With the announcement that Joe Torre will manage Team USA in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, let's have a little fun and project who could form the 28-man squad in March.
Before we get to my suggested roster, a few notes and thoughts:
1. Rules require a minimum of 13 pitchers.
2. In reality, some of these guys won't want to play. The 2009 U.S. squad included John Grabow, Matt Lindstrom, Brad Ziegler and Chris Iannetta.
3. Like in 2009, we'll go heavy on relief pitchers. That squad included only four starting pitchers. One, that's all you need; and, two, teams don't want starters breaking up their normal spring training routine by pitching in relief in the WBC.
4. We want a balanced lineup. You don't want an entire lineup of right-handed batters.
5. I like the idea of going with younger players when possible. They're going to be enthusiastic about playing and it's good promotion for the sport to get new stars out there.
So here we go ...
Catchers: Buster Posey, Joe Mauer
Two positives here. One bats right-handed, one bats left-handed. Both can also play first base if needed. In case you've forgotten about Mauer, he has a .406 on-base percentage entering Thursday's game. This team will have plenty of power, so I'd prefer Mauer's on-base skills over the power of Matt Wieters or Brian McCann.
First base: Eric Hosmer, Prince Fielder
Yes, Hosmer is off to a slow start, but he's going to hit. I love the idea of putting him on the big stage, something he doesn't get to do playing for the Royals. Fielder gives us a left-handed power bat and we'll use him as our designated hitter in the tournament if he's not playing first base.
Second base: Dustin Pedroia, Ben Zobrist
Pedroia played on the 2009 squad and we'll be loyal to past participants whenever possible. Plus, he's the kind of high-energy guy you want for this kind of tournament. Zobrist gets the nod over Ian Kinsler for his positional flexibility. Like Mark DeRosa in 2009, he'll serve as our super utility guy and provides value as a switch-hitter and can run for Fielder if needed.
Third base: Evan Longoria, David Wright
Two more veterans from the 2009 we'll welcome back. Good sticks and good gloves.
Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki
Derek Jeter played on the first two WBC squads, but it's time to make room for Tulo.
Outfield: Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Josh Hamilton, Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper
It pains me to leave Giancarlo Stanton off the team, but we need to get another left-handed batter on the team, so we'll give Harper the final spot. Besides having the talent worthy of deserving consideration, Trout and Harper fill our young stars requirement and have the ability to play all three outfield positions. And they won't complain if they're not in the starting lineup every game.
Here's how I'd play the lineups in a championship game:
You gotta love the idea of Ryan Braun hitting leadoff!
Wright starts over Longoria with his supreme on-base skills versus lefties and we'll move McCutchen into the lineup for Hosmer. Posey replaces Mauer. I don't think you want to pitch a lefty against this squad.
Starting pitchers: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Cain, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale
OK, there's probably no way the Nationals let Strasburg pitch, but we can dream, can't we? So many choices here, of course, with guys such as Cole Hamels, Jered Weaver, Cliff Lee and others. Kershaw and Sale give us two left-handers and Sale could also pitch out of the bullpen as a long guy if needed. Verlander is the guy we want starting the championship game, but Cain wouldn't be a bad option either. Remember his 2010 postseason run? One unearned run in three starts.
Bullpen: Craig Kimbrel, Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan, Vinnie Pestano, Jim Johnson, Joel Hanrahan, Sean Marshall, Sean Burnett
Since there are limitations on the number of pitches that starting pitchers can throw, you need a lot of relievers on the staff. Nathan (2006) and Hanrahan (2009) are veterans of previous WBC squads, and by the way Nathan looks as dominant as ever, with a 31/2 strikeout/walk ratio. Pestano destroys right-handers -- .115 in 2011, .136 in 2012; he's an easy selection to the squad. Marshall and Burnett are the two lefty killers, but they're good enough to get right-handed batters as well. Johnson is a valuable asset since he can go two innings in case we get into an extra innings situation. He gets the final spot over the underrated Sergio Romo.
That's our 28 guys. What do you think? The previous two U.S. squads both failed to reach the championship game. In 2006, after going 2-1 in the first round of pool play, they went 1-2 in the second round, losing 7-3 to South Korea and 2-1 to Mexico, failing to reach the semifinals. In 2009, they went 2-1 in each of the first rounds of pool play (losing both times to Venezuela) before losing 9-4 to Japan in the semis (Roy Oswalt got pounded).
And, as I'm sure you remember, Daisuke Matsuzaka was MVP of each of the first two World Baseball Classics.
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