Team USA's WBC roster: Not exactly a Dream Team
Earlier this week, I previewed Team USA's provisional roster for the upcoming World Baseball Classic, noting that it was fairly star-studded even if not all of the players were still at their peaks, and identifying some additional options at each position. On Thursday morning, MLB Network announced the remainder of the roster and — well, it's underwhelming. Among the 11 additional players announced was just one with All-Star experience: reliever Heath Bell, who's coming off a disastrous season that saw him displaced from the closer role and traded after the first year of a three-year free agent deal. Bell finished the season with a 5.09 ERA and was actually 0.7 wins below replacement level (using Baseball-Reference's version of WAR). He wasn't even the only sub-replacement level choice; Willie Bloomquist — WILLIE BLOOMQUIST, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD — got the nod despite −0.4 WAR himself.
Meanwhile, one previously announced former All-Star, Andy Pettitte, has been scratched from the roster with no reason given. Given Pettitte's age (40) and recent injury history (two major trips to the disabled list and a year in retirement over the last three years), it's not too hard to understand why he or the Yankees might have had second thoughts about participating — even with the chance to work with longtime manager Joe Torre, who's at the helm of Team USA. Rounding out the team's starting rotation behind the previously announced R.A. Dickey and Ryan Volgelsong are the Braves' Kris Medlen and the Rangers' Derek Holland, though Torre has left a roster spot open for Justin Verlander, who will decide on his participation based upon how strong he feels once he starts throwing in spring training. Medlen closed the season as the majors' hottest pitcher, going 9-0 with an 0.97 ERA in 12 starts after joining the Braves' rotation in late July, and finishing the year with a 1.57 ERA in 138 innings. Holland, on the other hand, was cuffed for a 4.67 ERA in 175 1/3 innings with the Rangers, for a 97 ERA+ — three percent worse than league average.
One can rationalize explanations for the absences of several star-level starters. Given last season's injury and workload concerns among star-level American starters, the absences of Roy Halladay (strained lat), Clayton Kershaw (hip), Cliff Lee (oblique), CC Sabathia (elbow surgery), Stephen Strasburg (innings limit) and Jered Weaver (late-season fatigue) are understandable. Likewise for Cole Hamels, who reportedly shut down his offseason throwing program due to shoulder soreness, though he has since resumed throwing. The relocations of Zack Greinke and James Shields give them a pass as they prioritize getting to know their new teammates. Vogelsong's participation would seem to rule out teammate Matt Cain, Holland may be along for the ride only because teammate Matt Harrison turned down an invitation, and likewise, some other players' participation may be mitigated by teammates who wind up on foreign rosters, which will be announced later today. But no David Price, Max Scherzer, Adam Wainwright, C.J. Wilson or Jordan Zimmmermann? You'd think Team USA could scare up at least one more frontline pitcher.
Beyond the previously announced relievers — closers Craig Kimbrel Chris Perez, plus middle relievers Luke Gregerson and Vinnie Pestano — Team USA added a similar mix of closers (the Twins' Glen Perkins, the Marlins' Steve Cishek) and setup men (Bell, who's now below J.J. Putz on the Diamondbacks' depth chart, the Giants' Jeremy Affeldt, the Royals' Tim Collins and the Cardinals' Mitchell Boggs). Among the Americans selected for last year's All-Star Game who aren't participating: Ryan Cook, Joel Hanrahan, Jim Johnson, Lance Lynn, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon and Huston Street; 2011 selection David Robertson is also not on the roster. What's left isn't a bad bullpen, by any means, but it could have been better.
Because of the tournament's pitch count rules, more than half of the players named to Team USA (14 out of 27) are pitchers, not including Verlander. Starters are limited to 65 pitches in the first round, 80 in the second round, and 95 in the semifinals and finals, and they're not allowed to pitch again for four days if they exceed 50 pitches. Relievers can throw on back-to-back days, but only if they don't exceed 30 pitches; if they do either of those things, they must take a day off. Those requirements limit the number of position players Team USA is carrying, but perhaps most disappointingly, it appears that none of Thursday's additions will be starters. Here's a quick rundown.
Catcher: Beyond the previously announced Joe Mauer and Jonathan Lucroy, Team USA was expected to add one more catcher, in part because Mauer figures to spend at least some time at DH or first base. They did, in the Blue Jays' J.P. Arencibia, who hit just .233/.275/.435 with 18 homers last year. One can understand the Giants holding NL MVP Buster Posey back, but Arencibia is nowhere near as good a player as two-time All-Star Matt Wieters, for example.
First Base: No full-time first baseman was announced beyond Mark Teixeira, though both Mauer and Ben Zobrist, who was added to the team on Thursday, have experience at the position. The versatile Zobrist might be the best of this wave of additions; he's coming off a .270/.377/.471 season with 20 homers and 5.5 WAR (sixth among AL position players) and has extensive experience at second base, shortstop and rightfield, with enough experience at first and in leftfield and centerfield to get by. Still, the lack of another big bat such as Prince Fielder, Paul Konerko or even Adam LaRoche has to rate as a disappointment.
Second Base: Beyond the previously announced Brandon Phillips, who's coming off a somewhat subpar year, the only other options for Torre are Zobrist — a better player than Phillips according to every value metric — and Bloomquist. The latter is coming off a career year, at least superficially speaking; his .302 batting average was a career high, but when accompanied by a .325 on-base percentage and .398 slugging percentage while playing half his games at hitter-friendly Chase Field, that loses most of its luster; his .262 True Average wasn't even as high as his 2008 mark of .268. Meanwhile, multiple metrics have him well in the red defensively, knocking him below replacement level, at least according to B-Ref WAR; FanGraphs' WAR has him at 0.8 and Baseball Prospectus' WARP has him at 0.2, still within hailing distance of replacement level. Even given the absences of Dustin Pedroia, Aaron Hill and Ian Kinsler, you'd think the team could find a better alternative.
Shortstop: Again, no full-time alternative to the previously announced Jimmy Rollins; Zobrist (47 starts in 2012) and Bloomquist (61 starts) are the backups. No J.J. Hardy, no Ian Desmond, no Troy Tulowitzki, and obviously no Derek Jeter, who's recuperating from a broken ankle that required surgery.
Third Base: Yup, no full-time alternative to the previously announced David Wright, and in fact this may be the thinnest position in terms of the bench, given that Bloomquist had just 11 starts there last year, and 23 over the past five seasons, while Zobrist has just two big league starts there. No David Freese, no Ryan Zimmerman, no Chase Headley.
Outfield: Even without Mike Trout, Bryce Harper or Andrew McCutchen (all of whom passed), the starting outfield of Ryan Braun, Adam Jones and Giancarlo Santon rates as Team USA's top strength, but beyond the already-named backup Shane Victorino, the only other outfield possibility is Zobrist. No Josh Hamilton (a longshot due to his relocation to the Angels) or Matt Kemp (shoulder surgery) is understandable, but so many other names such as up-and-comers Dexter Fowler, Alex Gordon and Austin Jackson or older veterans like Matt Holliday or Torii Hunter or Nick Swisher (who could have also played first base) would have made sense, too — though again, the fact that the latter two players have joined new teams gives them a pass.
In the end, the reality is that many players' participation may hinge upon a guarantee of playing time, particularly when egos are in play. Committing to one player as the regular may rule out the participation of another, who would rather train with his team than ride the pine for his country. When one considers that only 30 percent of WBC rosters are made up of players on 25-man rosters (according to a World Baseball Classic "Fact or Fiction" press release circulated to a limited number of reporters), that Team USA has such players for every slot puts them ahead of virtually every other team. Still, this isn't a Dream Team gathering of historical proportions, and while that both underscores the number of elite international players in MLB and keeps hope alive for the other major contending teams such as Japan, South Korea and the Dominican Republic, it's less likely to draw the attention of casual fans who have yet to be won over by the tournament's charms. It's fair to say Team USA and the WBC as a whole missed a significant opportunity here by not sending a stronger squad. Who's going to tune in for Willie Bloomquist?