The United States World Classic Baseball team looks like a who’s who of American All-Stars, especially on the mound and around the infield. It’s a good thing too, because the competition this United States World Baseball Classic
team will face in the round robin tourney, which begins March 3rd with games in Tokyo, Japan, will not exactly be chopped liver. When the United States World Classic Baseball team opens play in Phoenix, Arizona on March 7th, they will be facing the best that other countries have to offer.
The World Baseball Classic is a unique event put together by Major League baseball and its Player’s Association in which sixteen nations and territories send their greatest players to do battle in pool play. The four pools of four teams each are comprised of the best baseball playing nations and territories in the world. The two top teams in each pool will then form a pair of pools for Round Two, with the four winners going to the semifinals until only two squads remain for the championship game on March 20th in San Diego, California.
The United States, like all the participants, has a provisional roster that they can choose their final roster of thirty players from. There must be a minimum of thirteen pitchers and three catchers on the team, as these two positions are most vulnerable to what major league managers fear most, injuries, especially during spring training. Several stars have opted not to play for Team USA, among them Barry Bonds, who initially indicated he would be there. The Classic has strict rules limiting pitch counts, to protect pitchers’ arms. The US wisely loaded up on short relievers to comprise the majority of its pitching staff as only four of their hurlers are starters.
A good place to start is with the starters. There is Dontrelle Willis of the Florida Marlins; after his team was dismantled in the off-season the Classic will be his only big stage this season. He was 22-10 last year with a sub 3.00 ERA. His funky motion will give batters, especially those who have never faced him, all kinds of fits. Jake Peavy of the San Diego Padres is another starter, coming off a 13-7 season which saw him give up only 162 hits in over 200 innings pitched. Portly C.C. Sabathia of the Cleveland Indians is also playing for his country. The Tribe’s ace went 15-10 in 2005 and is a five year major league veteran. Rounding out the starters is Roger Clemens, the free agent right hander who may or may not retire after the World Baseball Classic. The Hall of Fame lock, at age 43, is looking forward to wearing his nation’s colors. His overall record of 341-172 places him in rarefied air among the sport’s elite pitchers. His ERA of 1.87 last year was the best of his long career and he would like nothing better than to distinguish himself in this setting.
The stable of relievers is impressive, with the closers of several clubs on the United States entry. There is the Mets’ Billy Wagner, a fireballer with more than 200 more strikeouts than career innings pitched, who recently said, “With the talent we have and the pride we have in the United States, it’s going to be like playing in the Olympics.” Minnesota’s Joe Nathan, the A’s Huston Street, and imposing Brad Lidge of the Houston Astros are all here. Mike Timlin from the Red Sox, Brian Fuentes of the Rockies, and Dan Wheeler from Houston will be standing by. Nationals’ Chad Cordero, coming off a remarkable 47 save campaign and wily Todd Jones, who rang up 40 saves at age 37 for the Marlins, will be on hand. Angel set-up man Scott Shields, who struck out 98 in 91 innings last year, will be chomping at the bit to help Team USA.
The battery will be completed by a trio of catchers. Michael Barrett of the Cubs has some pop, but more importantly calls and catches a good game. The Red Sox sparkplug, Jason Varitek, will be in the middle of everything, you can count on that. His fiery demeanor is just what this group will need when things get tough. His clutch switch hitting bat won’t hurt either. Brain Schneider of the Nationals is the third receiver, bringing his defensive prowess with him.
The outfield consists of a mix of young rising stars and accomplished veterans. The Blue Jays’ Vernon Wells is out, having suffered a quadriceps injury lifting weights. He will be replaced most likely by steady Luis Gonzalez, the Diamondbacks 2001 World Series hero. A sixteen season veteran, the 38 year old Gonzalez has over 300 career homers and a .285 lifetime batting average. Johnny Damon, fresh from his signing with the New York Yankees, will be available. His left handed stroke and lead off ability will make him quite an asset. Ken Griffey Jr. will bring his Hall of Fame talents to the party; his 536 home runs over 17 seasons make him a lock for Cooperstown someday. The Braves’ Jeff Francoeur, only 22, is coming off his rookie year that saw him bat .300 and knock in 45 runs in only 70 games. Speedy contact hitter Randy Winn of the Seattle Mariners and the Rockies’ Matt Holliday are the last pair of outfielders on the roster.26 year old Holliday has knocked in 144 runs in only 246 games during his brief stint in the majors.
It is in the infield that the United States team in the World Baseball Classic is particularly strong. The Yankee tandem of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez will both be enshrined in the Hall of Fame when they are done playing. They anchor the left side of the infield, with Derek’s .314 batting average and Alex’s 426 dingers and 1226 RBI making them formidable adversaries. Two-time All-Star Michael Young of the Texas Rangers and the Phillies Chase Utley are a duo of middle infielders bringing their skills to this unit. Utley had 105 RBIs as a second baseman in 2005; Young had over 90 the last two seasons. Larry Wayne Jones, you know him as Chipper, made the cut; how couldn’t he with his .303 lifetime mark and over 330 home runs? The Rangers’ first sacker, 25 year old Mark Teixeira, brings his 43 homer and 144 RBI monster 2005 numbers with him. Did I mention the Cubbies’ Derrek Lee, he of the 46 homers from last year and winner of two Gold Gloves at first? He will be a formidable part of this bunch of ballplayers.
The United States team in the World Baseball Classic is in Pool B with Mexico, Canada, and South Africa. They open play in Phoenix, Arizona on March 7th with a game against Mexico. The next day they square off with the Canadians, with over-matched South Africa playing them on March 10th. Former major league skipper Buck Martinez will manage the US side, which opens camp on March 3rd at the former Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. They will work out for two days and then play the San Francisco Giants in an exhibition game to prepare for the start of the Classic.
The United States nine should easily advance to Round Two, where the stakes will be raised considerably and the opposition will then stiffen. The Dominicans and Venezuela have loaded teams as well, and the United States team in the World Baseball Classic will have to be sharp. As pitcher Jake Peavy puts it, “The competition is going to be pretty heated. I don’t think anyone on Team USA wants to be embarrassed.”