses the whole field . . . profiles best as a left fielder due to below-average arm strength . . . like Reed, an alumnus of Long Beach State.
Ernie Young, Tigers
Team’s oldest player at 34 brings major league and international experience as well as power bat that profiles best as a DH . . . cleanup hitter for 2000 Olympic team had clinching two-run single in the gold-medal game against Cuba; hit .385-1-8 for the tournament and has remained actively involved with USA Baseball ever since . . . had another solid Triple-A season with Toledo, has hit 20 or more homers in five of last six Triple-A seasons . . . hit .242-19-64 for Oakland in 1996.
Brian Bruney, rhp, Diamondbacks
Middle reliever who dominated Arizona Fall League last season (zero earned runs) . . . finished 2003 strong in Triple-A, where he didn’t allow a run in his first 15 appearances, and combined for 26 saves between Double-A El Paso and Tucson . . . throws low-to-mid-90s fastball, slider and changeup; slider command may be biggest key.
Jesse Crain, rhp, Twins
All-American as a shortstop/closer at Houston in 2002 . . . born in Toronto and was asked to play for Team Canada but chose to play with Team USA . . . runs fastball into mid-90s (and touches 98) and commands the pitch well . . . finished season in Triple-A, struggling at first but making adjustments to finish strong . . . also throws a curveball and slider.
Justin Duchscherer, rhp, Athletics
The toughest name on the team (pronounced DUKE sure), Duchscherer is one of several players on the prospective roster already with big league experience . . . product of the Red Sox organization and former Ranger whose best trait is pitchability and excellent command . . . repertoire includes fastball that runs in the high 80s, good curveball and changeup . . . career year at Triple-A Sacramento (14-2, 3.25, 18 BB in 155 IP).
J.D. Durbin, rhp, Twins
Heavy workload (182 innings already), maximum-effort delivery, power stuff and confident makeup makes him a closer candidate for Team USA . . . fastball has touched 98 mph, hit 95 in every start during the season . . . can throw plus slider with slurve action for strikes.
Jeremy Fikac, rhp, Athletics
Up-and-down career peaked with 26 innings in San Diego in 2001, posting 1.37 ERA; he’s back in big leagues now with Oakland . . . struggled in 2002 and was traded to A’s in offseason . . . Plus changeup helps him handle lefthanded hitters when he throws it for strikes and keeps it down . . . fringy fastball and average slider means he must have command to be effective . . . hasn’t thrown consistent strikes in big league stints this season (10 BB in 15 IP).
Cole Hamels, lhp, Phillies
Perhaps the highest ceiling of any Team USA pitcher, also the youngest player on the roster (19) . . . Phillies’ first-round pick in 2002 could be team’s top starter despite his precocity, thanks to above-average changeup (deception and life), good fastball (sits at 88-90 mph, touches 94) and advanced approach . . . Pitched just 101 innings and might have the rotation’s freshest arm . . . curveball needs improvement, but otherwise he has few weaknesses.
Bobby Madritsch, lhp, Mariners
Independent Player of the Year in 2002, Madritsch returned to Organized Baseball with Mariners and helped lead Double-A San Antonio to Texas League title . . . ranked seventh in league in ERA and second with 154 strikeouts . . .will relieve for Team USA . . . 92-94 mph fastball is his best pitch, also throws a curve and changeup.
Ryan Madson, rhp, Phillies
Similar approach and repertoire to Duchscherer, throwing harder (low 90s) with a bit less command . . . plus changeup has excellent life . . . throws downhill . . . gave up just nine homers in 157 Triple-A innings this season . . . workhorse with back-to-back seasons of 170-plus IP.
Andy Pratt, lhp, Braves
Acquired from Rangers in Ben Kozlowski 40-man roster deal, and Pratt gave Braves better end of the trade this season . . . Can pitch in the low 90s, having added velocity since the trade . . . also throws a cutter, curveball and changeup . . . leads Team USA pitchers w/161 strikeouts this season . . . also walked 77 and profiles as a reliever for Team USA after starting for Richmond.
Royce Ring, lhp, Mets
Has prior Team USA experience as a middle reliever for 2001 college club, pitching 10 innings . . . White Sox first-round pick in 2002 out of San Diego State was key to 2003 Roberto Alomar trade . . . power lefty whose fastball is generall in the 89-92 mph range . . . also throws a good slider and a changeup . . . profiles more as a setup man in major leagues and for Team USA.
Jason Stanford, lhp, Indians
Has big league and Team USA experience, as he served on 2001 World Cup team that also featured prospects including Ben Broussard, Josh Bard, Brandon Phillips (all also now Indians teammates) and Carl Crawford . . . went 2-0, 0.75 for Team USA, which won silver medal in Taiwan . . . solid average stuff, must command his fastball, curve and changeup.
Derrick Turnbow, rhp, Angels
Major league Rule 5 pick from the Phillies who has had development also interrupted by elbow injury (fracture) . . . power stuff has been moved to bullpen . . . when healthy and mechanically sound, throws fastball in the mid-90s with excellent action, particularly inside to righthanded hitters . . . also has a hard-biting curve.
John VanBenschoten, rhp, Pirates
Eighth overall pick in 2001 has made fine transition to full-time pitching after leading Division I with 34 homers at Kent State as a junior . . . big and athletic, commands four pitches well, but none stands out as an above-average pitch . . . entered the season as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 prospect . . . fastball has easy low 90s velocity from smooth delivery . . . could be the staff ace for Team USA.
Adam Wainwright, rhp, Braves
Another workhorse with at least 150 innings on the resume in each of the last three seasons . . . ranked Atlanta’s No. 1 prospect entering the season and had a solid season at Double-A Greenville . . . gets good downhill plane on 88-92 mph fastball and throws a good slow curveball . . . commands both pitches well . . . first Braves prospect to be named to a Team USA roster.
Todd Williams, rhp, Devil Rays
USA Baseball veteran, having played for both 1999 Pan American Games team and having earned a gold medal in 2000 in Sydney Olympics . . . submarine sinker-slider approach has earned him several big league stints, but never for an entire season . . . has 211 career minor league saves, though just four this season while posting 1.55 ERA as setup man for International League champion Durham.