In a month and a half, the third edition of the World Baseball Classic will officially begin. Japan has won the first two tournaments, but this time around, they'll have just one player with Major League experience, and it's not Ichiro, Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka or even Aki Iwamura; it's Kaz Matsui. Perhaps this is an opening for a Team USA squad that has really not met expectations the first two times around, but there will certainly be plenty of competition.
Fans are often worried about their team's players, particularly pitchers, suffering injuries in a non-Major League game, but there are pitch counts in place that probably aren't very different compared to the work those players would be getting in a spring training game. Pitchers can throw no more than 65 pitches in the first round, 80 in the second and 95 in the semi-finals and finals. Plus, there are required days off after throwing a certain amount of pitches. That seems reasonable to me, but I'm a fan of the event which may cloud my judgment. Today, the rosters for all 16 teams were revealed, and here are my thoughts on Team USA as well as a few notes from around the world. The rest of the rosters will be released later this afternoon.
Catchers: Joe Mauer (MIN- 99-00 18U, 03 Olympic qualifier), Jonathan Lucroy (MIL), J.P. Arencibia (TOR- 05-06 Collegiate)
Mauer has been one of the best catchers in the league for a while now, but this will actually be the first WBC for the USA Baseball veteran. The Twins will probably be uneasy about Mauer behind the plate too much due to his recent injuries, but Lucroy could be a perfect platoon partner as his backup. He's coming off a breakout season with a .881 OPS in 346 plate appearances with Milwaukee, and he's a good defender too. Arencibia really isn't very good, but as the third catcher, but his power could be useful off the bench. NL MVP Buster Posey is passing after finishing a long season, Brian McCann is coming off shoulder surgery, A.J. Pierzynski would probably like to spend spring training with his new team, and I can't find a reason for Matt Wieters not playing.
Infield: Ben Zobrist (TB- 05 World Cup), David Wright (NYM- 09 WBC), Brandon Phillips (CIN), Mark Teixeira (NYY- 00 Collegiate, 06 WBC), Jimmy Rollins (PHI- 09 WBC), Willie Bloomquist (ARI- 98 Collegiate)
Troy Tulowitzki hopes to gain medical clearance to play in the tournament, and that would be a huge boost to the infield. Zobrist is an exciting addition to the team; it recognizes an underrated player, and his defensive flexibility could prove useful. He won't be joined by teammate Evan Longoria after undergoing hamstring surgery this off-season, but after David Wright re-established himself as one of the game's best players last year with a 7.8 fWAR season, Team USA should survive. Possibly not having Tulo is a bit of a downer, but Rollins is an acceptable substitute with great baserunning and defense. Phillips and Teixeira are both coming off down seasons, but both infielders are great defenders. Teixeira's steady decline with the Yankees should be concerning for their fans, but Team USA has no payroll which means he's okay for a month as a complementary power bat. Bloomquist will hopefully not bat, but he's the only player besides Wright on the roster that can play third base.
Among notable infielders not participating, the Red Sox nixed Dustin Pedroia because of his recent injuries, Paul Konerko was apparently on an earlier roster but isn't now, and I can't find anything that indicates why Prince Fielder, Aaron Hill, Ian Desmond or Chase Headley are not participating, if they were even invited.
Outfield: Ryan Braun (MIL- 09 WBC), Giancarlo Stanton (MIA), Adam Jones (BAL), Shane Victorino (05 Olympic qualifier, 09 WBC)
Braun and Stanton are valuable middle of the order bats, but it would've been nice if with all the outfielders available to the U.S., they could've done better than Jones and Victorino. Unfortunately, a lot of circumstances prevented that. Mike Trout wants to play in spring training after battling an illness last year while new Angels teammates Josh Hamilton declined as did Pirates star Andrew McCutchen, Matt Kemp is recovering from shoulder surgery, and I can't find anything about Austin Jackson. Jones will provide another power bat and perhaps adequate defense in center field, and Victorino can provide better defense, great baserunning off the bench and a nice bat against lefties.
With all of that in mind, here's a possible starting lineup:
Starting Pitching: RHP R.A. Dickey (NYM- 94-96 Collegiate), RHP Kris Medlen (ATL), RHP Ryan Vogelsong (SF) LHP Derek Holland (TEX)
Obviously it's difficult to get top of the line starters for this event, but Joe Torre still did okay here. Rays ace David Price declined, Justin Verlander likely won't join the team late as has been speculated, Clayton Kershaw is recovering from a hip injury last year, and C.C. Sabathia is also recovering from an injury in 2012. Those are just a handful of top pitchers that won't be participating, but this isn't anything new. For comparison, Team USA's rotation in 2009 included Jake Peavy (3.60 FIP in 2008), Roy Oswalt (3.80), Ted Lilly (4.41), and Jeremy Guthrie (4.53).
This rotation could fare better. Dickey, the NL Cy Young winner, is not only coming off a great season, but facing a knuckleball could prove difficult for opponents. Medlen is also coming off a career year that saw him throw 138 innings as a starter and reliever while posting a 2.42 FIP, showing great command and striking out plenty of batters as well. With a second consecutive solid year, Vogelsong has proven to be a capable pitcher, and Holland has had success in the past.
Right-handed Relief: Craig Kimbrel (ATL), Chris Perez (CLE- 05 Collegiate, 07 World Cup), RHP Vinnie Pestano (CLE), Steve Cishek (MIA), Luke Gregerson (SD), Mitchell Boggs (STL), Heath Bell (ARI- 09 WBC)
Surprisingly, Scott Proctor was not included by Torre. Kimbrel and Perez (plus Bell for that matter), give Torre plenty of closing experience. Kimbrel has been baseball's best reliever the last two seasons, but for those of us that believe the best reliever should be used in any key situation even before the 9th inning, he hardly has any experience coming in with inherited runners, so he'll probably be limited to starting clean innings. The same likely goes for Perez.
Pestano, Cishek, Gregerson and Boggs do have experience with inherited runners, and what I like most about this group is the variety of arms available to Torre. Boggs brings mid-90's heat, Gregerson throws slider after slider, and Pestano and Cishek offer some different arm angles. These different kinds of looks can really keep lineups off balance when one game can decide everything and they only get to face a pitcher once.
Left-handed Relief: Jeremy Affeldt (SF), Glen Perkins (MIN), Tim Collins (KC- 10 Pan-Am qualifier)
The trio of lefties also offer some unique options for Torre. Perkins has one of the best fastballs from the left side in the majors, and he throws a lot of strikes too. The arm slots don't differ as much as the righties in the bullpen, but their repertoires do differ. Perkins is the most effective against lefties with his fastball/slider combo. Affeldt can have success against righties and lefties with his fastball and curveball, and Collins has actually been better against righties so far in his career. He throws a changeup much more than the other two.
In about two hours, the rest of the rosters will be announced on MLB Network. At this point, it's already known that Fernando Rodney will be pitching for the Dominican Republic.
UPDATE 6:30 PM
Here are some notes from the other teams.
The Dominican Republic will try to get past their shocking early exit in 2009 with another formidable roster. In addition to Rodney, Joel Peralta will be pitching out of the bullpen. With an infield that includes Jason Collette favorite Edwin Encarnacion, Adrian Beltre, Robinson Cano and Jose Reyes, along with bats like Carlos Santana and Melky Cabrera, they could pile on a lot of runs. Their rotation will feature Edinson Volquez, Wandy Rodriguez and Alexi Ogando, and in addition to the pair of Rays in the bullpen, they'll have Santiago Casilla, Kelvin Herrera, Esmil Rogers and Pedro Strop firing pitches in relief.
Venezuela also boasts a deep and talented lineup. Miguel Montero and Salvador Perez will share action behind the plate, and their infield features Pablo Sandoval and Miguel Cabrera on the corners and Elvis Andrus and Asdrubal Cabrera up the middle. Carlos Gonzalez, Gerardo Parra and Martin Prado are listed as their outfielders. Felix Hernandez and Anibal Sanchez anchor their rotation, and while the pitching staff isn't deep, dealing with the King will be difficult enough.
Jose Molina will be joined by Yadier behind the plate for Puerto Rico, and they'll be catching the currently retired Javier Vazquez who is apparently eying a comeback. Their lineup isn't as powerful as the previous two, but their outfield does feature Carlos Beltran, Alex Rios and Angel Pagan. Former Durham Bull Jesus Feliciano joins them in the outfield, and former almost Ray Fernando Cabrera will be in the bullpen. The improving Minnesota farm system is well represented with righty J.O. Berrios and outfielder Eddie Rosario.
Consummate "what if..." outfielder Chris Snelling leads Team Australia, but former Ray Grant Balfour is not participating.
Rays minor leaguer Leonardo Reginatto returns for Team Brazil after helping them through the qualifying round, and he's joined by another member of the organization, Iago Januario. Impressive minor league arms Luis Gohara (Seattle) and Andre Rienzo (White Sox) are featured on the pitching staff.
Bruce Chen has previously pitched for Panama in international play, but since they were eliminated during qualifying, he'll now represent China.
Cuba will have some players to watch as usual. They include big time sluggers Jose Abreu and Alfredo Despaigne and other well-known Cuban hitters Yulieski Gourriel, Rusney Castillo and Frederich Cepeda.
The Netherlands, who thrilled fans with their two upset wins over the Dominican Republic in 2009, have an exciting infield with some of the best infield prospects in baseball with Andrelton Simmons, Jurickson Profar, Xander Bogaerts and Jonathan Schoop. Their outfield features some Major League experience, starting with former All-Star Andruw Jones. Kenley Jansen, who was still catching in this tournament four years ago, will not be playing.
America's neighbors to the south have many familiar names. Former Devil Ray Jorge Cantu is in their infield that includes Adrian Gonzalez and Danny Espinosa. Yovani Gallardo headlines their thin rotation, but their bullpen features arms like Sergio Romo, David Hernandez and even Oliver Perez.
Former Rays minor league pitcher Eddie Morlan will again represent Spain.