The U.S. squad for the World Baseball Classic is loaded with at least one All-Star at every position, as well as three MVP award winners.
But whether at the major league or international level, pitching carries the day, and Team USA’s quest to make the tournament finals for the first time in three tries will probably hinge on its mound staff.
The group of pitchers revealed when the provisional U.S. roster was announced this morning included reigning NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, San Francisco Giants postseason stud Ryan Vogelsong and Texas Rangers lefty Derek Holland, a solid cast but neither as deep nor as decorated as the list of position players.
Among the notables in what should be a fearsome lineup are catcher Joe Mauer, first baseman Mark Teixeira, third baseman David Wright and outfielders Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton and Adam Jones.
It’s hard to point to the position players on Team USA and bemoan who’s not there, such as Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
The pitching? That’s another story, as American pitchers sitting out the WBC are a virtual who’s who of recent award winners.
Justin Verlander, David Price and Clayton Kershaw, who have won three of the last four Cy Youngs, apparently will stand down, as will other top-notch starters like Jered Weaver, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez.
Even 40-year-old Andy Pettitte, expected to participate, ducked out at the last minute.
That once again underscores the Americans’ plight when competing in an event that other countries clearly take more seriously than its nation of origin.
Be it because of indifference, reluctance to change their training schedule, fear of injury, pressure from their teams or a combination of all, the elite U.S. pitchers typically eschew the WBC.
Not surprisingly, then, Team USA has gone 7-7 in an event Japan has won both previous times, with Daisuke Matsuzaka â(euro) “ a starting pitcher, for those who have forgotten about him â(euro) “ twice earning MVP honors.
The American team went 4-4 with a 5.99 ERA in reaching the 2009 semifinals, and 3-3 with a 3.75 ERA while getting bounced out in the second round in 2006.
Organizers have bent and twisted the rules to appease injury concerns among pitchers and those who care for them, establishing pitch limits that have been moved down to 65 for a first-round game, 80 in the second and 95 in the semifinals and final, according to Foxsports.com.
That still wasn’t enough to draw the game’s best starters. Among the U.S.-born pitchers who finished in the top 10 in ERA in either the American or the National League last season, only Dickey â(euro) “ a career journeyman whose mastery of the knuckleball resulted in a magical year â(euro) “ signed up to wear the red, white and blue.
That may not be enough both to throttle the power-packed lineups of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, but also match up against their pitchers.
Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo will have the luxury of choosing between All-Stars Elvis Andrus and Asdrubal Cabrera as his starting shortstop, and probably will shift Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera back to first base to make room at third for World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval.
The DR has 10 All-Stars on its roster and may not have a fielding position for former batting champ Hanley Ramirez, what with Adrian Beltre at third, Jose Reyes at shortstop and Robinson Cano at second. Ramirez may wind up as the DH.
And first-round host Puerto Rico, which has seen its talent base diminish in recent years, can still lean on a productive outfield that includes Carlos Beltran, Alex Rios and Angel Pagan, and also on five-time Gold Glove-winning catcher Yadier Molina.
These clubs, too, suffer from a dearth of elite starters, but Venezuela poses a notable exception with right-handers Felix Hernandez and Anibal Sanchez, who could give their country an edge if they perform up to their standards.
Hernandez is slated to start in the highly anticipated Pool C opener against the Dominicans, who don’t have Cincinnati Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto back for a second WBC appearance. Instead, their rotation is headed by Edinson Volquez, Wandy Rodriguez and Alexi Ogando. Reyes, a member of the 2009 Dominican team that was embarrassed by losing twice in the first round to The Netherlands, told the MLB Network during its announcement show that his home country is seeking atonement.
“No matter what people say or what’s in the press, we need to prove what kind of team we have, because in the past two Classics we weren’t able to do anything,” Reyes said. “We’re going to be more serious and try to get the cup to the Dominican Republic.”
Final rosters are not due till Feb. 20, so some things may change. Verlander, for one, is said to be contemplating joining the U.S. cause if his early spring goes well.
And to be sure, the American contingent won’t lack for marquee names. Paul Archey, MLB’s senior VP of international business operations, pointed out players like Teixeira, Jimmy Rollins, Braun, Wright and Shane Victorino are in for a second tour of duty in the WBC, a sign that recruiting them has gotten easier.
“That says a lot about their experience and their desire to represent their country,” Archey said.
Pitchers are certainly no less patriotic. One of these days, more of them may overcome their hang-ups and join in. Until then, Team USA will be playing at a disadvantage.