SweetSpot: World Baseball Classic

The symbolic moment of the United States-Puerto Rico game -- a thrilling 4-3 win for Puerto Rico to eliminate the tournament favorites -- came in the bottom of the sixth inning. The U.S., trailing 4-0 and struggling to generate any offense, was desperate enough to try to run on Yadier Molina. Not a good idea. Not down four runs. Not with Molina behind the plate. He gunned down Jimmy Rollins to end the inning and turned around to the throng of Puerto Rican fans behind home plate and raised his fist in a picture of triumph.

Not on me. Not on me.

In one play, the U.S. had turned into the scrappy underdogs, fighting for a single run. The Puerto Ricans had become the confident favorites, not afraid to show a little bravado on the field.

All this because of Nelson Figueroa, the 38-year-old journeyman from Brooklyn, N.Y., who didn't even pitch in the majors in 2012. He doesn't break 90 mph with his fastball but held a lineup full of All-Stars to no runs and just two hits over six innings. He's a terrific story, one of many we've seen in this World Baseball Classic. He has never pitched in the postseason. He may never make it back to the majors. He grew up rooting for the Mets and got to play for the Mets. This was the biggest game he has ever pitched in and he shut down Ryan Braun and Joe Mauer and Giancarlo Stanton. Figueroa has started 65 games in the big leagues and allowed zero runs only three times. This one won't go into the official record book as a fourth scoreless effort, but it's undoubtedly the one he'll remember the rest of his life.

So Puerto Rico advances to the semifinals in San Francisco; it plays the Dominican Republic on Saturday for seeding into the final four. The winner will play the Netherlands, the loser gets Japan.

The drama didn't end there. A few key moments:
  • I don't understand why Joe Torre left in Eric Hosmer to face J.C. Romero, the veteran left-hander, with the score 4-3, two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth. In his career, Romero has held lefties to a .612 OPS while righties have raked him for an .817 OPS. You have to hit a right-hander there for Hosmer, who hasn't been swinging well anyway. Jonathan Lucroy hit .400 against lefties last year but remained on the bench. OK, that's a small sample size, but Lucroy versus Romero is the pretty obvious move there. Torre and his U.S. coaches should have been ready to make that decision in such a pivotal moment.
  • Overall, it wasn't a strong tournament for Torre, from his strange penchant for the sacrifice bunt to hitting Brandon Phillips -- his seventh- or eighth-best hitter -- second in the lineup. But the blame, of course, has to fall on a lineup that just didn't produce, hitting just one home run in six games. Like the Yankees last offseason, the bats were just cold at the wrong time.
  • Another key at-bat took place in the bottom of the seventh, Adam Jones batting against minor league pitcher Jose De La Torre with the bases loaded and two outs. The 3-2 slider was an inch or two outside, but plate umpire Mark Wegner rang up Jones. Still, it was a gutsy pitch from De La Torre and too close to take, especially since Wegner had been giving that corner all game.
  • Finally, before the Hosmer at-bat, Fernando Cabrera got Stanton to pop out down the left-field line with the bases loaded. Stanton fouled off two 3-2 fastballs and then Cabrera threw a slider at the knees that Stanton was out in front of. Maybe Stanton drives it when he's in midseason form, but it was a good pitch as Stanton appeared to be looking for another fastball.
  • Just because the U.S. is eliminated -- for the second time in three Classics it won't even reach the semifinals -- isn't a reason to stop watching. The games have been exciting, with enthusiastic crowds and underdogs Puerto Rico and the Netherlands upsetting the U.S. and Cuba. What's not to appreciate about that? If maybe there's something to learn from all this it could be the passion, both from the players and the fans, that we've seen from the non-U.S. teams. In the U.S., we often beat this out of our young athletes. Celebrate a touchdown in football and get called for a penalty. Don't smile too much when you hit a home run. We have to play these games seriously, the right way, with life lessons to teach. I can't help but think of Nick Saban looking grim and unhappy or college basketball coaches yelling at refs for 40 minutes. When you watch the Puerto Ricans and the Dominicans and the Kingdom of the Netherlands squad, you see the simple joy of playing the game. Don't tell me that wasn't a factor in some of these results. I think that's a lesson we can learn. And if you're a fan? Enjoy the game. Baseball isn't as slow as you may think.
Fernando Rodney, Carlos SantanaAP Photo/Wilfredo LeeThe Dominican Republic advances to the semifinals after beating the United States 3-1.
If you don't think the World Baseball Classic is a fun event, you didn't watch Thursday night's game in Miami. And if you didn't watch the game, you didn't see the Dominican fans waving flags and blowing horns and cheering every pitch for nine innings. You didn't see the Dominican players leaping over the dugout railing when Erick Aybar singled in Nelson Cruz with the go-ahead run in the ninth or Aybar being mobbed at home plate when he scored on Jose Reyes' RBI single. You didn't see something that was unthinkable last season: Craig Kimbrel giving up more than one hit in a relief appearance. You didn't see Fernando Rodney and his crooked cap retiring Shane Victorino for the final out in the 3-1 victory, with Rodney firing his imaginary arrow in celebration.

In other words, you missed a great baseball game. I'll say this: It was more exciting than any World Series game from last fall (well, unless you're a Giants fan).

Some thoughts:

  • How dominant was Kimbrel a year ago? In 63 appearances, he never allowed more than one hit. He allowed just one double all season. Maybe he was due. Cruz led off with a hustle double into the right-center gap, just beating the throw from Giancarlo Stanton. (In a regular spring training game, Cruz is planted at first base.) After Carlos Santana moved Cruz to third with a groundout, Aybar pinch hit. Angel Hernandez -- terrible all game behind the plate -- botched a 1-1 pitch that was several inches outside, so give Aybar credit for keeping his cool and softly lining the next pitch, a 97 mph inside fastball, into right field for the go-ahead run. After he stole second, Reyes knocked him in. Kimbrel hadn't allowed two runs in a game since September ... of 2011. Props to the Dominicans for a clutch rally.
  • If there was a bad pitch Kimbrel made it was the 1-2 fastball to Aybar. After getting the gift call from Hernandez on the 1-1 pitch, why didn’t he go back outside with a fastball or another slider to see if Aybar would chase? That’s one aspect of the WBC: Pitchers may not always be in sync with their catcher like they would be in the regular season.
  • The key pitch of the game, however, may have come in the bottom of the first inning. Samuel Deduno started for the Dominican; he pitched poorly enough for the Twins last year that they removed him from their 40-man roster. Eric Hosmer had walked with two outs and the bases loaded to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead and then Deduno fell behind three balls to Adam Jones. After two fastballs for a called strike and a foul ball, Deduno dropped in a beautiful 3-2 curveball for a called strike. Deduno settled down from there, allowing just two more hits over his final three frames and finishing with seven K's.
  • The Dominican team is lacking in starting pitching, but the one area in which it can match the U.S. is bullpen depth and you saw it in full force on Thursday, led by Royals right-hander Kelvin Herrera and his high-octane heater. He pitched the fifth and sixth innings, allowing no hits. Veteran Octavio Dotel and Pedro Strop pitched the seventh and eighth to get the ball to Rodney. Linescore for the bullpen: 5 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 2 SO.
  • Joe Torre helped out the opponent again with another ill-advised bunt. After J.P. Arencibia led off the second with a single, Willie Bloomquist -- playing third base for the injured David Wright -- then sacrificed on a 3-1 count. Instead of playing for a big inning against a struggling pitcher, Torre gave away an out and the U.S. failed to score that inning.
  • I saw some tweets that suggested the World Baseball Classic isn't worth watching because Bloomquist was starting for the U.S. I don't get this argument. The All-Star Game is full of the world's best players but the game is rarely that interesting. Why? Because it's not a real game. The starting pitcher goes one or maybe two innings, the starters come out after a couple at-bats, nobody cares all that much about winning or losing (you certainly don't see the long faces from the losing team like you saw when Italy was eliminated), the managers just want to get everyone in the game and sometimes the commissioner just raises his hands and calls it a tie. The World Baseball Classic isn't perfect -- and because pitchers are held to pitch counts it's not quite like a real game -- but at least Ryan Braun and Robinson Cano aren't being lifted in the middle of the game. Plus, to take it one step further, did you not care about the World Series because guys like Gregor Blanco and Quintin Berry played?
  • Also, for all the complaining about the U.S. not fielding its best team, the Dominican squad was missing many of its stars, including Adrian Beltre, Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano, Johnny Cueto and others. Because of that, it started career minor leaguer Ricardo Nanita in left field and Miguel Tejada, who last played in the majors in 2011, at third base.
  • Ryan Vogelsong now faces Puerto Rico in a winner advances/loser goes back to spring training game on Friday night in Miami. The U.S. may replace Wright on the roster with another third baseman (update: the U.S. can't replace Wright until the semifinals) and we’ll also have to see if Torre will use any of the relievers -- most notably, Kimbrel -- on consecutive days. Nelson Figueroa starts for Puerto Rico. The Puerto Ricans don’t have the same kind of bullpen depth as the Dominican team, so they will likely need Figueroa to go five or six innings on his 85-pitch limit.

If you watched Sunday's U.S.-Canada game you saw 21-year-old Pirates right-hander Jameson Taillon throw four impressive innings for Canada, allowing four hits and one walk while striking out three. He showcased his mid-90s fastball and struck out Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Braun and Shane Victorino on curveballs, getting Braun looking on a beautiful 3-2 bender. (Taillon is from Texas, but both his parents are Canadian.)

During the game, I had a couple readers insist Taillon is better right now than U.S. starter Derek Holland. I don't know about that. Taillon has pitched just three games above Class A while Holland has a 4.29 ERA over the past two seasons pitching in one of the best hitter's parks in the majors. Taillon had a 3.82 ERA in the Florida State League and Holland had a better strikeout/walk ratio pitching in the American League than Taillon did pitching for Bradenton.

That doesn't mean Taillon doesn't have the potential to be better than Holland. Keith Law ranked him No. 20 on his top 100 prospects list, writing "Taillon has top-of-the-rotation stuff, not that far behind teammate Gerrit Cole's arsenal, but doesn't miss as many bats as you'd expect given what comes out of his arm and may be more of a 1A to Cole's 1 when it's all said and done." Other lists were in line with Keith's: Baseball America ranked Taillon 19th and MLB.com ranked him 15th.

During the broadcast, the announcers compared Taillon to Josh Beckett -- both are big right-handers from Texas, both were drafted second overall. (No high school right-hander has ever been drafted No. 1, and the last one drafted second before Beckett in 1999 was Bill Gullickson in 1977.) In fact, the Pirates had Taillon rated ahead of Bryce Harper on their draft board in 2010. I don't think the announcers were necessarily comparing ability, although Taillon's ability is certainly high, but the similarity in backgrounds.

Let's be clear: Taillon is not Beckett, at least not yet. When Beckett pitched in the Florida State League, he was a year older than Taillon (actually, six months older, but a year older in seasonal age) and absolutely dominant. In 12 starts, he went 6-0 with a 1.32 ERA, 32 hits in 65.2 innings, 101 strikeouts and just 15 walks. Moved up to Double-A, Beckett had a 109/19 strikeout/walk ratio in 74.1 innings. He even made four starts for the Marlins, tossing up a 1.50 ERA in 24 innings. That's why Beckett was the No. 1 prospect in baseball heading into the 2002 season.

Look, Taillon has some special talent. But don't let prospect hype run amok here and suggest this kid is going to be as good as Beckett. Maybe he will. Maybe he'll be better (for the Pirates' sake, I hope so). The numbers suggest he still needs to improve before we can project him as a No. 1 or No. 2 starter in the majors. We certainly saw a glimpse of his upside on Sunday, but let him dominate in the minors before we make him the next Josh Beckett ... or even the next Derek Holland.
If you've watched any of the Netherlands' games in the World Baseball Classic, you've seen what Braves fans enjoyed last year: the impending stardom of shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

Simmons has flashed the leather that impressed so many during his 49-game rookie stint with Atlanta, making several outstanding plays, but he's also hitting .417 in the WBC, including a huge two-run, game-tying home run in the eighth inning against Cuba on Monday. Simmons isn't known for his power, but yanked a pretty good pitch -- a low and away slider from Cuban lefty Norberto Gonzalez -- out to left field. When the Netherlands scored in the bottom of the ninth, it advanced to the semifinals and Cuba was eliminated.

[+] EnlargeAndrelton Simmons
AP Photo/David J. PhillipBraves SS Andrelton Simmons was second in the majors last season with 19 Defensive Runs Saved. And he did that in just 49 games.
Simmons is one of the great draft stories in recent years. As a 16-year-old in Curacao, he turned down some small offers to turn pro. Years later, Western Oklahoma State Junior College coach Kurt Russell saw him on a scouting trip and brought him to the States, where he immediately impressed as a 20-year-old freshman in 2010. Some teams saw Simmons as a pitcher due to the 98-mph fastball he flashed while pitching a little bit, but the Braves drafted him in the second round and let him play shortstop.

Two years later, he was in the majors. There have been concerns about his bat, due to a lack of power -- he won the Carolina League batting title in 2011, but hit just one home run -- and low walk rate, but he's not without skills as a hitter. He hit 35 doubles in 2011 and had 27 extra-base hits between Double-A and the majors last year in 385 plate appearances. He's also just 23 with two-plus years of pro experience, so the power is still developing. He'll never be a big walk guy, but that's not because he's a wild swinger; he puts the ball in play and has a low strikeout rate. He hit .289/.335/.416 for the Braves last year and I believe that contact ability means he can hit around .300 consistently in the majors.

If he does that and turns into a guy who hits 30 doubles and 10 home runs per season, with his ability in the field, he'll become one of the more valuable assets in baseball. His defensive metrics last year with the Braves were off the charts, with 19 Defensive Runs Saved -- ranking second behind Brendan Ryan. Remember, he played just a third of a season. UZR also loved his fielding, ranking him fourth behind Ryan, Clint Barmes and J.J. Hardy.

I hate to say this, but Simmons has -- yes -- Ozzie Smith-like potential in the field. I don't know if anyone has Ozzie's first-step quickness, but Simmons is close and has a stronger arm than the Wizard. The scouting reports on Simmons back up what the metrics suggest, that he's already an elite fielder, maybe the best shortstop in the game. Even as a kid in Class A ball, scouts said he was ready to play the position in the majors. That's why the Braves didn't hesitate to promote him after just a couple months in Double-A.

How good will Simmons be? Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is widely acknowledged as the best all-around shortstop in the game. While Simmons certainly can't match Tulo's power at the plate, Tulowitzki's injury history is a huge flag. I'm not saying I'd take Simmons (ignoring salaries), but I think Simmons will hit enough this year that the question will be tossed out there: Is he the best shortstop in the majors?
We've seen a lot of bunts in the World Baseball Classic. In an earlier game against Japan, Chinese Taipai twice attempted bunts with one out. On Sunday, Joe Torre had Adam Jones -- who hit 32 home runs last year -- bunt with two runners on in a tie game. Later, Ben Zobrist bunted with two on when the U.S. was trailing by two runs. (Zobrist reached on a fielding miscue and the U.S. scored twice that inning.)

I mentioned that Torre had bunted only 13 times in his career managing the Yankees when down by two runs, all by weak hitters other than two by Derek Jeter (both in 2004). Others have said you can't compare what Torre did in the regular season since these are more like postseason games, where you're more inclined to scratch and claw for one or two runs rather than wait for the big inning.

So I looked it up on the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index: In the past 10 postseasons, there have been 11 sacrifice bunts when trailing by two runs. Six of those were by pitchers -- including the biggest of those, Kyle Lohse pinch-hitting in the bottom of the 10th in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series -- and the others were by Willy Taveras, Nick Punto, Chone Figgins, Brooks Conrad and Freddy Sanchez. In the cases of Taveras and Figgins, you're also talking about two of the best bunters in recent years, guys with the speed to potentially beat out any bunt.

Still, while the decision to bunt in that down-by-two situation is certainly rare, it's not necessarily a move that's never used by managers.
Craig KimbrelMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsCraig Kimbrel worked a one-two-three ninth to secure the win over Team Canada.
They call this the World Baseball Classic and Sunday's United States-Canada game certainly qualifies as a classic, with a David-versus-Goliath storyline, several questionable lineup and managerial decisions made by Joe Torre, a late-inning rally and maybe some respect earned for this tournament.

The final score read 9-4 in favor of the United States, and the U.S. moves on to the second round next weekend in Miami. But the game was much more tense than the score indicated. Some quick thoughts:

  • Let's begin with Torre's lineup. He inserted Shane Victorino into left field and Ben Zobrist into right field, moving Ryan Braun to the DH spot, Joe Mauer to catcher and benching Giancarlo Stanton. While that added two switch-hitters to the Team USA lineup against Canadian right-hander Jameson Taillon, it meant sitting one of the game's premier sluggers for Victorino, who isn't the same presence in the lineup. I understand that Torre wanted to get Victorino into a game, but this isn't tee ball; there are no trophies and cookies handed out to the losing team for trying your best.
  • Torre then had a strange sacrifice bunt attempt in the second inning with two runners on and no outs after David Wright doubled and Canada third baseman Taylor Green dropped an infield pop-up. Instead of going for a big inning against a 21-year-old who has pitched three games above Class A, Torre had Adam Jones bunt. It made no sense to play little ball there instead of trying to blow the game open against a pitcher who didn't exactly dominate the Florida State League in 2012. The bunt worked but Taillon worked out of the jam without a run. Play for one, get none.
  • The U.S. fell behind when Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders continued his hot WBC streak with a two-run home run to right, yanking a terrible hanging slider from Derek Holland. Saunders had shown bunt on the first pitch, a ball in the dirt, then swung away. That's what can happen when you don't bunt.
  • Down 2-0 in the fourth, Torre then bunted again with two on and no outs. The bunt "worked" when Green hesitated on Zobrist's bunt down the third-base line and Zobrist beat the throw to first. How rare is a bunt when trailing by two runs? Torre managed the Yankees from 1996 to 2007 and the Yankees had 13 sacrifice bunts when down two runs -- one by a pitcher, three by Miguel Cairo and the others by weak hitters other than two by Derek Jeter in 2004. In other words, Torre almost never bunted in that situation. It's like Torre was watching all the small ball played by the Asian teams and forgot he has the best lineup in the tournament. If Green makes the play, the U.S. scores only one run that inning instead of two. Good outcome, but the wrong call.
  • In the eighth inning, after Jones delivered a big go-ahead double to give the U.S. the lead, Torre turned to Diamondbacks righty David Hernandez even though the heart of the Canada lineup -- Joey Votto, Justin Morneau and Saunders, all left-handed hitters -- was due up. I can't quibble too much with that decision, even though lefty Jeremy Affeldt was available. I would have used Affeldt, as all three players had sizable platoon splits last year, but Hernandez was one of the game's best relievers in 2012 (although he held righties to a .145 average and lefties to a .240 mark). After Votto reached on an infield, Morneau struck out and Saunders laid down a perfect bunt single. Chris Robinson then singled to load the bases and Adam Loewen grounded out to make the score 5-4. Torre then brought in Marlins reliever Steve Cishek (of course, using Craig Kimbrel, the most dominant reliever in baseball with your tournament on the line was apparently out of the question) and had him intentionally walk Pete Orr (!) to load the bases. I never like that move, which gives a pitcher no room for error. Canadian manager Ernie Whitt also pinch-hit lefty Tim Smith to face the sidearmer. The intentional walk also guaranteed Votto would bat in the bottom of the ninth. Anyway, Cishek got Smith to ground out to second in what turned out to be the game's crucial at-bat.
  • The U.S. broke it open in the ninth, with Whitt waiting too long to bring in Brewers closer John Axford, who served up a three-run double to Eric Hosmer. In the end, the U.S. bullpen depth proved key, as many expected it would before the game.
  • One thing that needs to stop is the guarantees made to general managers that if their guy is selected to a squad, he needs to play. I'm not sure if Torre used Hernandez because he hadn't pitched in the previous two games -- and again, it wasn't that strange of a move, not like the two bunts -- and needed to get him some work. Same thing with Cishek. Or maybe Torre just wanted to get them into a game. But this isn't exactly an All-Star Game. It's not an easy job, but I'd like the U.S. managers to treat this a little more seriously and not guarantee playing time. It's easy enough for a reliever to throw on the side after a game and Victorino's season isn't going to be ruined by not playing for three days.
  • Part of the fun of the World Baseball Classic is rooting for guys from your team, no matter which country they're playing for. As a Mariners fan, it was exciting to see Saunders have another big game. It was a rough day for Brewers fans, however. Green went 0-for-5 and his two miscues in the field led to at least two U.S. runs, Jim Henderson couldn't hold the 4-3 lead in the eighth, and then Axford let the game get away in the ninth. Even Braun went a quiet 1-for-5.

We've had a brawl, we've had upsets, we've had dramatic late-inning rallies and, thanks to one big swing from David Wright, we now get a monumental showdown between bitter enemies Canada and the United States to stay alive in the World Baseball Classic.

OK, maybe it's not quite Sidney Crosby and the Canadians taking on Ryan Miller and the Americans in the 2010 gold-medal hockey game at the Vancouver Olympics, and maybe Canada and the U.S. aren't exactly enemies on the diamond, but Sunday's game at Chase Field in Phoenix is probably the biggest baseball game for Canadians since the Blue Jays won their second straight World Series in 1993.

Baseball fans in the U.S. are still warming up to the whole idea of this tournament, and while a major goal is to help increase popularity of the sport in countries such as Brazil and China and Italy and the Netherlands, don't be fooled: The organizers want U.S. fans to get as passionate about the World Baseball Classic as those in Japan and Latin America. In large part because second-round games will be held in Miami, with the semifinals and finals in San Francisco, and the organizers want sold-out ballparks -- something more likely to happen if the U.S. keeps advancing.

With that possibly in mind, the U.S. was given a soft pool. While the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico were all placed together in Pool C, the U.S. drew lighter-weights Mexico, Canada and Italy. But when Italy beat Mexico and Canada, and then Mexico upset the U.S. on Friday night, it suddenly put pressure on the U.S. to win its final two games of pool play. Joe Torre's squad was actually helped when Canada beat Mexico earlier Saturday -- a game that featured a bench-clearing brawl in the ninth inning -- meaning the Americans now controlled their destiny.

That destiny took a turn for the worse when the surprising Italians took a 2-0 lead against Ryan Vogelsong, who didn't have his usual excellent fastball command. Most of the Italian players are from the U.S., including big leaguers Anthony Rizzo, Chris Denorfia and Nick Punto, but cleanup hitter Alex Liddi of the Mariners was born and raised in Italy and 23-year-old starting pitcher Luca Panerati is an Italian who played a few years in the Reds system, topping out in A-ball. Panerati nevertheless shut down the U.S. with his 86 mph fastball and offspeed pitches, leaving after three scoreless innings; he can tell his grandkids someday about the time he shut down a lineup of major league All-Stars. But the U.S. rallied with five runs in the fifth inning, capped by Wright's two-out grand slam off Matt Torra, an American who pitched in Triple-A for Tampa Bay’s organization last year.

[+] EnlargeDavid Wright
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsDavid Wright turned one around from Italy's Matt Torra for the key fifth-inning grand slam.
That 6-2 win means U.S. versus Canada, winners move on to Miami, losers go home (or back to spring training). Considering the way this tournament has gone -- Italy advancing, Venezuela out after losing its first two games, 2009 runner-up South Korea failing to advance out of the first round, the Netherlands beating Cuba in a second-round game -- don't count out the Canadians.

First, their lineup has some guys you've heard of: Former MVPs Joey Votto and Justin Morneau. Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders went 4-for-4 in the 10-3 win over Mexico. The lineup was hurt by Brett Lawrie's injury in spring training and we’ll have to see if Pete Orr and Rene Tosoni, ejected after the brawl, will be suspended or not; the pitching is thin without guys such as Ryan Dempster, Scott Diamond and Erik Bedard participating. Still, Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon will start against the U.S., and while he hasn't reached the major leagues yet (he pitched in Double-A last year), he has major league stuff, ranking as Keith Law No. 20 preseason prospect. He's certainly capable of shutting down the U.S. lineup for his 65-pitch limit. After that, however, Canada's pitching thins out in a hurry, with Brewers closer John Axford and Phillies reliever Phillippe Aumont the two biggest names in the bullpen.

The U.S. will start Derek Holland, a good strategic move by Torre to get the lefty Holland in there to try to neutralize Votto, Morneau and Saunders. With Ross Detwiler throwing four scoreless innings of relief against Italy, that means the U.S. bullpen is well-rested. Look for Torre to use lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Glen Perkins against the middle of the lineup in the middle innings, and he still has Craig Kimbrel waiting to get some action.

The U.S. will be heavy favorite to advance. To use another Olympic hockey analogy, the Americans are the Soviets. Do the Canadians have a miracle in store? I'll be watching to find out. After all, it's about time we settle this border war with Canada.
Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout aren't on the United States roster, and their absence means a lot of fans don't care about the World Baseball Classic -- certainly not enough to spend a Friday evening in early March watching a baseball game between a largely no-name Mexico team and a still-star-laden U.S. team.

But this tournament isn't for fans who so willingly dismiss it. It's not even so much for fans in the United States, who are more focused on their professional teams or the impending NCAA basketball tournament. Earlier in the day, MLB reported that one-third of all television sets in Japan had watched the first-round games involving the Japanese team. I'm sure its dramatic comeback win over Taiwan on Friday morning rated even higher. Fans in Puerto Rico cheered on their team to a victory over Spain. Fans in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic care intensely about how their teams fare.

And Chase Field in Phoenix was nearly full for Friday's Mexico-U.S. game -- with maybe half that crowd rooting for Mexico. Those fans certainly cared that Mexico pulled off the huge 5-2 upset victory, essentially avoiding elimination after Thursday's heartbreaking ninth-inning loss to Italy. The players on the Mexican team certainly cared.

The Mexico lineup is pretty weak outside of Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Jorge Cantu hit fifth and he spent all of last year in Triple-A. Karim Garcia is still around and he hasn't played in the majors since 2004. But R.A. Dickey's knuckleball wasn't effective, a leadoff bloop single led to two runs in the first inning and Gonzalez torched a 73 mph knuckler to center field for a two-run homer in the third.

Other thoughts:
  • Pool D is really interesting now. It could all come down to run differential to see which two teams advance to the second round. If we assume the U.S. beats Italy on Saturday, and the U.S. and Mexico both beat Canada, then Italy, the U.S. and Mexico all finish 2-1. But Italy mercy-ruled Canada in a 14-4 victory, putting pressure on the U.S. lineup to do some damage in its next two games. The eighth inning could prove a key for the U.S., as Tim Collins and Steve Cishek worked out of a second-and-third, nobody-out jam.
  • After Dickey's performance, fans will be crying that Verlander or Kershaw or David Price aren't here. First off, Dickey wanted to be here and those guys didn't. Second, Dickey earned his invite as much as those guys would have, coming off his National League Cy Young Award. He just didn't have a good night. That's what happens in a tournament, not much different than what happens in the postseason: Anything can happen.
  • Joe Torre’s lineup left a little to be desired. He hit Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Phillips 1-2, because they're fast and they hit at the top of the order for their regular teams. He hit Eric Hosmer sixth, pushing Giancarlo Stanton -- who only led the NL in slugging percentage -- all the way down to seventh, and Adam Jones, he of the 32 home runs last year, batting eighth. Stanton and Jones are better hitters than Rollins, Phillips and Hosmer. Torre might have been playing the hot hand with Hosmer, who had hit .391 in spring training with the Royals, and maybe he wanted to spread out his three left-handed hitters (switch-hitter Rollins, Joe Mauer and Hosmer). Still, a little more creativity would have had something like David Wright, Mauer, Ryan Braun, Stanton, Jones, Rollins, Phillips, Hosmer and catcher J.P. Arencibia.
  • Dodgers third baseman Luis Cruz had two key at-bats for Mexico. In the first inning, he delivered a sacrifice fly that was also deep enough to move Ramiro Pena to third, and Pena scored on Gonzalez's sac fly. In the fifth, after Eduardo Arredondo slapped an Ichiro-like double down the left-field line off Twins closer Glen Perkins and was bunted to third, Cruz delivered another sac fly.
  • Pitchers are allowed a maximum of 65 pitches in first-round games, but Yovani Gallardo was on a 50-pitch limit for Mexico. He looked sharp, allowing two hits and striking out four in 3.1 innings, but that meant Mexico had to rely on its bullpen, a day after using four relievers in that 6-5 loss to Italy. Royals righty Luis Mendoza escaped a jam in the fifth after walking the first two batters, striking out Arencibia on a nice 0-2 slider and then retiring Rollins and Phillips on ground balls. Oliver Perez got a key out in the sixth and Oscar Villareal pitched a scoreless seventh. The U.S. scored once off Cardinals reliever Fernando Salas in the eighth, and Giants closer Sergio Romo closed it out.
  • The Giants were undoubtedly nervous seeing Romo come in. They had apparently requested that Romo not appear in consecutive games, and manager Bruce Bochy has always been very cautious with his use of Romo. He threw 26 pitches Thursday, but this was a must-win game for Mexico. Saving him for Saturday's game against Canada doesn't make any sense if you lose this game. A reliever can't appear three consecutive days, so Romo is unavailable now for Canada.
  • Ryan Vogelsong starts for the U.S. against Italy, and while the Italian team is mostly comprised of U.S.-born players -- including several major leaguers -- they will start an actual pitcher from Italy: Luca Panerati, a left-hander who was in the Reds' system from 2008-11, never advancing past Class A. Last year, he pitched in the Italian Baseball League. Now he gets to face a team of the best players in the world. This is what the World Baseball Classic is all about.
No, the World Baseball Classic isn't the World Series or the World Cup, and it doesn't really prove which country has the best baseball talent. But it's a fun event, the players participating want to win, and there are fans across the globe -- mostly outside of the United States -- who care passionately about the results.

Is the event perfect? Of course not. Thursday's much-anticipated Pool C game between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic in Puerto Rico should have featured Felix Hernandez starting against Johnny Cueto instead of Anibal Sanchez against Edinson Volquez, but I didn't have a problem getting pumped up to watch a Dominican lineup that featured Jose Reyes, Robinson Cano, Edwin Encarnacion, Hanley Ramirez, Nelson Cruz and Carlos Santana, and a Venezuelan lineup that went nine deep with the likes of Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez, Pablo Sandoval, Miguel Montero and Martin Prado.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Al Bello/Getty ImagesRobinson Cano drove in three of the Dominican's nine runs in the opener against Venezuela.
Managers Tony Pena of the Dominican and Luis Sojo of Venezuela were forced to scramble when a first-inning rain delay led to the early exits of Volquez and Sanchez. But the Dominican had already jumped on Sanchez for three first-inning runs -- Cano doubled in two -- and a contingent of Dominican relievers, some minor league no-names and some major leaguers with big fastballs held the explosive Venezuelans to just six hits in a 9-3 victory. The game slogged along, reminiscent of a Red Sox-Yankees affair from the mid-2000s, but that just showed what the game means to the players: They weren't going through the motions like you might see in a spring-training game in Arizona in early March.

The win puts the Dominicans in the driver's seat to win Pool C and help escape the embarrassment of 2009, when they lost twice to the Netherlands in pool play and failed to advance (scoring just three runs in those two games despite a lineup that included Cano, Reyes, Ramirez, David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada). Venezuela entered the tournament as a favorite alongside the U.S. Even minus Hernandez, it seemed to have more pitching depth than the Dominican, especially among the starters.

But in pool play, it's all about bullpen depth. Pitchers are limited to 65 pitches per outing and if they throw at least 30, they can't pitch the following day. If you pitch two days in a row, you can't pitch a third day in a row. But the Dominican bullpen rolled out Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera, he of the average fastball velocity of 97 mph last year, veteran Octavio Dotel, Pedro Strop of the Orioles and Rays closer Fernando Rodney. Strop had the key appearance on Thursday, pitching 1.2 hitless innings in the middle of the game when the score was 5-3. Command has always been the issue for Strop, but he threw an efficient 20 pitches, 14 for strikes. With a day off on Friday, Pena had no reservations about running all his relievers out there.

The Dominicans can attack you in different ways. They have the speed of Reyes, Erick Aybar and Alejandro De Aza; the power of Cano and Encarnacion; the patience of Santana, who drew four walks on Thursday. The team is also hoping to add Adrian Beltre in the second round. With that lineup and that crew of hard-throwing relievers, the Dominicans certainly have the ability to win it all.

The U.S. is still the favorite on paper (it plays its opener on Friday against Mexico). Even without starters Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, it has the most pitching depth. After Volquez, the Dominicans have to rely on guys such as Wandy Rodriguez and probably Samuel Deduno to start.

And don't sleep on Venezuela. Its Saturday game against Puerto Rico likely becomes the key game now in Pool C. I wouldn't bet against a lineup where Marco Scutaro is batting ninth.

How Alex Liddi can help conquer Europe

February, 27, 2013
Alex LiddiOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesAlex Liddi has played just 53 games in the majors, but he's an important part of the WBC.
The most important player in baseball has a career triple-slash line of .224/.282/.397. He was never a truly significant prospect in the way that Bryce Harper or Mike Trout were, or even a flameout like Justin Smoak, but what little shininess he has as a potential big league contributor is quickly wearing off.

But if you step back from team allegiance for a moment, and look at the overall health of the sport going forward, nobody currently on a 40-man roster can do as much to grow the game of baseball as Alex Liddi of the Seattle Mariners.

It's not because Liddi is a particularly exciting player -- he's kind of a run-of-the-mill four-corners type whose greatest asset is his bat, and whose bat isn't good enough to break into the starting lineup for even the Mariners. Nor is it because Liddi's personality is particularly exciting -- it may be, but I can't say I've ever read an interview with him or a profile about him, so I don't know.

Liddi is so important because he's the first major league baseball player ever to be born and raised in Italy, and if baseball is going to grow in Europe, it's going to be because of people like him.

On July 4, 1988, FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, granted the 1994 World Cup to a country with no particular affinity for the game, one that had never won its continental championship, had no full-time professional league and hadn't qualified for a World Cup in 38 years.

But that World Cup in the United States was a rousing success, breaking almost every attendance record for the tournament, and it led to soccer growing into a major-league sport in the U.S. in the course of a generation. The U.S. reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2002 and the final of the Confederations Cup in 2009. Americans have played in almost every significant league in Europe, including the Europa League and Champions League tournaments, and have captained clubs in England and Germany. The U.S. is hardly a global soccer superpower, but it's a significant player, and American soccer is a model for how baseball might catch on in Europe.

One of the keys to growing baseball in Europe is showing Europeans playing at the highest level. Liddi doesn't have to win an MVP award in order to make an impact, particularly in the age of worldwide MLB.tv. He just has to catch enough eyes back home to make playing major league baseball seem like a viable option for a young Italian athlete.

[+] EnlargeAndrelton Simmons
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWould a run in the WBC by Andrelton Simmons and the Netherlands help fuel baseball popularity in Europe?
The greatest strength of American soccer is its grassroots support. Long before anyone had even considered MLS, and long before John Harkes made his English Premier League debut, millions of American children were playing organized soccer. It was already the unofficial youth sport of suburban middle-class America when MLS and the World Cup brought the professional game back to the U.S. in the mid-1990s. And while there are professional baseball leagues across mainland Europe today, no country offers baseball the same kind of cultural foothold that soccer had here 30 years ago.

Which makes finding the John Harkes and Cobi Jones and Alexi Lalas of Italian and German and Dutch baseball all the more important.

If baseball is going to get a foothold in Europe, the obvious starting place is the Netherlands. The Dutch have not only sent a handful of players to the major leagues already (most notably Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven), plus their World Baseball Classic team advanced to the knockout round in 2009, beating the Dominican Republic along the way, and is considered a fringe contender for the 2013 edition of the tournament. But the biggest names on the Dutch team aren't actually European. Jonathan Schoop, Andrelton Simmons and Andruw Jones are all Curacaoan. Xander Bogaerts is Aruban. Even Blyleven, who was born in Zeist, was raised largely in California.

Even so, many of the Dutch players are actually from the Netherlands and play in the top Dutch league, the Honkbal Hoofdklasse. Now, that the Dutch call baseball "honkbal" really ought to be reason enough for you to root for the Netherlands in the WBC, but if the Dutch make a run in this year's WBC, it will strengthen the credibility of the sport in the Netherlands and grow interest, a few curious fans at a time, the way professional soccer grew here.

At the moment, if you want to play major league baseball, you have to go to either the United States (plus Toronto) or Japan. Dozens of other countries have professional leagues, but the level of competition and the financial organization of those leagues is more like what you might see in independent minor league baseball. Worse, before a few years ago, there was no real scouting mechanism in mainland Europe, so even if a player like Liddi had the ability to play in the majors, he might spend his entire career in the Honkbal Hoofdklasse or the IBL without ever really getting a chance to make the jump across the Atlantic.

The establishment of a credible Dutch (or Italian or pan-European) major league would allow a bigger platform for European players to showcase their skills, as well as another avenue for North American and Asian players to play professionally if their domestic options have run out. As we've seen not only in soccer, but in basketball and ice hockey as well, the more decentralized the structure of the professional game, the more movement of players, expertise and money we'll see across international borders.

It's not enough for Europeans to see baseball played at the highest level. Sure, a guy in Milan might enjoy his MLB.tv subscription, but will he go to the ballpark to see his local team, even assuming that there's a local ballpark and a local team to support? Will he sign his children up for Little League? Probably not. A foreign curiosity doesn't breed passionate fanhood. Professional soccer only took off in the United States when a distinctly American culture was created -- American players playing for American teams at a level that is at least within sight of "world class."

And that won’t happen to baseball in Europe until the Asian and American monopoly on the game's culture and resources is eased. That means Major League Baseball and its corporate partners investing in youth and professional leagues in Europe. That means finding and developing players like Liddi and the late Greg Halman, who came of age in European baseball, cultivating them into major league-quality players and using them like missionaries to promote the game in Europe. That means, probably, staging part of the WBC itself (not just the qualifying round) in Europe and sending a marquee national team -- Venezuela, the United States, the Dominican Republic -- to play the group stage in Amsterdam, for instance, to give the fans a glimpse of top-flight baseball in person.

These investments will take many years, many millions of dollars and, perhaps most importantly for an often-reactionary baseball brass, many instances of deviating from established practices and incurring a momentary inconvenience to reap a long-term benefit.

With that in mind, it's worth asking the question: Is a concerted investment in European baseball worth it for the current establishment? To that I'll say this: The first professional leagues started as an enterprise for white American men only. And every time it's reached out to expand its constituency -- to African-Americans, to Latin America, to the Far East -- it has been rewarded with tactical and cultural innovation, a broader fan base and a higher quality of play. Every move baseball has made to expand to new geographic areas has paid off tenfold. Why should this be any different?

But baseball’s global conquest has to start somewhere. It might as well start with Alex Liddi.

Michael Baumann writes at Crashburn Alley, the SweetSpot Network's Phillies affiliate. You can follow him on Twitter at @MJ_Baumann.
The guys at Camden Depot are producing a nice series that examines the teams in the World Baseball Classic -- not so much an examination of the rosters but a history of baseball in the country as well as a record of their play in international tournaments. They've done six in there series so far. Check out the reports:

Brazil: Jon Shepherd has an interesting history of baseball in Brazil and how the sport grew differently from other countries in Latin and South America. Only one Brazilian has made the major leagues so far, but the Blue Jays and Rays are two teams starting to invest resources.

Australia: I've always wondered why baseball has gained a small bit of popularity in Australia while remaining essentially non-existent in England (cricket, after all, is popular in both countries). Apparently baseball was brought to Australia in the 1850s by American gold miners. Anyway, Australia won the silver medal at the 2004 Olympics but hasn't fared well in the previous two WBCs.

Canada: The Canadians don't have much pitching, especially with Ryan Dempster undecided about playing, but with Joey Votto, Justin Morneau, Brett Lawrie, Michael Saunders and Russell Martin, maybe they can pull off an upset or two.

Cuba: The Cubans went 4-2 in the 2009 WBC and 5-3 in 2006, losing to Japan in the final. As Yoenis Cespedes showed in his rookie performance with the A's, there is still a lot of talent on the island, although defections from the likes of Jorge Soler and Yasiel Puig will hurt the national team's future.

Puerto Rico: As you may be aware, Puerto Rico isn't producing as much elite talent as it once did. Jon looks into what has happened.

United States: The U.S. is just 7-7 in WBC play. R.A. Dickey, Ryan Vogelsong and Gio Gonzalez lead the pitching staff this year, with Giancarlo Stanton, Adam Jones and Joe Mauer among the position players.

We don't have complete rosters yet for all the teams in the World Baseball Classic, but some provisional names have been announced. Here's how I would rank the top 10 squads:

1. United States
As I wrote earlier, the U.S. lineup looks better than 2009, and the pitching staff is led by a strong 1-2 punch of R.A. Dickey and Kris Medlen, and a deep arsenal of relievers. It's the favorite on paper, but the U.S. has gone just 7-7 in the first two Classics.

[+] EnlargeR.A. Dickey
AP Photo/Paul J. BereswillR.A. Dickey will headline the U.S. rotation in the WBC.
2. Venezuela
The Venezuela lineup will look something like this:

SS Elvis Andrus
2B Asdrubal Cabrera
RF Carlos Gonzalez
1B Miguel Cabrera
3B Pablo Sandoval
LF Martin Prado
C Miguel Montero
DH Salvador Perez
CF Gerardo Parra

Looks pretty good to me, with Marco Scutaro available as well. If Felix Hernandez can pitch every game, Venezuela might be favored to win. But it will have to rely on Anibal Sanchez, Henderson Alvarez and Carlos Zambrano as starters, with Ronald Belisario, Jose Mijares and Francisco Rodriguez in relief. Venezuela beat the U.S. twice in 2009 with a lineup not nearly as good as this one, and games started by Victor Zambrano and Armando Galarraga. The Dominicans have a much stronger bullpen, but can't match the Hernandez-Sanchez combo in the rotation.

3. Dominican Republic
Only 23 players are currently listed on the Dominican roster, but from that group it can field a pretty strong lineup:

SS Jose Reyes
LF Melky Cabrera
2B Robinson Cano
1B Edwin Encarnacion
3B Adrian Beltre
DH Hanley Ramirez
C Carlos Santana
RF Nelson Cruz
CF Carlos Gomez

Erick Aybar, Miguel Tejada and Miguel Olivo round out the bench. The pitching staff doesn't have much depth and lacks an obvious ace. The starters are Wandy Rodriguez, Alexi Ogando and Edinson Volquez, while Fernando Rodney, Santiago Casilla, Joel Peralta, Kelvin Herrera and Pedro Strop headline the bullpen. The Dominicans reached the semifinals in 2006, but will seek redemption after two humiliating losses to the Netherlands in Round 1 in 2009, including a 2-1 defeat in 11 innings.

4. Japan
The Japanese won the first two World Baseball Classics to enthrall their island nation, but with starting pitchers Yu Darvish and Hiroki Kuroda and outfielders Ichiro Suzuki and Norichika Aoki among the U.S.-based players electing not to play, Japan's chances certainly have been hurt. It will still rate as one of the favorites, in part because the players take the tournament so seriously, but I suspect it will have to win some low-scoring games.


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5. Cuba
Where to rate Cuba? Hard to say. It reached the championship game in 2006, but was shut out twice by Japan in Round 2 in 2009 and failed to reach the semifinals (Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hisashi Iwakuma each pitched six scoreless innings in those two games.) Considering that performance from 2009, the offense is probably a question mark.

6. Puerto Rico
Puerto Rican baseball has fallen off in recent years and while the team includes a few big names -- Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan, Alex Rios and Mike Aviles lead the offense -- a lack of pitching depth appears to be a problem. Former big leaguer Javier Vazquez, who last pitched in 2011 (and very well, mind you), might be the staff ace, with Hector Santiago lining up as the No. 2 starter. Puerto Rico is also hurt by being drafted into a pool that includes Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

7. South Korea
The Koreans made a surprising run to the 2009 championship game, scoring a run off Darvish in the ninth to tie the game before losing in the 10th. Reds outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and Rays minor league shortstop Hak-Ju Lee are the biggest U.S.-based players, but neither is on the provisional roster.

8. Mexico
There is enough talent on the pitching staff -- Yovani Gallardo, David Hernandez, Miguel Gonzalez, Marco Estrada, Sergio Romo -- for Mexico to pull off some surprises. The offense is thin behind Adrian Gonzalez and Danny Espinosa, however. Well, unless Karim Garcia has something left in the tank.

9. Canada
Canada went two and out in 2009, suffering a tough 6-5 loss to the U.S., after beating the Americans in pool play in 2006. But Joey Votto isn't on the roster yet -- he needs to pass an insurance physical -- and while Justin Morneau, Brett Lawrie, Russell Martin and Michael Saunders are, the best pitchers are Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon and relievers John Axford and Jesse Crain. The Canadians are seeking their first trip out of Round 1, which is possible since their four-team group includes the U.S., Mexico and Italy (two teams advance).

10. Netherlands
The Netherlands were the surprise team in 2009, eliminating the Dominican Republic in Round 1. I don't see their provisional roster yet, but since players from the former Netherlands Antilles -- namely, Curacao -- are eligible to play for the Dutch, we could see players like Andrelton Simmons, Jurickson Profar, Kenley Jansen, Roger Bernadina and Jair Jurrjens, although I wonder if the Braves and Rangers will want Simmons and Profar away from their camps.

OK, there's no Mike Trout or Buster Posey or Justin Verlander or Andrew McCutchen, but Team USA's provisional roster for the World Baseball Classic looks pretty strong. How about this lineup:

RF Ben Zobrist
C Joe Mauer
LF Ryan Braun
DH Giancarlo Stanton
3B David Wright
1B Mark Teixeira
CF Adam Jones
SS Jimmy Rollins
2B Brandon Phillips
P R.A. Dickey

You have on-base ability at the top of the lineup in Zobrist and Mauer, follow that up with two of the best power hitters in the game, have another good OBP guy in Wright hitting fifth, switch-hitting Teixeira in the 6-hole, a 30-homer guy batting seventh, and then speed and more power at the bottom of the lineup. On paper, it's a lineup that should score plenty of runs.

It seems a little better than the 2009 lineup that lost twice to Venezuela and once to Puerto Rico in pool play and then to Japan in the semifinals. Pitching and defense were the big culprits in the U.S. struggles. Puerto Rico beat up Jake Peavy in an 11-1 loss. In a 10-6 loss to Venezuela, Jeremy Guthrie allowed six runs in the second inning, with Adam Dunn -- playing first base -- making a crucial throwing error that led to four unearned runs. Still, Guthrie got knocked around by a Venezuelan team that included, yes, Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez, but also Endy Chavez hitting leadoff, Cesar Izturis hitting second and Jose Lopez hitting third. In the semifinal loss to Japan, the lineup included Dunn in right field, Mark DeRosa at first base and Rollins hitting third (although he did go 4-for-4), but Roy Oswalt got knocked out in the fourth inning after giving up six runs, with Wright, Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts all making errors.

So that puts the pressure on the four U.S. starters named to the provisional roster: Dickey, Kris Medlen, Ryan Vogelsong and Derek Holland. Clearly, Dickey and Medlen line up as the top two guys, but the U.S. used four starters last tournament, so all four probably will get at least one game.

Starters are held to strict pitch counts in the tournament, so the pitching staff will include these nine relievers: Jeremy Affeldt, Mitchell Boggs, Steve Cishek, Tim Collins, Luke Gregerson, Craig Kimbrel, Chris Perez, Glen Perkins and Vinnie Pestano. That's a pretty strong group, with three lefties and some power arms at the back in Boggs and Pestano and with the game's best closer in Kimbrel ready to shut down any lead.

The bench includes Jonathan Lucroy, J.P. Arencibia, Shane Victorino and Willie Bloomquist.

What's interesting is that Team USA, to be managed by Joe Torre, announced just 27 players. Considering final rosters will include 28 players, it appears as if Torre and USA Baseball had trouble convincing enough players to join the fun. Or maybe they're leaving that final spot open ... you know, just in case, somebody wants to change his mind.

On paper, the U.S. should rate as the favorite with its power and a nice one-two punch in Dickey and Medlen. (Rosters for other countries will be announced at 4 p.m. ET.) But Japan won the first two World Baseball Classics, and the U.S. didn't even make the semifinals in the 2006 tournament, losing twice in Round 2. In fact, the U.S. history is pretty dismal. Look at its record:

Teams beaten: Mexico, South Africa, Japan, Canada, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico
Teams lost to: Canada, South Korea, Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Japan

That's a 7-7 record, with three of the wins against noted baseball powers South Africa, Canada and the Netherlands.

The World Baseball Classic is a big deal everywhere but in the U.S., it seems. I like it, even if it is a little bit of a gimmick.

Gimmick or not, however, it's time for the U.S. team to do better.

What should Team USA look like?

January, 14, 2013
The World Baseball Classic provisional rosters will be announced later this week and news is starting to slip out on who Joe Torre will be naming to the roster. Giancarlo Stanton has committed to playing for Team USA, but Mike Trout will not, instead sticking to a full spring training with the Angels. That's certainly understandable in Trout's case, since he battled an illness last spring that caused him to lose 20 pounds and begin the season in Triple-A. Other players who have committed include R.A. Dickey, Andy Pettitte, Craig Kimbrel, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Mark Teixeira.

In a perfect world where every player wants to play, who should be on the Team USA roster? Since the World Baseball Classic is to a large degree a marketing vehicle for the sport, you want a mix of the best players in the game and young stars. In the cases of Trout and Stanton, they would be easy inclusions: They're young and already among the game's elite players.

Here's my 30-man roster:

Catcher -- Buster Posey, Matt Wieters, Joe Mauer
Pretty easy choices here, especially with Brian McCann coming off a bad year and offseason shoulder surgery. One of the interesting story lines for 2013: Does Wieters have any offensive growth left in his game? After back-to-back years hitting .262 and .249 with 22 and 23 home runs, he may have maxed out his power, but if he can learn to hit for a little more average against right-handed pitchers (.223 in 2012) and improve his batting line to something like .280/.360/.500, then he's one of the most valuable players in the game, not just one of the most valuable catchers.

First Base -- Prince Fielder, Anthony Rizzo
Is first base the weakest position in the majors right now? Joey Votto missed 50 games and was still easily the most valuable first baseman in the majors. Prince is the obvious No. 1 choice but with guys like Adrian Gonzalez and Teixeira having down years, let's promote and up-and-coming star like Rizzo. Plus, it gives us a Cub.

Second Base -- Ben Zobrist, Dustin Pedroia
The switch-hitting, slick-fielding Zobrist would be the starter with Pedroia coming off the bench or playing against a left-hander. You can make cases for Aaron Hill (terrific season for Arizona) or the always reliable Brandon Phillips.

Third Base -- David Wright, Chase Headley
There's a lot of depth at third base in the majors right now, but not all of it is U.S.-born players. Wright and Headley were the two best in the majors in 2012 -- yes, arguably better than Miguel Cabera. On the road, Headley had more home runs and a higher OPS than Cabrera.

Shortstop -- Ian Desmond, Jimmy Rollins
With Troy Tulowitzki and Derek Jeter returning from injuries, it's an easy call to give our roster slots to Desmond and Rollins, who ranked 1-2 in FanGraphs WAR among all shortstops in 2012 (not counting Zobrist, who started there the last month and a half, but will move back to second with the acquisition of Yunel Escobar). Desmond will have to prove his power burst is for real -- from eight home runs to 25 -- but I'm a believer.

Outfield: Ryan Braun, Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper, Jason Heyward, Austin Jackson
A good mix of MVP candidates (Braun, Trout, McCutchen) and future MVP candidates. The tough choice for Torre: Who do you start? An outfield of Braun in left, Trout in center and Stanton in right gives you three right-handed batters, so maybe you mix in Harper or Heyward against a right-hander.

Starting Pitchers: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, R.A. Dickey, Matt Cain
You don't see many starting pitchers on the World Baseball Classic rosters, in part since they're limited by pitch counts and there aren't that many games to play anyway. But we'll pick five. Verlander and Kershaw are clearly the top two pitchers in baseball right now, as both could have easily picked up their second consecutive Cy Young Awards in 2012. Price and Dickey are the reigning Cy Young champions and are the type of players you want to expose in this kind of event. There are many defensible choices for the fifth spot but Cain gets my nod as the leader of the staff for the World Series champs and the kind of guy you want starting a big game.

Relief Pitchers: Craig Kimbrel, Jonathan Papelbon, Sergio Romo, David Hernandez, Kris Medlen, Jake McGee, Sean Marshall, Charlie Furbush
For the bullpen, we're not too worried about just looking at the saves leaders. We want dominant arms in the pen but also the ability to match up late in games if needed. Kimbrel is obviously our closer -- and hopefully Torre will use him for more than three outs if needed, especially with a one-run lead! Papelbon had a couple big blown saves for the Phillies but had a dominant 92/18 strikeout/walk ratio. I'm not sure he's our top setup guy, however. That role may fall to Romo and his death-to-righties slider and the underrated Hernandez, who fanned 98 in 68.1 innings for the Diamondbacks.

Medlen has to be on our team after his dominant transition to the rotation last year -- 0.97 ERA in 12 games as a starter. Are you kidding? With his experience pitching in relief he can be our long guy. And then I went with three left-handers. Tampa Bay's McGee finally had the season long expected of him with his power arsenal. He had a 73/11 SO/BB ratio in 55.1 innings, but he's not just lefty killer as right-handers hit a .098 against him. Marshall has long been one of the best against lefties and Furbush is the new Marshall; with his fastball/slider combo, lefties hit just .147 off him, with just three doubles and no home runs in 75 at-bats.

That's my team. Who would be on yours?

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:

versus right-hander
LF Braun
C Mauer
RF Hamilton
CF Kemp
DH Fielder
3B Longoria
SS Tulowitzki
1B Hosmer
2B Pedroia

You gotta love the idea of Ryan Braun hitting leadoff!

versus left-hander
CF McCutchen
3B Wright
LF Braun
RF Kemp
DH Hamilton
1B Fielder
C Posey
SS Tulowitzki
2B Pedroia

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.

Jordan PachecoDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesCan you tell that Jordan Pacheco and the Rockies have lost eight straight?