Team USA’s first three forays in the World Baseball Classic did not go as planned. In 2006, the Americans failed to make it out of the second round. In 2009, they made it to the semi-finals where they lost to the reigning champion, Japan. In 2013, they were again unable to get out of the second round.
Injuries and a reluctance from some stars, particularly on the mound, have led to underwhelming U.S. rosters. Looking back on those teams, it’s hard to imagine the Americans were putting their best foot forward. Still, they should be competitive with the deepest and most talented player pool available.
Next month, the U.S. looks poised to perform better in the 2017 edition of the WBC. While anything can happen in a short tournament that can hinge on a single game, this might be its best effort yet at finally winning a championship.
The U.S. looks to be fielding a deep pitching staff. In 2013, the team used four starters: R.A. Dickey, Ryan Vogelsong, Gio Gonzalez and Derek Holland. The knuckleballer Dickey was coming off his Cy Young season with the Mets, but he hasn’t been the same pitcher since. Gonzalez just made two consecutive All-Star Games, but Vogelsong and Holland have just one All-Star appearance between them.
The rotation in 2009 was more decorated; Roy Oswalt was a three-time All-Star, and Jake Peavy had reached two All-Star Games at that point and won a Cy Young. However, those two plus Jeremy Guthrie and Ted Lilly combined to allow 25 earned runs in 26 1⁄3 innings.
Behind Peavy and Roger Clemens in 2006, Dontrelle Willis was hammered.
However, the 2017 staff isn’t structured how I had hoped. There are four starters on the preliminary roster: Rays star Chris Archer, Kansas City’s Danny Duffy, Washington’s Tanner Roark, and Toronto’s Marcus Stroman.
For the first time, there’s also a “designated pitcher pool” featuring six pitchers, four of which are starters; former Ray Drew Smyly, Detroit’s Michael Fulmer, Oakland’s Sonny Gray and Toronto’s J.A. Happ. After each round, up to two of those pitchers can be swapped onto the roster in place of two designated pitchers. Those designated pitchers are Duffy and Roark.
I would’ve liked to see more starters on the proper roster, particularly with bullpen experience. With the pitch count rules, I think it would’ve been beneficial to carry more pitchers who can go multiple innings. Duffy, Roark, Smyly and Happ have all pitched in relief in their big league careers, but only up to two will be on the roster at a time.
A strategy I wouldn’t have minded is seeing one starter go through a lineup once followed by another starter before dipping into the true relievers. I think it’s good tactical tournament baseball and would help the pitchers build up their workload on their usual routine.
There are plenty of options in relief, though, headlined by Cleveland’s Andrew Miller. The U.S. hopes former Ray Jake McGee, the only other lefty in the bullpen, can recapture what made him a star reliever prior to his 2016 season with Colorado. Brett Cecil, now with the Cardinals, can be added as one of the designated pitchers.
From the right side, Texas’ Sam Dyson, Houston’s Luke Gregerson, and a pair of White Sox, Nate Jones and David Robertson, generally get lefties and righties out well. However, overall, I think the success of the bullpen is going to come down to manager Jim Leyland’s usage.
Gregerson and Dyson are probably the guys to go to when the team needs a ground ball. That would leave Jones and Robertson to be used in high-leverage situations.
The rest of the righties probably have to be used situationally. The Yankees’ Tyler Clippard can be prone to the home run ball and could be risky against the heart of the Dominican and Venezuelan lineups.
That leaves Baltimore’s Mychal Givens and Philly’s Pat Neshek. They’re best used as specialists and probably shouldn’t be facing left-handed hitters in key situations.
Detroit’s Alex Wilson is the final pitcher in the designated pool.
In 2013, the U.S. was only 10th in team OPS. It was much better in 2009 (fourth) and third in 2006. Past rosters have all had star power, and 2017 is no different.
Behind the plate, the Americans will be led by an All-Star duo at catcher with San Francisco’s Buster Posey and Texas’ Jonathan Lucroy. Both have strong all-around games, and Leyland can’t go wrong choosing between them.
Miami’s A.J. Ellis is the third catcher. If his entire career was as good as the 11 games he played with the Phillies last year, he would be a Hall of Famer.
I think the starting infield could look like this, from left to right: Colorado’s Nolan Arenado, San Francisco’s Brandon Crawford, Washington’s Daniel Murphy and Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt. Murphy’s bat probably has to be in the lineup, but I’d rather it be at DH than second base. That would allow Detroit’s Ian Kinsler to slide into the middle infield and secure strong defense on the dirt.
Off the bench, Houston’s Alex Bregman provides some nice utility. He can play every infield spot and is the only shortstop on the team behind Crawford. St. Louis’ Matt Carpenter also offers some flexibility and is another solid left-handed bat.
Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer rounds out the eight-man infield. It seems like he’s never going to develop into the superstar he looked like as a prospect, but he can be plugged in against a right-handed starter and provide some pop.
Of the four outfielders on the roster, three of them are players who are capable of playing center field but might be better off in a corner. I’d expect Baltimore’s Adam Jones to be the lead player in center since he’s the only one of the four expected to play center for his major league club in 2017.
Miami contributes a pair of corner outfielders in Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich. The power the right fielder Stanton offers is self-evident, and Yelich had a breakout 2016 as an on-base threat and emerging home run hitter.
The final outfielder is Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen. He’ll be moving to an outfield corner for the first time in 2017, and the former MVP will be getting his first taste of his new position representing his country.
For a starting lineup, I might roll with:
If Leyland wants a little extra offense, Hosmer or Carpenter could be inserted for Kinsler with Murphy going to second base. Leyland will probably want to get every player involved, so against a lefty starter, Bregman and McCutchen could play in place of Crawford and Yelich, respectively.
I didn’t want the post to be about players who aren’t on the roster. I wish many of them would play to field the best possible roster, but it’s hard to ignore some of the missing talent. The top five batters in WAR last season — Anaheim’s Mike Trout, Cubs star Kris Bryant, Boston’s Mookie Betts, Toronto’s Josh Donaldson and L.A.’s Corey Seager — could all suit up for the U.S. but aren’t, for example. Neither is Bryce Harper, one of the league’s brightest stars.
In the outfield, the team could’ve used Kevin Kiermaier and Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton for specific purposes. Kiermaier will run down anything in center, and Hamilton pinch running in a key spot could be the difference.
On the mound, it seems like it will always be difficult to get the top pitchers to participate. A healthy Max Scherzer would have been a huge addition. I find it’s worth noting that the Dominicans (Johnny Cueto and Carlos Martinez), Venezuela (Felix Hernandez), and Colombia (Julio Teheran and Jose Quintana) will have their top pitchers available. Japan (Masahiro Tanaka and Kenta Maeda) is in a similar boat as the U.S. missing some top arms.
They don’t have all their stars, but the Americans still have a ton of depth. They’ll have to rely on that depth to finally break through and win the title. Their lineup will be deep, the starters will at the very least give them a chance to win, and there are options in the bullpen to match up in any situation.