Will the third time be the charm for the World Baseball Classic?
Not if the underwhelming U.S. roster is any indication.
While many of Commissioner Bud Selig's innovations have enjoyed immediate success — especially expanded playoffs and interleague play — baseball's attempt to create its own World Cup is limping along as a second-tier novelty, in large part because major league executives and players aren't embracing it.
The fans who follow every move of their favorite major league teams continue to look at the WBC through suspicious eyes, seeing the March event as either a nuisance or an outright threat to the teams they support. There has been compelling competition in the first two editions of the WBC, but it has been celebrated by fans from Japan, Korea, Cuba, the Netherlands and Canada, not those in the U.S. or even the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
Despite drawing from the deepest pool of talent, Team USA has gone 7-7 in the WBC. There was some thought that the previous disappointments would prompt U.S. organizers to work harder to build a team around its biggest advantage, pitching. But too many of the best players — no doubt in consultation with their teams — told manager Joe Torre no thanks.
In 2006 and '09, Team USA was built behind the arms of starting pitchers Roger Clemens, Jake Peavy, Dontrelle Willis, Roy Oswalt, Ted Lilly and Jeremy Guthrie.
This year's roster should have included a who's who of live arms but landed only one of the 11 eligible starting pitchers who received Cy Young Award votes last season — National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. He will head a staff that tentatively includes Ryan Vogelsong, Kris Medlen and Derek Holland, all guys who can dominate on a given day but none of whom received Cy Young votes last year.
Not participating are David Price, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, Clayton Kershaw, Gio Gonzalez, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Chris Sale, Matt Harrison and Kyle Lohse, although organizers are holding open a spot for one more starter. MLB.com reports that Verlander could be added if he is cleared after the beginning of spring training.
Let's hope that's right because the U.S. should be able to build a staff that dominates. While fans gnash their teeth about pitchers extending themselves in March, the reality is that top starters, if they are in shape, often breeze through their first few spring training starts.
There's no reason Torre shouldn't be able to get five or six strong innings per game from starting pitchers if he penciled one in for the first three innings and another to work the fourth through the sixth. But it appears that Torre will make the same mistake Buck Martinez made in 2006 and Davey Johnson replicated in '09, giving more innings to a cast of one-inning, glad-to-be-there relievers such as Steve Cishek, Vinnie Pestano, Tim Collins and Glen Perkins than any of the best U.S. pitchers.
Vogelsong helped the Giants win the World Series but in terms of star power lags far behind Cain and Tim Lincecum. He knows he's part of a roster that is being second-guessed before the competition.
"There's one way to quiet all that,'' Vogelsong told the San Francisco Chronicle's John Shea. "That's to go win the thing."
Wearing the crown: If you're looking for a WBC favorite, you would be foolish to go beyond the Japanese. They are the two-time defending champs, beating Cuba in the '06 final at Petco Park and Korea in the '09 final at Dodger Stadium.
With a chance to play the first two rounds in Japan, opening in Fukuoka and expected to advance to the semifinals in the Tokyo Dome, Team Japan will play without Ichiro Suzuki and any of his fellow big leaguers. That's not expected to be a huge hindrance, however, as the Japanese get the best players from their two leagues and historically have played very well together.
Six starting pitchers had sub 2.00 earned-run averages in Japan last year, and four were on the roster submitted Thursday, including 24-year-old Kenta Maeda, who seems most likely to assume the ace role from Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish. The hitting leader is likely to be 33-year-old catcher Shinnosuke Abe, a Japanese version of Mike Piazza.
The team from the Dominican Republic looks great on paper, led by an infield that has Robinson Cano at second base, Jose Reyes at shortstop and Adrian Beltre at third base. But it remains to be seen if players will take the event seriously or party hard, as they did when they twice lost to the Dutch in 2009.
Mexico is a definite sleeper, with Yovani Gallardo as the ace and Danny Espinosa and Adrian Gonzalez as middle-of-the-order bats.
Heavily represented: There's an unfair nature to how teams share the WBC talent burden. Some organizations, like the Brewers and Giants, open their arms to the event organizers, while many others quietly discourage players from participating.
While the Cubs will be missing only Anthony Rizzo (Italy) from their big league camp, the Brewers have 14 players participating, the maximum allowed under event guidelines. The list includes Gallardo, Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, John Axford, Marco Estrada and the team's top two catchers, Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado.
Gord Ash, the Brewers' assistant GM, says the team is serving baseball's "greater good,'' but he doesn't see the heavy involvement as a negative.
"The timing this year is going to work out OK,'' Ash told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "The players will get in seven (exhibition) games before they go and will be back again at the end.''
The Giants have 10 players on provisional rosters, including Vogelsong, Pablo Sandoval, Marco Scutaro and five relievers — Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez, Jeremy Affeldt and Jose Mijares. National League MVP Buster Posey, who spent last spring recovering from a shattered ankle, declined an invitation.
Game, set, match? While the Dodgers roll toward the season as spending champions, the Nationals cemented their spot as preseason favorites by adding Rafael Soriano to a bullpen that already included Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Craig Stammen. They finished the week by trading surplus slugger Michael Morse to the Mariners for a package of prospects, including right-hander A.J. Cole, whom they had traded a year earlier to land Gio Gonzalez.
"They have changed 99 percent from the three years I played in the division," Soriano, who pitched for the Braves in 2007-09, told the Washington Post. "Last year I saw a tremendous team, tremendous talent. There's a great chance this year to win a World Series."
General manager Mike Rizzo referred to the addition of Soriano as "strengthen(ing) a strength'' and said he believes he has improved a team that won a majors-high 98 games last year.
"We're going to have to learn how to deal with having the bull's-eye on our back," Rizzo said. "I think the maturity of the club will handle it. … We're not sneaking up on anybody anymore. People know we have a good club, and they're going to be shooting for us every time out. It'll be up to the players to react to that and to handle it in a way that positively motivates them and not negatively."