With the announcement a couple weeks ago that Joe Torre will manage Team USA in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, I can justify my desire to speculate on what the roster may look like. I’m a fan of the WBC even though most aren’t. I like international competitions, and it’s a shame that there really isn’t a great time for it to be held. Before the MLB season starts, teams want to carefully control the workload of pitchers getting ready for the season. Afterward, players are weary after a long season and may just want the rest.
Japan has won the first two tournaments with Daisuke Matsuzaka taking home MVP honors in both. Team USA has not met expectations the first two times around, getting bounced by Mexico in round two in 2006 and falling in the semi-finals to Japan in 2009. This isn’t too shocking since anything can happen in one game in baseball, but expectations are always high since baseball is considered the country’s pastime and arguably has the deepest talent pool in the world. The 2013 edition will feature 28 teams instead of just 16. The four teams that did not win a game in the 2009 tournament will compete in qualifying rounds against 12 new countries, and the top four will join the main field.
I could just pick the best players for my projected roster, but that doesn’t reflect the realities of the tournament. To account for this, I came up with a few rules:
1) Any pitcher that has been on the DL with a throwing elbow or shoulder injury since 2010 will not participate. That pitcher’s team won’t want to risk re-aggravating the injury in international play.
2) Any starting pitcher that hasn’t thrown 200 innings in a single ML season (regular season+playoffs) will not participate. That pitcher’s team won’t want the stress of added innings in international play.
3) Any starting pitcher on a 2012 playoff team (reflecting current standings) will not participate. That pitcher’s team will want the pitcher to receive that extra little bit of rest in spring training. Those teams are Washington, Cincinnati, LA, the Yankees, White Sox, Texas, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, San Francisco and Atlanta.
4) Any starting pitcher that will be 35 years old in 2013 will not participate. That pitcher will want rest in spring training.
5) Starting this year, players of Jewish heritage are eligible to play for Israel’s roster. It’s speculated that Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler and Kevin Youkilis, who head this contingent, will all either decide to play for the U.S. or Israel. With this “package deal”, I thought it would be best to assume they would play for Israel.
6) 2009′s roster had 15 pitchers and two catchers among 15 position players. I’ll try to follow along with that, but I may change the infield/outfield balance.
With all of that out of the way, here is my four man starting rotation. In prior years, it seems that’s all teams have used. If a player has previously played for any USA roster, I’ll note that.
1. Justin Verlander, RHP Detroit (2003 Collegiate team)
This is an easy choice since the Tigers were out of the playoff picture when I started doing this. In the last two years, Verlander has turned it up a notch as a durable workhorse with a deep arsenal of great pitches. By the time opposing batters figure out the timing to hitting his high 90′s fastball, his three to four innings will be complete, and they’ll have to adjust to a new arm. He won AL MVP and Cy Young last year, and he’s certainly in the race to win another CY this year. One of his chief competitors, Jake Peavy, has participated in the first two WBC’s, but I didn’t pick him this time.
2. Cliff Lee, LHP Philadelphia
Lee will give teams a completely different look compared to Verlander. From the left side, he fills up the strike zone with a variety of pitches, keeping hitters off balance by changing speeds, eye levels and locating fastballs on both corners of the plate. At his best, he can mow down batters efficiently and make the most of his limited pitches. If he’s off though, Joe Torre is going to have to identify it early and make a call to the bullpen because hits can come in bunches against him if he’s off. He does have plenty of big game experience.
3. Jered Weaver, RHP Anaheim (2003 Collegiate team, 2005 Olympic qualifier)
Weaver threw his first career no-hitter in 2012, but a back injury soon after has kept him out a few starts. Once again, he’ll be in Cy Young contention against Verlander. He’s a true ace, and he does it with a fastball that averages 90 MPH or less. He does it with great pitch location, and he mixes in two breaking balls and a changeup. The improvement in his curveball in 2010 helped him handle left handed pitchers and completely emerge as one of the game’s best. He heads one of the AL’s best rotations.
4. Ricky Romero, LHP Toronto (2004 Collegiate team)
Romero has been one of the most underrated pitchers in recent years, and I have to admit his 2012 season is troubling. His location has been off, and that’s especially troubling for a pitcher that relies on placing his pitches where he needs to. In some ways, he’s similar to Lee; he mixes in four or more pitches including a cutter to go inside to righties. Despite the struggles this year, his success the two prior seasons is too much to pass up to me. My goal when creating the rotation was to not only get the best arms but find different styles so familiar teams have a harder time keying in on someone.
For the bullpen, I did something a little different from past teams. After the four man rotation, they’ve filled out the pitching staff with a double digit amount of relievers, but I embraced the idea of a “relief ace”, or in this case, four more starters to come out of the bullpen. With the pitch counts the WBC has in place, getting players to chew up innings is key to me. Rather than have one starter pitch four innings and then using three to four relievers for an inning apiece, why not bring in a second starter to keep more relievers fresh? I paired each relief ace with someone in my rotation to try and have contrasting styles.
RA1. C.J. Wilson, LHP Anaheim
Wilson has been a revelation since the Rangers converted him into a starter for 2010, and he’s gotten better each year. As a reliever, he was pretty much a fastball/slider only pitcher as a lot of relievers are, but his repertoire has deepened in the rotation. He still leans on those as out pitches, but he’s using a curveball, cutter and changeup much more than he did coming out of the bullpen. Coming in after Verlander, batters will have to get used to a pitcher coming from the other side with a fastball 5-10 MPH slower and a different kind of breaking ball.
RA2. Trevor Cahill, RHP Arizona (2008 Olympics)
Cahill can probably be a bit dicey because of his command and pitch movement, but with the catchers I’ve added to the roster, I’m confident they can handle him. In a way, he’s almost a one pitch pitcher like a reliever, but that pitch is very good. His sinker has tremendous tumble and generates a lot of ground balls, and he’ll throw a changeup to keep lefties off balance. Coming in after Lee, he’ll be throwing from the other side, and Lee’s a bit of a fly ball pitcher, a clear contrast from Cahill.
RA3. Lance Lynn, RHP St. Louis (2007 Collegiate)
This may be a head-scratcher for some, but Lynn really fits in this role well. He’s having a lot of success in the rotation for the Cardinals this year, and he also has ML experience coming out of the bullpen. In my eyes, he’s a great fit for this swingman role. He’s pretty much a two pitch pitcher, leaning heavily on his fastball and curveball, but he’ll also throw a changeup with lefties batting. There isn’t a huge contrast between Weaver and Lynn like the previous two pairs, but I just find his starting and relief experience to be valuable.
RA4. Trevor Bauer, RHP Arizona (2009 Collegiate)
Even though he is yet to make his ML debut, it’s easy to see that Bauer’s pitching style is an excellent fit in this role. With his electric, deep arsenal, he would be difficult to hit coming out of the bullpen and firing a limited amount of innings. Batters would have a difficult time adjusting to his delivery only facing him once. Although he throws about 100 different pitches, he would probably be able to shorten his repertoire down to his best fastball, changeup and breaking ball. Bauer’s strengths are in stark contrast to Romero’s, making him an asset in this bullpen.
Closer: Craig Kimbrel, RHP Atlanta
Since winning NL Rookie of the Year last year, Kimbrel has been one of the nastiest relief arms in baseball. His hard fastball/slider combo is nearly unhittable, and he’s somehow gotten better after a record-setting rookie season in 2011. When batters aren’t swinging and missing, they’re beating his slider right into the ground for easy outs. As long as he’s near the strike zone, the game is secure when Kimbrel enters. He doesn’t really have any experience entering with runners on base, so his use may be restricted to starting his own innings.
Set-Up: Jonathan Papelbon, RHP Philadelphia
Overpaid or not, Papelbon has been one of the most reliable relievers in baseball over the course of his career, save for a bit of a hiccup in the 2010 season. He mainly pitches off his mid 90′s fastball, and he’ll use a tumbling splitter as an out pitch. Although he’s been a closer for the entirety of his career, he has the durability to throw more than one inning which means he can come in with runners on base. He has tremendous mound presence and the perfect mentality at the end of games.
Set-Up: Sean Marshall, LHP Cincinnati
Since moving to the bullpen full time in 2010, Marshall has developed into one of the league’s most durable and reliable relievers. He’s had a little closing experience, but he really made a name for himself working in different situations. He’ll have no problems coming in with runners on base and making sure they stay there. He’s effective against righties and lefties and certainly isn’t a specialist. Although his velocity ticked up switching from starting to relief, he hardly uses his four-seamer, preferring to lean on his curveball, slider and cutter.
Middle Relief: Sergio Romo, RHP San Francisco
Romo is of Mexican descent and could be eligible for their team, but since he doesn’t appear to have any international experience, I’ll claim him. He may fly under the radar thanks to San Francisco’s colorful closer, but Romo could be their best reliever. For two consecutive seasons, his WHIP has been below 0.80 which is just incredible for any pitcher. Trying to hit his slider is an exercise in futility, which is unfortunate for batters because he leans on it so heavily. The amazing thing is he strikes out so many batters with a fastball that averages less than 90 miles per hour.
Middle Relief: Scott Downs, LHP Anaheim
Giving up a draft pick to sign Downs may still have been a bit silly for Anaheim, but they have to be happy with the way he’s pitched. Although he’s not much of a strikeout pitcher anymore, he’s still one of the most effective relievers in the league, especially against lefties. He’s pretty much a one pitch pitcher now that he doesn’t use his curveball as often, but it’s a good one. His high 80′s sinker is an effective pitch for inducing ground balls, and that’s why he’s on this roster. If it’s late in the game and Torre needs a double play, he can go to Downs against lefties and righties alike.
Middle Relief: Brad Ziegler, RHP Arizona (2009 World Baseball Classic)
Ziegler is really a specialist on this team, and Torre would have to be careful to try to not use him against lefties. Because of his low arm angle, lefties get a better look at him and have a lot of success against him. That arm angle works in his favor extremely well against righties, and his sinker can generate a lot of ground balls in tight spots. He doesn’t really strike out many batters, but his sidearm delivery and sinker can be good in some situations. As a middle reliever, he has plenty of experience coming into games with runners on base.
Middle Relief: Jim Johnson, RHP Baltimore
Over the last two seasons, Johnson has emerged as one of the more underrated relievers in the league, and he finally earned the closer’s job in Baltimore when they gave up on Kevin Gregg. Johnson doesn’t have overpowering stuff and has a pretty low strikeout rate, but he commands his fastball and makes it hard to square up pitches against him. Sometimes he’ll throw a changeup to keep lefties honest, but otherwise he leans on his two-seamer almost exclusively. Johnson can be effective in pretty much any role.
How does it look? While maybe some of the best names aren’t here, I think this is a great staff with great depth. There are a lot of different styles, and in tournament atmospheres where pitchers don’t go very long and the roles aren’t traditional, quickly changing styles can really throw hitters off balance and give the team an advantage. I think this staff has balance with a handful of lefties, some pitchers that throw hard and some that don’t, some strikeout pitchers and some groundball guys. No matter the situation or point in the game, Torre will have a lot of options. Come back later in the week for the position players.