Location: Rogers Centre, Toronto, Canada
On paper, the Team USA is the best team in the tournament, but all that got them in 2006 was a 3-3 record and a second-round exit. In an attempt to make up for that embarrassment, new manager Davey Johnson, who led a team of minor leaguers to the bronze medal in Beijing, has assembled a deep, well-constructed roster with equal emphasis on on-base percentage (only two of the team's 13 hitters had an OBP below .350 in 2008, one of whom was Jimmy Rollins at .349), speed (seven stole ten or more bases in 2008), and power (only Rollins, fellow speedster Shane Victorino, and team captain Derek Jeter slugged lower than .480 last year). The four-man bench is buoyed by the presence of the Indians' jack-of-all-trades Mark DeRosa.
The U.S.'s pitching staff is less impressive, but only in contrast to Japan's starting rotation and to the U.S.'s own prospective bullpen prior to the last-minute withdrawals of Joe Nathan (elbow), B.J. Ryan (mechanics) and Brian Fuentes (family). Replacements LaTroy Hawkins, John Grabow and Joel Hanrahan are significant downgrades, but the U.S. bullpen is still the best in the tournament. Righties Jonathan Broxton, J.J. Putz, Scott Shields and Heath Bell lead the way, with J.P. Howell and Matt Thornton contributing from the left side and southpaw Fuentes likely to return for the later rounds, giving the U.S. another weapon for a potential showdown with the heavily left-handed Japanese lineup in the finals.
In the rotation, though Ted Lilly gives the U.S. a southpaw to throw against lefty-heavy offenses such as Canada and Japan, he and Jeremy Guthrie, while both fine pitchers, are underwhelming choices given the wealth of alternatives. Jake Peavy, meanwhile, enters the WBC with a poor big-game reputation (0-2 playoff record and corresponding 12.10 ERA), which doesn't include his poor performance in the 2007 NL West tie-breaker against the Rockies (6 1/3 IP, 6 R). That might seem like nit-picking given that the U.S. rotation is still likely second only to Japan's in the tournament, but pitching will decide this series, and the U.S. will need someone other than 2000 Olympic gold medalist Roy Oswalt to come up big for them in the later rounds.
In another case of getting the wrong Zambrano, Venezuela has to make do with Victor when they had wanted Carlos. The Cubs' Zambrano and fellow non-participant Johan Santana would have made Venezuela a serious contender. Instead, they're a team that's good enough to slip past pitching-deprived Canada and into Round 2, but unlikely to do much once they're there. With the newly Haloed Bobby Abreu and Tigers Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen anchoring the lineup, K-Rod closing and the Mariners Felix Hernandez leading the rotation, Venezuela doesn't lack talent, but they do lack depth. The bottom half of the lineup is weak, the bench is filled with slick fielders who can't hit, and the bullpen behind Rodriguez is largely populated by cast-offs. The only "first division" team they're clearly better than is Mexico.
In 2006, Canada went 2-1 in the first round, but allowed 23 runs in their three games and failed to advance due to losing a runs-allowed tie-breaker to the U.S., a team they had beaten head-to-head by a score of 8-6. This year, all that matters are the wins, but it seems that once again Canada's weak run prevention will be their undoing. Led by Russell Martin, Justin Morneau, Jason Bay and Joey Votto, the Canadians have a lineup that rivals Venezuela's, but Twins reliever Jesse Crain leads their pitching staff in major-league experience. With fireballing Mariners' prospect Phillippe Aumont limited to a relief role coming off a season interrupted by elbow problems, Canada just doesn't have the pitching to contend, and its lack of a proper center fielder (2006 WBC hero Adam Stern is actually a weak-hitting minor league right fielder) isn't going to help keep opposing runs off the board. They're the best of the "second division" teams.
The professional Italian Baseball League (formerly Serie A1) dates back to 1948, but even with WBC eligibility open to players of Italian descent, thus resulting in a team largely composed of American minor leaguers, Italy is completely out of its league in Pool C. Every other team in this pool boasts at least a major league-quality lineup, but Italy has just two players who have had more than 210 major league at-bats, and they are Frank Catalanotto and Nick Punto. Things are worse on the pitching staff, where Rockies reliever Jason Grilli is the only hurler with a firm major league job. In 2006, Italy beat Australia before being eliminated, but with the pools shuffled, they won't last past Monday's elimination game.
Biggest difference maker:Davey Johnson, USA.Johnson's .564 winning percentage as a major league manager is the 13th-best in big-league history among men who helmed a thousand games or more (his mentor, Earl Weaver, is the only living skipper ahead of him). Johnson dramatically improved each of the four teams he took over and finished no worse than second place in 11 of his 12 full seasons as a big-league skipper. He's now charged with translating the on-paper superiority of the U.S. squad into on-field dominance following the team's embarrassing early exit in 2006. Prior to last year's Olympics, Johnson hadn't been in the dugout since 2000, but he appears to be up to the challenge.
Remember the names:Nick Weglarz, Phillippe Aumont and Brett Lawrie, Canada.Canada has a trio of players rated as four-star prospects by Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein. Ontario's Nick Weglarz is a 22-year-old left-fielder possessing a great plate approach and solid power. Weglarz will start the season in Class AA and could be hitting in the middle of the Indians' lineup come 2011, though he might be a first baseman by then. Twenty-year-old Quebecois hurler Phillippe Aumont was the 11th overall pick in the 2007 draft, throws in the high 90s, and is on the fast track to the Mariners' rotation. Brett Lawrie is a 19-year-old catcher from British Columbia with great power who, as the Brewers' 16th-round pick in 2008, was the highest-drafted Canadian position player ever.
Remember this name?:Corey Koskie, Canada.Post-concussion syndrome brought Koskie's major league career to an early end in 2006, but having been cleared by his doctors, the Manatoba native has joined the Canadian team at age 36 and has been invited to spring training by the Cubs. Unfortunately, future hall of famer Mike Piazza is only coaching for Italy, not playing.