The United States will be the last of the 16 World Baseball Classic qualifiers to join in on tournament play when they dig in against Mexico on Friday night at Phoenix's Chase Field. They'll do so as the heavy favorite to win Pool D, a four team group that also includes Canada and Italy.
Reverting to the format of the 2006 WBC, Round 1 is once again a round-robin, which will see each team play each of the others in their pool once, a total of three games for each team, with the top two teams (determined by a series of complicated tiebreakers, if necessary) advancing to the eight-team Round 2.
The US will follow its Friday night contest against Mexico, during which it will be the home team, by playing as the visitor against Italy on Saturday night and Canada in the final Pool D game on Sunday afternoon. Here's a quick look at Team USA and its Round 1 competition.
By all rights, the US shouldn't lose a game in this round, but Team USA, which has never advanced past the semifinals, has shown a knack for underperforming in the WBC. Despite boasting one of the strongest rosters each time out, the US posted a mere .500 record in each of the first two Classics. In 2006, the US went 3-3 failing to make it out of Round 2 after going 1-2 in that round and losing a tiebreaker to eventual champion Japan. In 2009, the Americans went 4-4, again being eliminated by eventual champion Japan, that time in the single-elimination semifinals.
Much has been made about the fact that Team USA does not feature a number of the best American players in the major leagues. Indeed, one could assemble a roster as good or better than the one Team USA is bringing into the classic from the players who are not participating. That's as much a testament to the depth of talent in the US in what is, to be fair, an American game played most extensively and at the highest level in the United States, as it is a criticism of the Team USA roster, which is hardly lacking in star power. Team USA may not have Justin Verlander, David Price, Clayton Kershaw, CC Sabathia, Buster Posey, Prince Fielder, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Matt Kemp or Andrew McCutchen, but the players it does have are enough to win the entire tournament and are, as a group, leaps and bounds above the quality of the other three teams in Pool D.
Jimmy Rollins, SS, Phillies Brandon Phillips, 2B, Reds Ryan Braun , LF, Brewers Joe Mauer, DH, Twins David Wright, 3B, Mets Eric Hosmer, 1B, Royals Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins Adam Jones, CF, Orioles Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers
The lineup above is the one Team USA manager Joe Torre ran out against the Rockies in an exhibition game on Wednesday after Hosmer had replaced the injured Mark Teixeira on the roster. On Tuesday, lacking Teixeira and Hosmer, he started Zobrist at first base, which might be the superior option, but such lineup quibbles shouldn't come into play in this round given the talent gap between the USA and its opponents.
R.A. Dickey will start the opener against Mexico for the USA with Ryan Vogelsong and Derek Holland to follow against Italy and Canada, respectively, those three comprising easily the best starting trio in Pool D. Throwing the first Cy Young award-winning knuckleballer in major league history in this tournament just doesn't seem fair given that a good number of the opposing hitters likely have had little to no exposure to a knuckleball, let alone one of the best ever. Blue Jays backstop J.P. Arencibia will be charged with corralling Dickey's knuckler while Mauer remains at designated hitter.
Starting pitchers will only be allowed to throw 65 pitches in Round 1 by tournament rules, but the US also has an impossibly deep bullpen. Left-handed Nationals starter Ross Detwiler will be available for long outings. The Braves' Craig Kimbrel, the best closer in baseball, will fill that familiar role here as well. In between, Torre will be able to deploy some of the best set-up men in the business, including the Diamondbacks' David Hernandez, Cleveland's Vinnie Pestano, Giants lefty Jeremy Affeldt, the Padres' Luke Gregerson, and closers Glen Perkins, another lefty, and Steve Cishek of the Twins and Marlins, respectively, among others.
Mexico is the team most likely to accompany the US into Round 2. Canada may have the second-best lineup in this Pool, but Mexico has the best pitching, which historically has proven to be more important in WBC play. Yovani Gallardo will be charged with negating Dickey on Friday night, and could well be up to the task, though if both pitchers are on their game, efficiency may be nearly as important as effectiveness, given that 65-pitch limit.
Gallardo's rotation-mate Marco Estrada is likely to start against Canada's big bats on Saturday, and veteran Rodrigo Lopez will face Italy, the weakest of Mexico's three opponents, Thursday afternoon. In the bullpen, the top options for manager Rick Renteria, the Padres' bench coach, will be closer Sergio Romo, righties Alfredo Aceves and Fernando Salas and lefty Oliver Perez.
Eduardo Arredondo, CF, Mexican League Ramiro Peña, SS, Braves Luis Cruz, 3B, Dodgers Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Dodgers Jorge Cantu, DH, Mexican League Karim Garcia, RF, Mexican League Edgar Gonzalez, LF, ex-Padres Humberto Cota, C, Mexican League Gil Velazquez, SS, Yankees (NRI)
Adrian Gonzalez is the only major league star in that lineup, but Arredondo is the only man not to have reached the major leagues and the Mexican League, though its teams are not affiliated with specific major league teams, is an official Triple-A circuit. So while Mexico's lineup has a low ceiling, it also has a high floor. Cantu hacked his way out of the majors, but not before collecting 104 home runs. Garcia, who has played in the majors, Japan and Korea, and was once a top-10 prospect way back in the mid-90s, hit .334/.383/.585 in the Mexican League last year at age 36. Arredondo, who, at 28 is in his natural prime, hit .331/.398/.404 with 27 stolen bases in 91 games.
Tyson Gillies, CF, Phillies Pete Orr, 2B, Phillies (NRI) Joey Votto, 1B, Reds Justin Morneau, DH, Twins Brett Lawrie, 3B, Blue Jays Michael Saunders, RF, Mariners Adam Loewen, LF, Blue Jays (NRI) Chris Robinson, C, Orioles (NRI) Cale Iorg, SS, Tigers (minor leaguer)
Canada joins Teams USA as the only members of this pool that can field an entire lineup comprised of players affiliated with major league teams. Its third-place hitter, Votto, is one of the best hitters on the planet, and he's backed up by a former American League MVP in Morneau and a pair of emerging young power hitters in Lawrie and Saunders.
Things run a little thin around the edges, however. Gillies is a faded Phillies prospect who is still just 24 but has yet to crack Triple-A. Loewen, the former Orioles pitching prospect, has hit .262/.354/.429 across four minor league seasons since arm injuries forced him into the outfield. Veteran Orr defines replacement level, and Robinson and Iorg are minor league organizational fodder. It didn't help that Russell Martin insisted on playing shortstop, then bowed out when both the Pirates and Team Canada balked.
Still, with a strong pitching staff Canada could go somewhere with that lineup. Unfortunately, that lineup is the best part of Team Canada. The Canadians and manager Ernie Whitt, the long time Blue Jays catcher and current roving instructor in the Phillies system, do have the Brewers' end game of John Axford and Jim Henderson, but those two may not be much use given the state of the rotation. Perpetually injured former Nationals groundballer Shawn Hill, a non-roster invitee with the Tigers this spring, will start against Italy on Friday, and Pirates reliever Chris Leroux, whose eight starts in the minors last year were his first since he moved to the bullpen in 2007, will take the opening innings against Mexico on Saturday.
The most compelling matchup for Team Canada will be when they send Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon to the hill against Team USA in Sunday's finale. The 21-year-old Taillon is one of the top 20 prospects in baseball and believed to be a potential ace, a 6-foot-6 stud with a devastating fastball/curveball combo. Taillon hasn't pitched above Double-A, but some believe he could reach the majors by season's end. The catch is that, with a 65-pitch limit, Canada's weak middle relief will still be exposed, and their lefty-heavy lineup will have to contend with American southpaw Derek Holland.
Nick Punto, 2B, Dodgers Chris Denorfia, CF, Padres Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs Alex Liddi, 3B, Mariners Chris Colabello, DH, Twins (NRI) Mike Costanzo, LF, Nationals (minor leaguer) Mario Chiarini, RF, Italian League Drew Butera, C, Twins Anthony Granato, SS, Italian League
Under WBC rules, a player can play for a country if he has one parent who is a citizen or was born in that country, or if he is eligible for citizenship, but not necessarily a citizen, of that country. As a result, the Italian roster has been inflated by American-born players such as Punto, Denorfia, Rizzo, Colabello, Costanzo and Butera as well as others from Venezuela, a country with a large Italian population. Liddi, however, was actually born and raised in Italy, signed with the Mariners as an international free agent and has since become the first major leaguer to come out of an Italian high school.
Liddi can hit, and the 23-year-old Rizzo is a budding star with the Cubs, but the Italian lineup isn't in the same league as the Americans'. Things are far weaker on the pitching side where, other than Pirates closer Jason Grilli and 39-year-old Dan Serafini, who last recorded multiple outs in the majors in 2003, there's not a single pitcher with major league experience. Most of the Italian pitchers do have at least some minor league experience, but there are no top prospects like Taillon or even Gillies here.
The most compelling hurler on Team Italy, again outside of Grilli, may actually be Pat Venditte, the Yankees minor leaguer who has made it to Triple-A as a switch-pitcher. John Mariotti, a former Orioles farmhand who has spent the last two years pitching for Quebec in the Independent Canadian-American Association. He will start against Mexico on Thursday. Italian manager Marco Mazzieri, who had an 18-year career in the Italian Baseball League before becoming the manager of Italy's national team, has not announced his other two starters for this round.
USA and Mexico advance to Round 2