Olympic Qualifier Set To Begin




The 2006 Olympic qualifier starts today in Cuba with the host nation taking on Colombia. That much is certain.

The rest of the tournament schedule could change, as teams show up (or don't, as is often the case in international baseball) today. The rest of the 12-team field--which is supposed to include Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico, the United States and Venezuela--begins pool play Saturday, with Team USA scheduled to play Canada in its opener. Mexico was a late addition to the field, replacing Aruba in what obviously is an upgrade in the quality of play.

The objective for Team USA and every other nation is simple: Reach the finals. The top four teams in each pool move on to the one-and-done medal round, with the top two teams qualifying for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

Of course, Cuba intends to win, and so does the U.S. The American roster features a mix of prospects and veterans and got off to a strong start last week in Kissimmee, Fla., winning four of five exhibition games. Team USA lost its last exhibition game to Canada 6-3, as the team's hardest-throwing and youngest starter, righthander Nick Adenhart (Angels), was knocked around by a veteran Canada roster that features a slew of independent league veterans such as Sutbby Clapp, Kevin Nicholson and Ryan Radmanovich.

Team USA pitching coach Kirk Champion, whose day job is White Sox roving pitching coordinator, has international experience, serving in the same role for the U.S. World Cup team in 2001. That club, piloted by current Red Sox manager Terry Francona, lost to Cuba in the gold-medal game in Taiwan. The strength of that pitching staff was its bullpen, and Champion believes the same could be true for the qualifying squad.

"I like the experience we have in our bullpen," Champion said in an interview Wednesday, the day before Team USA left Miami for its trip to Cuba. "There's no one dominant starter, but I think we have a deep staff and a deep bullpen.

"With the timing of this tournament making it so tough, USA Baseball really did a great job of putting this staff together."

Champion said lefthander Heath Phillips (White Sox) will start the opener Saturday against Canada. He's had his best season at Triple-A Charlotte, going 13-5, 2.96 with 102 strikeouts and 39 walks in 155 innings.The rest of the rotation would be set once Team USA knew who the Americans are going to play, but Champion said every pitcher will be available to throw after Saturday's opener, and the rotation may just depend on matchups.

"We were in exhibition games for six days, and the staff kind of came together," Champion said. "We have a good mix. Phillips uses the fastball to both sides of the plate, and it's really opened things up for him this year. Adenhart has a really easy delivery and has shown some plus stuff. It's a very exciting arm.

"Greg Smith (Diamondbacks) and Zach Segovia (Phillies) and Kevin Slowey (Twins) are all in the mix to start games, and so is Mike Bacsik (Diamondbacks), who can really pitch in any role. So we have a lot of options. Then you have (J Brent) Cox (Yankees) with really exciting stuff that really moves coming out of the bullpen with solid veterans like Jeff Fransworth (White Sox) and (Lee) Gronkiewicz (Blue Jays). I think we have a chance to pitch really well, but that's without having seen all of our competition."

Team USA's lineup changed from day to day in exhibition play, but the lineup is expected to include Bryan LaHair (Mariners) at first base; Bobby Hill (Padres) at second; Brandon Wood (Angels) at shortstop and veteran Mike Kinkade (Marlins) at third. Outfielder Michael Bourn (Phillies) missed the exhibitions, as he'd been briefly promoted to the big leagues, but he has returned to the team and should man center field, flanked by veteran Chad Allen (Royals) and top prospect Billy Butler (Royals) in the corners. Allen and Kinkade are both Olympic veterans, Allen in '96 as a college player, Kinkade as a pro in 2000.

Team USA should have a good read on clubs such as Canada and Puerto Rico and Venezuela, who will be using minor leaguers, but also on Cuba, whose roster features 20 players who were on its World Baseball Classic team, which lost to Japan in the championship game. Among the repeat players are the double-play tandem of shortstop Eduardo Paret and second baseman Yulieski Gourriel, who bat first and third in the Cuban lineup, and outfielders Frederich Cepeda, Alexei Ramirez and Osmani Urrutia.

"We are going for the qualification. It has to be that way. We are the Olympic and World champs, and runners-up at the WBC," Cuban manager Rey Vicente Anglada told Cuba's La Prensa newspaper.

The Cuban pitching staff will be veteran-laden, with WBC holdovers such as lefthander Ylieski Gonzalez, reliever Pedro Luis Lazo and younger power arms Yadiel Pedroso and Vicyohandri Odelin.

Team USA is in the undeniably tougher Pool B with Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Pool A includes Cuba, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Panama.