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No Cubs are playing for Team USA, but there is a lot of star power on the team. But previous teams also had a lot of big names, only to melt away once the games actually started. These players need to realize that just showing up is not going to be good enough, and that talent alone won't win the World Baseball Classic.
The preliminary roster for Team USA for the 2013 World Baseball Classic was announced this morning. Most of the names on the list had leaked out earlier, but now we have confirmation and an (almost) full roster.
The strength of Team USA is going to be the outfield, where manager Joe Torre will be able to put Ryan Braun in left, Adam Jones in center and Giancarlo Stanton in right field with Shane Victorino serving as the fourth outfielder. Going around the infield, there is Mark Teixeira at first base, Brandon Phillips at second, Jimmy Rollins at shortstop and David Wright at third.
Three catchers were named to the team. Joe Mauer, who will also spell Teixeira at first, is the big name, but Jonathan Lucroy also joins the team, coming off his breakout 2012 season. J.P. Arencibia rounds out the group.
Rounding out the position players are two versatile utility players, which are ssential in a tournament like this. The first is Ben Zobrist, who is probably the most underrated player in baseball, and the second is Willie Bloomquist, who is not, but he is coming off a great season and can play pretty much any position necessary.
The biggest questions come on the mound. Joe Torre named only four starting pitchers to the preliminary roster. The ace is reigning NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, and I don't think anyone would question his participation. But the next three starters are Ryan Vogelsong, Kris Medlen and Derek Holland. All fine pitchers, to be sure. But I don't even think their mothers would claim that they were among the best four U.S.-born starting pitchers right now.
The biggest questions are probably going to come in the bullpen. They named ten relievers to the team, which sounds excessive but the pitch count rules in the WBC dictate large bullpens. But the players chosen are, well, a little underwhelming. Throwing from the right side, Team USA has Craig Kimbrel, Heath Bell, Chris Perez, Mitchell Boggs, Steve Cishek, Vinnie Pestano and Luke Gregerson. From the left, there is Jeremy Affeldt, Glen Perkins and Tim Collins.
Again, all ten of those relievers are fine pitchers. Kimbrel may be the best reliever in the game right now. Chris Perez is a closer that any team would love to have. But beyond that, it's mostly a list of solid middle relievers. A lot of the best closers aren't here.
There is one open spot left on the roster, and it's no secret that it's being left open for Justin Verlander. Verlander has said he wants to see how he feels in spring training before committing, and the final decision doesn't have to be made until February 20. Obviously if Verlander chooses to play, the star power of Team USA goes up exponentially. If he doesn't, then Joe Torre will have to scramble.
I'm not going to criticize anyone who chose not to participate. A lot has been made out of the young stars of the game, Mike Trout, Buster Posey, Bryce Harper and David Price, skipping the tournament. (Although honestly, I'm not sure Harper would actually make this team. Wait until 2017). Some players would be there except they are coming off injuries, like Derek Jeter and Troy Tulowitzki. The reason generally given for not participating is not wanting to disrupt Spring Training, but you'll have a hard time finding a modern ballplayer who really needs six weeks of Spring Training to get into game shape anymore.
The unstated reason for not participating is the fear of injury, although players who participated in the 2006 and 2009 WBC were less likely to get injured in March or April than players who did not. The other reason is a fear that they won't get enough work in, as the rosters are large and the playing time limited. But there is a good coaching staff and starting pitchers, for sure, can stay with their teams for most of the time unless they're scheduled to pitch.
But whatever their reason is, that's their right. I think that pretty much every player who has played in the previous two WBC tournaments would say that it was an experience that they'd remember all their lives. Most of the players on Team USA are players repeating from 2009. If they thought it wasn't worth their time or would increase their chance of being injured, they wouldn't be back.
But enough focusing on who isn't on the roster. The Team USA roster is very, very good. But it will be up to the coaching staff to remind them that they aren't going to just walk to the title. In fact, Team USA has never even made the final game. I attribute this to the Asian teams simply being better prepared. Two-time champion Japan doesn't have better players than Team USA, but they are ready to play June baseball in March, whereas the Americans are still working out their off-season kinks.
It is the responsibility of the all-star coaching staff to get that team ready to play championship baseball in March. I hope that they've made it clear to the players participating that they need to start their spring regimen early, because they won't have time to get in shape once the games start. The quality of play is just too high.
Assisting manager Joe Torre with getting this team into shape are two pitching coaches, Marcel Lachemann and in his first coaching gig, Greg Maddux. Former Cub Larry Bowa will be his bench coach while former Cubs hitting coach Gerald Perry will have the same job with Team USA. Dale Murphy will coach first base and Willie Randolph will be the third base coach.
The pressure will be on this team. They know that after the flame-outs of the previous two WBCs, Team USA will have to at least make the final, maybe even win it, or they will be considered a failure again. The rosters for the other fifteen teams will be released later today, but I don't think any other team will have as much raw talent as Team USA. Now it will be up to them to turn that talent into a championship.
Update: Besides Anthony Rizzo playing for Team Italy, one Cubs minor league player will be in the WBC. Ryan Searle, who pitched for Daytona, Tennessee and Iowa last season, will take the mound for Team Australia.
Second Update: Apologies to Yao-Lin Wang, whom I missed on the roster of Chinese Taipei. Wang pitched for Peoria last season.