Team USA Heads To Beijing
Americans win three of four in exhibition series vs. Canada
DURHAM, N.C.—It wasn't an auspicious debut when Team USA lost to Canada on Friday in the first game of the "Road to Beijing" exhibition series, but Team USA rebounded with three straight victories to conclude the series on Monday.
The Team USA pitching staff was impressive, particularly given the difficult task that USA Baseball had in convincing major league clubs to lend them their top minor league arms for a month during the season. Manager Davey Johnson and USA Baseball general manager Bob Watson compiled a staff of strike-throwers in the rotation and the bullpen, mixing younger prospects with veteran minor leaguers.
Some of the bullpen arms looked rusty after having barely pitched during the last two weeks, but the rotation should be a formidable one in Beijing, if its mastery of Team Canada's offense was any indication.
There was plenty of power on display for Team USA, which hit 11 home runs and batted .264/.305/.576 as a team in the series. One red flag for Team USA was the team's lack of strike-zone discipline. Other than former big leaguer Chris Reitsma, few Canadian pitchers threw anything above the mid-80s, yet several USA hitters struggled to hit breaking pitches and didn't show great plate discipline, which led to just four walks in 154 plate appearances. Against more advanced pitchers from Cuba and Japan, that weakness could be exploited.
The other four teams that will compete in the Olympics are the Netherlands, Taiwan, South Korea and China.
Following are eight players who stood out against Canada, with consultation from coaches and other talent evaluators in attendance:
1. Matt LaPorta, lf/1b, Indians
The most raw power on Team USA belongs to 30-year-old Tigers third baseman Mike Hessman, who in 14 plate appearances had three hits (all home runs), struck out eight times and never walked. No pitcher should ever throw Hessman a fastball unless it's painting the inside corner.
But LaPorta, 23, showed plenty of usable power, blasting three home runs among his six hits in 17 plate appearances. LaPorta feasted on a trio of mid-80s fastballs for his first two home runs, hit a 91 mph fastball out of the park in left and launched another one that scraped off the top of the tall left-center field wall. LaPorta struggled recognizing slower curveballs, which caught him swinging off-balance, though he showed the ability to make adjustments later in the series. LaPorta's below-average speed limits his range in the outfield, but his instincts in the field are good. He showed a solid arm on Sunday, throwing out a runner at home on a fly out to left field. The throw was slightly up the third base line but made it to the catcher on a line in plenty of time to get the runner.
"I love the outfield—it's fun," LaPorta said. "(I'm) realizing that you can't throw everyone out, to pick and choose when to throw home and to second."
2. Brett Anderson, lhp, A's
Anderson dominated the Canadian lineup with impeccable command, painting both sides of the plate with his 88-91 mph fastball, usually starting outside and working his way inside. But don't confuse Anderson with the typical fringy prospect who gets by on command, deception and a good changeup—Anderson's stuff is very good. He can crank his fastball up to 94 mph when he wants the extra velocity, although carving up the outside corner at 90 mph is just as effective.
Scouts have always said his curveball is a plus pitch, which he showed Friday night in the opening game of the series against Canada, when he threw four scoreless innings, struck out four, walked none and allowed three hits. His curve was a mid- to high-70s pitch, his low-80s slider was effective and he also showed a low-80s changeup.
3. Trevor Cahill, rhp, A's
Like Anderson, Cahill doesn't dial his fastball into the mid-90s, but he doesn't need to do so to be successful. His sinker induced plenty of ground balls, while others simply swung over the top of it. In four shutout innings, Cahill allowed only one hit (a broken bat single over second base), one walk and he struck out three.
"It went good," said Cahill, 20. "The biggest thing is throwing strikes, and I went out there, did that today, got behind some guys, but got some ground balls, and I was happy with how it went."
Cahill mixed a variety of off-speed pitches—a curveball (his out pitch), a slider and a changeup. He used his 81-82 mph curve to get all three of his strikeouts, all of which were swinging, including one against 21-year-old outfielder Michael Saunders, perhaps the top prospect in the Mariners system. At the Futures Game last month, Cahill pitched through a cut on his finger, which is why he threw only one curveball in the game and instead relied more heavily upon his slider, but Cahill said the cut has since calloused over. Cahill used his sinker to keep the ball on the ground, allowing only two balls in play in the air (excluding foul outs) while getting six groundballs.
"My sinker's kind of my pitch," Cahill said. "So getting groundballs usually shows me that it's working, so I'm glad I got some ground balls."
4. Nate Schierholtz, rf, Giants
Schierholtz left Triple-A Fresno on a 13-game hitting streak, and he carried that over into the USA-Canada series. He flashed plenty of tools against Canada, most notably his quick bat speed and excellent power both in BP and in games. Two of his six hits were fortunately-placed ground balls that found their way into right field, but there was plenty of power in Schierholtz's stroke. He homered twice against Canada; one was a home run at Durham Bulls Athletic Park that reached the last two rows in right-center field, while his second blast cleared all of the seats.
With most of the USA lineup leaning-heavily to the right, the lefty-hitting Schierholtz should be a useful piece for Johnson to plug into his lineup. He replaced the injured Colby Rasmus (Cardinals) as the team's primary lefty bat. Although he's just a 50 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale, Schierholtz also played some in center field, though his usual position is right field where his strong arm also plays well.
His one undoing throughout his career has been plate discipline, which was evident in the four-game series, though in a bit of irony he was one of only four USA players in the series who drew a walk. He doesn't strike out that much, but he seldom walks and chased too many pitches out of the strike zone against Canada.
5. Lou Marson, c, Phillies
Marson defended well behind the plate, though he lacked the sub-2.0 pop times and well above-average arm of teammate Taylor Teagarden. But Marson, 22, was impressive at the plate in BP and in games, showing an easy, balanced swing. Though he only had 10 plate appearances while splitting catching duties with Teagarden, Marson showed an easy, balanced swing in BP and in games. He squared up balls with authority, and his outs were generally well-hit balls in play. Marson also has likely the best batting eye on the team, as he drew nearly as many walks (65) as strikeouts (69) this year with Double-A Reading and leads the Eastern League with a .434 on-base percentage.
Team USA is strong behind the plate, as Teagarden also showed good pop in BP, though it didn't translate in the games, and his .217/.331/.378 composite line in 230 at-bats between Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Oklahoma is underwhelming.
6. Steven Strasburg, rhp, San Diego State
Strasburg came into Monday's game in the fourth inning in relief of Jake Arrieta. Arrieta's fastball sat at 94-96 mph in his first two innings with a good slider, but his velocity dropped in the third inning and struggled with his command.
Strasburg entered the game and proceeded toss mid-90s flames at the Canadian hitters, though 20-year-old Nick Weglarz (Indians) quickly showed him that he had the bat speed to turn on a 97 mph fastball with two strikes for a double to right-center field. The Canadian hitters had some success against Strasburg in his first inning of work, when he threw his fastball for 19 of his first 22 pitches.
But when Strasburg started complementing his 94-97 mph fastball with a sharp breaking ball, the hitters had no chance. Strasburg's arm wasn't completely fluid and he didn't show a changeup, but he didn't need one with his wicked fastball/slider combination. Strasburg allowed one run in three innings, allowed three hits, no walks and struck out three. He's the favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft.
7. Brandon Knight, rhp, Mets
Thirty-two-year-old Triple-A pitchers aren't supposed to get scouts excited, but at least one of them was when he saw Knight pitch for New Orleans this season. A scout with an American League club told BA last month that Knight sat in the 89-92 mph range with an average curveball, pegging him as more than a 4-A pitcher.
Knight, who started in five of his 11 appearances this season, left New Orleans for Team USA with a 1.60 ERA in 39 1/3 innings and a 49-10 K-BB mark. His numbers earned him a promotion to the big leagues, where he made his first big league start on July 26 against the Cardinals.
Instead of keeping him in New York, the Mets allowed Knight to pursue an Olympic medal, and Johnson and his staff like what they've seen out of Knight so far. Knight pitched the third game for Team USA on Sunday, when he struck out 10 in five scoreless innings, walked one and allowed just two hits. Knight worked off a fastball that dipped into the high-80s but mostly sat at 91-92 mph. His 74-78 mph curveball was slurvy at times, but his low-80s slider had downward movement that got him plenty of strikeouts, including seven outs in a row at one stretch.
8. Casey Weathers, rhp, Rockies
Weathers gives Team USA a power arm out of the bullpen, working with a 94-96 mph fastball and an 86-88 mph slider with good tilt. Weathers didn't strike anyone out in his one official inning of work—he also worked an extra scrimmage inning against Canada in the team's final game on Monday—but he has strikeout stuff and had 48 strikeouts in 40 innings with Double-A Tulsa before joining Team USA. Weathers showed room to improve his command—seven of his 13 pitches went for strikes, and he didn't always hit his location within the zone—which is why he has walked 27 batters (6.1 per nine) this season.
"He's got a very electric arm," said USA pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, who is also a special assistant to Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd. "His command is probably not like some of these other kids', but if he stays in line, he has a chance to be pretty special too."