An early look at Team USA's World Baseball Classic roster
Even given that the World Baseball Classic is an exhibition within the exhibition season, peeling star players away from their teams during spring training isn't the easiest task. Teams are understandably reluctant to let any player with even the slightest hint of injury or still rehabbing from one participate, and most team officials presumably require blindfolds or heavy sedation when their pitchers take the mound. Aided no doubt by a bit of behind-the-scenes muscle from Major League Baseball — as well as a bit of patriotic fervor from players eager to represent their country — the rosters do fill out, and the ones for the 2013 tournament, which will take place from March 2-19, are beginning to take shape.
Managed by Joe Torre, Team USA will submit its provisional 23-man roster on Thursday. Enough reports of participation have come in to flesh out a starting lineup and account for the majority of the slots on the roster. Unlike most of the other teams, the Americans have the benefit of enough depth to put a major leaguer in every slot, not necessarily the best players at the position — a good number of which are foreign-born — but generally a recent All-Star. Here's a quick rundown of what we know, and some ideas of how to fill out the rest of the roster.
Catcher: Joe Mauer (Twins) and Jonathan Lucroy (Brewers). Given that it was only two years ago that Mauer missed nearly half a season with injuries, the Twins might be forgiven for being a bit squeamish about his participation, but aided by the time he spent at first base and designated hitter last year (a combined 72 starts, equaling the number he made behind the plate), he did set career highs in games and plate appearances in 2012 while hitting .319/.416/.446. Reports suggest the team will include a third catcher as well, and with a DH slot also available, there's a good chance Mauer won't spend a whole lot of time behind the plate. Buster Posey, the reigning NL MVP of the world champion Giants, is an obvious choice, but there's been no word on his participation thus far. The Orioles' Matt Wieters, an All-Star and Gold Glove winner in 2011 and 2012, makes sense as well. A.J. Pierzynski, who's coming off a big season with the White Sox, is another option, but given his relocation to the Rangers, it's fair to assume he might want to spend as much time as possible getting to know Texas' pitching staff.
First Base: Mark Teixeira (Yankees). A calf strain limited Teixeira to a career-low 123 games last year, including just one in September, not to mention a middling .251/.332/.475 performance. The two-time All-Star is presumably good to go, however, and probably hoping to erase the memory of his 0-for-15 performance in the 2006 Classic. Mauer could see time here as well. The most obvious choices to round out the position would appear to be the Tigers' Prince Fielder, the White Sox Paul Konerko, and the Nationals' Adam LaRoche but again, there have been no hints of any of them joining the fun.
Second Base: Brandon Phillips (Reds). Like Teixeira, Phillips is coming off a down year, having hit just .281/.321/.429 in 2012 and missed making the All-Star team for the first time since 2009. Boston's Dustin Pedroia, who shared time with Brian Roberts at the position on the 2009 WBC team, may be held out by the Red Sox after battling a variety of finger injuries in 2012. None of the other American players at the position combine strong 2012 showings with tremendously high profiles; Ian Kinsler, Rickie Weeks and Dan Uggla had relatively lackluster seasons or worse. The Diamondbacks' Aaron Hill, who is coming off a strong 26-homer season, may best be the best addition.
Shortstop: Jimmy Rollins (Phillies). Rollins shared time at short with Derek Jeter during the 2009 Classic, but the Yankees' captain is recuperating from ankle surgery so he's a no-go. The same would figure to be true of Troy Tulowitzki, who was limited to just 47 games in 2012 due to a groin strain that required surgery, but apparently, he'll participate if cleared by the tournament's supervising committee at a workout later this week. Rollins hit 23 homers last year, and while his .250/.316/.427 showing doesn't look all that spectacular, it was good enough for a .274 True Average. If Tulo's a no-show, most of the top remaining options at the position are foreign-born, with the Orioles' J.J. Hardy and the Nationals' Ian Desmond probably the best available American candidates.
Third Base: David Wright (Mets). Wright split time at third base with the retired Chipper Jones during the 2009 tourney; coming off a big year (.306/.391/.492) and his new contract, he's an obvious choice to return. The Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman and the Cardinals' David Freese would make for worthy additions.
Outfield: Ryan Braun (Brewers), Adam Jones (Orioles), Giancarlo Santon (Marlins), Shane Victorino (Red Sox). As star-studded as a Braun-Jones-Stanton outfield may be, there's a bit of disappointment to be had with the lack of participation from 2012 Rookies of the Year Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. Trout, who battled shoulder tendonitis and lost 20 pounds due to a virus last spring, already told WBC officials he wants to focus on a healthy spring training, and Harper ruled it out back in December. The Pirates' Andrew McCutchen would be a logical addition; he's coming off a dynamite season and was recently voted as the cover boy for the MLB '13 The Show video game, but he has opted out. The Dodgers' Matt Kemp is a no-go as he recovers from shoulder surgery, the Angels' Josh Hamilton is getting acquainted with a new team and hardly needs another distraction. Victorino is no longer a star, but as a 2009 participant, he does provide an additional bit of continuity from the previous squad, as well as some nominal defensive versatility. The Tigers' Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter, the Royals' Alex Gordon, the Rockies' Dexter Fowler and the Cardinals' Matt Holliday are a few name-brand options to round out the roster.
Starting Pitchers: R.A. Dickey (Blue Jays), Andy Pettitte (Yankees), Ryan Vogelsong (Giants). Torre has snagged one reigning Cy Young winner in Dickey, but the other one, David Price, has opted out. Of the 2011 winners, the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw is probably out due to his late-season hip woes, while the Tigers' Justin Verlander remains a possibility; according to USA Today's Bob Nightengale, he won't be on the provisional roster but could be added "if his arm feels strong by next month." The Angels' Jered Weaver and the Phillies' Cole Hamels make sense as star-level additions, though the former's 2012 injuries may keep him off limits. The participation of Vogelsong almost certainly rules out teammate Matt Cain, and the same would probably be true regarding Pettitte and CC Sabathia if the latter weren't already coming off surgery. Of the 2009 squad's starters — Roy Oswalt, Ted Lilly, Jake Peavy and Jeremy Guthrie — only the latter is free of durability concerns these days, and he's hardly a star.
Relief Pitchers: Craig Kimbrel (Braves), Luke Gregerson (Padres), Chris Perez (Indians), Vinnie Pestano (Indians). It's a bit of a surprise to see two relievers from Cleveland represented thus far; you'd think Torre was filling out a fantasy roster and handcuffing the pair to make sure he gets all of the Indians' saves. Other high-profile options include the Orioles' Jim Johnson, who led the majors with 51 saves last year, the Phillies Jonathan Papelbon, a four-time All-Star, and the Cardinals' Jason Motte, who closed out the 2011 World Series, but as the presence of setup men Gregerson and Pestano indicates, the pool of relievers is larger than just closers, increasing Torre's options exponentially — though Scott Proctor is probably off the hook.
Team USA hasn't met with tremendous success in the first two versions of the World Baseball Classic, going a combined 7-7. In 2006, the Americans didn't even reach the final four; they went 2-1 in Pool B, beating Mexico and South Africa but losing to Canada, then following that by going 1-2 in Pool 1, beating Japan (the eventual champion) but losing to South Korea and then Mexico. They did finish fourth in 2009, first beating Canada and splitting a pair with Venezuela in Pool C, then splitting a pair with Puerto Rico, beating the Netherlands and losing to Venezuela in Pool 2; that was enough to advance them, but they lost in the semifinals to Japan, the eventual champions.
This time around, Team USA will be part of Pool D, with Mexico, Italy and Canada; it will play at Chase Field in Phoenix (home of the Diamondbacks) with some of the pool's other games taking place at Salt River Field at Talking Stick in Scottsdale (spring training site of the Diamondbacks and Rockies). If the Americans advance, they'll be part of Pool 2, which will be played at Marlins Park in Miami. Other preliminary pools will take place in Fukuoka, Japan, Taichung, Taiwan and San Juan, Puerto Rico, with Pool 1 taking place in Tokyo. The finals are scheduled to be played at AT&T Park in San Francisco. I'll be back with a look at the other rosters as the tournament approaches.