By John Manuel
October 28, 2003
The roster USA Baseball will send to the Olympic qualifying tournament in Panama, which was officially announced Tuesday, has more major league experience than any previous professional Team USA lineup.
Headed by lefthander Horacio Ramirez (Braves), who won 12 big league games in 2003, Team USA has 10 players who have played in the major leagues already, making for a team that will be one of the favorites in the Americas qualifying tournament. The top two finishers in the 10-team event, which begins Friday in Panama City, will advance to play in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Team USA is the reigning Olympic gold-medal champion but is not guaranteed an opportunity to defend its title.
Ramirez, who figures to finish high in the National League rookie of the year balloting, heads the roster. Dean Taylor, the former Brewers general manager and co-chairman of the USA Baseball selection committee, tabbed him as the team’s No. 1 starter. Righthander Justin Duchscherer (Athletics) joins him in the rotation as the No. 2 starter, followed by righthander Ryan Madson (Phillies) and lefty Jason Stanford (Indians), who will be making his second trip abroad as a member of Team USA.
“The way the schedule is set up, we’ll only need four starters,” Taylor said. “Horacio is going in as our number one starter in all probability, and Duchsherer is our number two, but we feel strongly about both of them.
“The two most important games are the first two games of the medal round; we will line up our pitching (rotation) accordingly.”
The biggest decisions on the pitching staff came down to a lefthanded reliever and 11th man. John VanBenschoten (Pirates) will be a long reliever as the 11th pitcher, while fellow Pirates farmhand John Grabow beat out Andy Pratt (Braves) for the lefty relievers spot.
Two position player spots were also in doubt. Mike Lamb (Rangers), with his big league experience and ability to catch in a pinch, earned a spot as a utility player. And in the outfield, Team USA manager Frank Robinson (Expos) and his staff chose Matt Holliday (Rockies) over injured J.J. Davis (Pirates) and Jonny Gomes (Devil Rays). Holliday made only one appearance with Team USA in its 14 exhibitions after being plucked from the Mesa Arizona Fall League roster.
“Getting another righthanded bat was very, very important, especially with Davis’ hamstring injury,” Taylor said. “Gomes and Holliday both played well in the AFL, and we got a look at both. Frank and the staff felt Holliday was a better fit as a righthanded bat and as a solid defender.”
Robinson’s other decision to make will be at shortstop, where he likes the bat of Mike Rouse (A’s). J.J. Hardy (Brewers) brings a superior glove and a righthanded bat, however.
“We’ll see how shortstop plays out,” Taylor said. “We have a nice mixture in the middle infield. Both of those guys can go to the other side and play some second base.”
Team USA will begin play Friday in the qualifying tournament, which dropped from 13 teams to 10 over the weekend with the withdrawal of Aruba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela from the event. This kind of change also happened in 1999 at the Pan American Games, when Puerto Rico dropped out at the last minute.
Venezuela, despite its deep reservoir of baseball talent, was always touch-and-go for the event due to its political instability, and the country has a poor track record of organizing teams for international play.
The Dominican, however, was expected to contend and put together a team with 13 former major leaguers as recently as August for this summer’s Pan Am Games, which were played in the nation’s capital of Santo Domingo.
The timing of the event meant Venezuelan and Dominican national teams had to compete with their own winter leagues for players. Puerto Rico won over the owners of its winter league, and each team in the Puerto Rican League is loaning six or seven players to the island’s national team, which will be managed by Sandy Alomar Sr.
With those countries out of the event, Team USA is in a restructured group for pool play and will open against Nicaragua instead of Colombia, which is still in the group with the U.S. Brazil, coming off its best-ever international showing with a seventh-place finish in the World Cup, and host Panama round out the pool. Panama won the silver in the World Cup and brings a team with several big league veterans, including righthander Rafael Medina, outfielder Ruben Rivera and corner infielder Olmedo Saenz.
Cuba, the World Cup winner, heads up the other group. The Bahamas, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico make up the rest of the pool, with Canada and Puerto Rico the biggest threats to Cuba.
Cuba could be without hard-throwing righthander Maels Rodriguez, who was left off the nation’s World Cup roster, purportedly because his velocity dropped due to back and arm problems. Rumors are swirling in Cuba that Rodriguez, who regularly threw 98-100 mph during the 2000 Olympics and threw a perfect game during Cuba’s Serie Nacional in 2002, has defected.
A Baseball America source who was at the World Cup said Rodriguez was reported to have defected on Saturday, and may have been joined by outfielder Yobal Duenas. Duenas was also off Cuba’s World Cup roster, reportedly as a suspension for funneling money from defector Jose Contreras to his family.
|Van Benschoten, John||P||6-4||210||R-R||23||Pirates|
|Williams, Todd||P||6-3||210||R-R||32||Devil Rays|
|Gross, Gabe||OF||6-3||200||L-R||24||Blue Jays|
|Reed, Jeremy||OF||6-1||180||L-L||22||White Sox|