Cuba has had a stranglehold on the international competition since 1984, when the Cubans began a streak of nine straight World Cup gold medals. They will try to make it 10 in a row this year, but Team USA has an improved roster that features some of the top prospects in baseball, mixed in with a number of other minor leaguers on the cusp of breaking into the major leagues. For many of these players, success with this year's Team USA could lead to placement on next year's Olympic roster--unless, of course, those players are in the big leagues.
The Americans have not defeated Cuba in World Cup play since 1970, and Team USA’s last gold medal in the competition came in 1974. Team USA did have success in the World Cup in 2001, when the team won the silver medal. The 2001 team, which was managed by current Red Sox manager Terry Francona, featured outfielder Carl Crawford and second baseman Orlando Hudson, as well as other future big leaguers such as lefthander Chris Capuano and first baseman Ben Broussard. With a roster featuring even more high-profile talent than the 2001 squad, here’s a look at the 2007 team’s roster.
Bryan Anderson (Cardinals) and Jason Jaramillo (Phillies) split time behind the plate in the Arizona Fall League. Although Anderson is the more promising prospect, there is not much difference between the two in current ability. Anderson, who hit .298/.350/.388 for Double-A Springfield as a 20-year-old, is an offensive-minded catcher with good contact-hitting skills. Jaramillo, 25, hit .271/.350/.361 for Triple-A Ottawa right and shows more patience at the plate than Anderson does right now. Jaramillo also did a bit better than Anderson at throwing out base-stealers in 2007. Having the lefthanded-hitting Anderson and the righthanded-hitting Jaramillo should make for a nice platoon for manager Davey Johnson.
"Anderson is the better hitter of the two, but Jaramillo gives you more consistency behind the plate with above-average arm strength and accuracy with his throws," a scout from a National League club said. "There isn't much of a drop-off with either one behind the plate, but Jaramillo is the better defender. Anderson gives you more punch, but it's not like Jaramillo is a bad hitter. This is a guy who had a really nice year in Triple-A (in 2007)."
In terms of future upside, Team USA isn’t particularly strong up the middle, with shortstop Brian Bixler (Pirates), second baseman Jayson Nix (Rockies) and shortstop/second baseman Michael Hollimon (Tigers). Among the three middle infielders on the team, Hollimon, 25, has put up the strongest offensive numbers—.282/.371/.478 for Double-A Erie in 2007—but Johnson has said that Hollimon will serve as a utility man, with Bixler starting at shortstop and Nix playing second base. Hollimon played shortstop for all of the 2006 season, but spent most of his time at second base in 2007, spending 95 games at second base and 36 games at shortstop.
Bixler, 25, hit .274/. 368/.398 for Triple-A Indianapolis in 2007. His best tool is his plus speed, although his defensive range is average. He was both proficient and efficient stealing bases in 2007, swiping 28 bags in 32 attempts. Nix is not a great hitter, although he made some mechanical adjustments this year that he and the Rockies believe will have a positive impact on his ability to drive the ball and handle quality fastballs. Triple-A Colorado Springs hitting coach Carney Lansford called Nix’ defense “the best I’ve ever seen at second base, hands down.”Corner infield
The team’s greatest strength is its corner infielders, with Team USA fielding three of the minor leagues’ most productive hitters. The team is loaded at the hot corner, with 2008 AL and NL rookie of the year candidates Evan Longoria (Devil Rays) and Andy LaRoche (Dodgers).
Longoria, the No. 3 overall pick out of Long Beach State in 2006, has a .303/.388/.546 line through two minor league seasons. After excelling in a promotion to Triple-A Durham to help the Bulls make the International League playoffs, Longoria looks primed to take over as the Devil Rays' starting third baseman in 2008 and should bat somewhere in the middle of Team USA’s lineup.
"Playing for Team USA is one of the greatest honors any player could possibly hope for during their career," Longoria said during his AFL stint with the Scottsdale Scorpions. "That's the way I'm approaching this event. I'm focused on what we have to do in the here and now, which is the way everyone on this team is approaching the World Cup. Sure, a lot of us are going to have the opportunity to be in the big leagues very soon, but right now we're focused on the moment, and that means representing our country."
Like Longoria, LaRoche is a patient hitter who can hit for both average and power. LaRoche, 24, has quick hands and can drive the ball from gap to gap. After coming into the season as the Dodgers’ No. 1 prospect, he finished the year ranked fourth among prospects in the Pacific Coast League despite missing time with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder that has bothered him since he tore his labrum in 2006. He hit .309/.399/.589 for Triple-A Las Vegas.
"He just always seems to get the barrel on the ball--he just has a knack for squaring up everything," another NL scout said. "And even though he has that all-or-nothing swing, he's got patience and knows his strike zone. He's a hacker, but he's a controlled hacker."
Team USA took a substantial hit when Jay Bruce (Reds) left the team to nurse a sore hamstring, but there is still plenty of talent in the outfield. Center fielder Colby Rasmus (Cardinals), 21, entered the year as the top prospect in the Cardinals system and continued to improve his stock in 2007, finishing as the top prospect in the Texas League. Rasmus hit .275/.381/.551 for Double-A Springfield, showing a rare combination of patience, power and speed (18 steals in 21 attempts) for such a young player. A superb athlete, Rasmus was also the best defensive outfielder in the TL.
"Of all the high school outfielders from the 2005 draft, it seems like he's the guy that gets the least amount of attention," said a scout from an American League club. "But that'll change pretty quick. He's better than (Pirates outfielder Andrew) McCutchen right now and might be better than them all when it's all said and done."
Joining Rasmus in the outfield are Tyler Colvin (Cubs), Delwyn Young (Dodgers) and Justin Ruggiano (Devil Rays). Colvin, a first-round pick in 2006 out of Clemson, is primarily a center fielder, although he did get a bit of work in right field this season. His versatility should help Johnson, as Colvin has the range to play center field and a good enough arm to play right field. The 22-year-old hit well in the high Class A Florida State League (.306/.336/.514 in 245 at-bats), but struggled upon a promotion to Double-A Tennessee (.291/.313/.462). Colvin has excellent pure hitting ability, but needs to work at pitch recognition, which could become problematic against international pitchers who thrive on pitching backwards and using offspeed pitches to fool hitters rather than blow them away with overpowering fastballs.
Young had one of the best years in the minor leagues, thanks to a .337 batting average. Coming off his fifth full season in the minor leagues, Young hit .337/.384/.571 in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. An aggressive hitter with bat speed, Young can drive the ball when he makes contact. He can be too aggressive, though, which international pitchers may be able to exploit.
"He doesn't control the zone particularly well, but this is a guy who is seriously undervalued," said another AL scout. "He's one of the most consistent hitters in the minor leagues and has surprising power."
Ruggiano was Bruce’s replacement on the roster and, while his future is nowhere as bright as Bruce’s, Ruggiano had a fine Triple-A season. The 25-year-old hit .309/.386/.502 for Durham. His 151 strikeouts in 482 at-bats stand out, but he showed patience at the plate and has some pop in his bat, hitting home runs in key situations for Durham during the International League season. Ruggiano also has played all three outfield positions and can steal a bag (26 in 37 tries with Durham), making him an ideal fourth outfielder.
While the Americans feature several blue-chip hitting prospects, there isn’t a standout pitching prospect on the team. Pitching was a shortcoming for the 2005 team, and this year’s pitching staff will have to perform better to qualify for a medal. There are, however, several starters who are close to making an impact at the major league level. Although Johnson has not yet announced the order of the rotation, righthanders Jeff Karstens (Yankees), Dallas Trahern (Tigers) and Matt Wright (Royals), and lefthanders Brian Duensing (Twins) and Josh Outman (Phillies) will be the starters.
Infield defense will be key for Team USA when Trahern is on the mound. The 21-year-old pitched 163 innings for Double-A Erie, posting a 3.87 ERA. Trahern relies heavily on his low-90s sinker, which he uses to induce groundballs, as well as a solid-average slider. Among balls in play converted to outs, Trahern had a 72 percent groundout percentage, one of the best in the minors.
Outman was one of two pitchers to appear on one of Baseball America’s top 20 prospects lists, checking in at No. 14 in the Florida State League. He is an athletic lefthander works with a 92-94 mph fastball and a mid-80s slider. Compared to Trahern, Outman relies more on the strikeout to get opposing hitters out, notching 117 strikeouts in as many innings in 2007. Although Outman may be the best prospect in the rotation, he also pitched at the lowest minor league level compared to his fellow Team USA starters.
Duensing, 24, split time between Double-A and Triple-A in 2007 and was in the Eastern League's Top 20 prospects at No. 18. After holding down a 2.66 ERA in 51 Double-A innings, Duensing finished the season with a 3.24 ERA in 117 Triple-A innings. He throws four pitches for strikes, keeps everything down and has an above-average changeup. Duensing also has big-game experience, having pitched in the College World Series for Nebraska in 2005.
The 25-year-old Karstens saw some major league action thanks to a slew of injuries to the Yankees’ starting pitchers. The results were ugly, and an injury to his elbow followed by a fractured leg compounded Karsten’s struggles. Karstens did maintain a 1.74 ERA in 31 Triple-A innings this season, and had success between Double-A and Triple-A in 2006. He will look to regain that form in Taiwan. Wright, a late add to the USA roster, had a 4.06 ERA for Triple-A Omaha.Bullpen
There is no dominant bullpen ace for Johnson to call on to in crucial situations, but he has a variety of quality future middle relievers at his disposal. Johnson has two quality lefthanders, Jerry Blevins (Athletics) and Neal Musser (Royals). In 77 1/3 innings between high Class A and Triple-A, Blevins had a 1.63 ERA, as well as 102 strikeouts and just 18 walks. Musser, meanwhile, excelled in his first season as a full-time reliever. The 27-year-old had a 0.49 ERA in 55 1/3 innings, with 47 strikeouts and 11 walks. Musser and Blevins provide a formidable lefthanded punch out of the USA bullpen.
The righthanders in the bullpen include Chris Booker (Nationals), Lee Gronkiewicz (Blue Jays), Chris Perez (Cardinals), Steven Shell (Angels) and Jeff Stevens (Indians). The 30-year-old Booker has always posted quality peripheral numbers in his 12 minor league seasons—including 83 strikeouts in 53 Triple-A innings in 2007—but has never found success in brief big league stints. Like Booker, Gronkiewicz is a bit older at 29 years old, but he had success this year in Double-A (37 strikeouts and four walks in 30 innings) and Triple-A (46 strikeouts and six walks in 44 2/3 innings), posting a combined 1.06 ERA on the year. He also was a trusted middle reliever when Johnson managed Team USA to a gold medal last summer during the Olympic qualifier in Cuba.
Perez is a strikeout pitcher who had 77 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2007, using a mid-90s fastball and an excellent slider. Control was a problem for the 22-year-old, however. A supplemental first-rounder in 2006, Perez gives Johnson a weapon come into the game to neutralize righthanded hitters. Shell, 24, is more of a control specialist than a strikeout pitcher. The 6-foot-5 righthander struck out 52 and walked 19 in 70 1/3 Triple-A innings this year.
Stevens is a quality reliever who posted a 2.81 ERA, 102 strikeouts and 25 walks in 83 1/3 innings between high Class A and Double-A in 2007. He mixes his fastball and changeup well, although his breaking ball is fringy. He profiles as a middle reliever in the majors, and Johnson should be able to call on Stevens in key situations in the tournament.