Commentary

WBC: USA has stars and a bench

Ahead of its first game, the U.S. team looks built to win with balance and depth

Originally Published: March 8, 2013
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- There is a prevailing view that the United States team in the World Baseball Classic lacks sufficient star power. Players such as Justin Verlander, Mike Trout and Prince Fielder, for example, aren't participating. But that perspective is both unwarranted -- after all, the roster includes reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, recent MVPs Ryan Braun and Joe Mauer, and All-Stars such as David Wright and Adam Jones -- and misses the point. The U.S. team is not built to sell shoes, smartphones and energy drinks. It's built to finally win the WBC.

"It's not about the names. It's about the makeup," said Dickey, who will start the U.S. opener Friday night against Mexico (9 p.m., ET, ESPN Deportes, ESPN Radio and ESPN Deportes Radio). "It's not an All-Star team. It's not like being on an All-Star team, where you're like, 'Great, let me get the good swag.' It's not that."

In the two previous Classics, the U.S. teams were deep in All-Stars at most positions, which was problematic because managers sometimes seemed to feel the need to keep everyone content by shuttling players in and out as if it were a Little League team with very attentive and demanding parents watching every move. It's a wonder they didn't have to buy everyone snow cones.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Phillips
AP Photo/Mark DuncanIn theory, Brandon Phillips and the rest of the U.S. team will bring the right spirit and desire to WBC competition.

"It's like having five shooters in basketball. You need more than one ball if they all want to shoot at the same time," USA manager Joe Torre said. "I've been around the game a long time, and just knowing what you're trying to accomplish, I know it was going to be a lot less complicated for me to have one guy at each position.

"I just didn't want players coming on board thinking that they were going to play and get this many at bats and mislead them in any way. So everybody who's on this club pretty much had an idea when they got here what was going to happen."

That approach also allowed Torre to stack his team with pitching, particularly in the bullpen. The U.S. has 15 pitchers, enough to wear out even Tony La Russa with mound visits. Pitching depth is crucial in the WBC, where starting pitchers are limited to 65 pitches in the first round, 80 pitches in the second round and 95 pitches in the championship round. (No, Dusty Baker did not set this policy.)

Torre's initial roster also had an All-Star at each position who could expect -- and be expected -- to play full games. There are also a couple of role players able to fill in when and where necessary. Basically, the U.S. team is built like teams are in the regular season when they are trying to win rather than gather endorsements.

Willie Bloomquist and Ben Zobrist might not sell tickets, but they are valuable to have available on the bench.

"I think it's advantageous," Mark Teixeira said. "You need role players. Over the course of a season, those role players are instrumental in a team winning. And they're beneficial in a tournament like this."

Of course, Teixeira said that before he hurt his arm earlier this week and had to leave the team. The U.S. replaced him with Kansas City's Eric Hosmer, who is coming off a somewhat disappointing sophomore season. Mauer also can play first base, but Teixeira's injury points out the obvious drawback to the U.S. roster strategy: Lose a starter and you have to scramble for a replacement who is not always readily available.

Or willing. (Where were you, Prince Fielder?)

While many players turned down offers to play for the U.S., Dickey says that's all right, too. He played for the U.S. national team from 1994 through the 1996 Summer Olympics, and says tournament play is a different animal than the regular season.

[+] EnlargeRyan Braun
AP Photo/Mark DuncanIt isn't as if the U.S. is without stars. Ryan Braun has won an MVP, after all.

"It's not about talent as much as it is about spirit, heart and desire," he said. "In international tournament competition, talent doesn't always win. Over the course of 162 games, talent is a little bit better barometer. If you got really good talent, you're probably going to be one of the playoff teams. But in tournament play, it's a little bit different. So you want guys around you who are all-in.

"It's not a comment on anybody that chose not to come here; but if there's 1 percent of you that doesn't want to be here, you shouldn't come. Because that's what it demands in order to win."

The U.S. has a favorable first-round schedule -- Mexico was forced to use five pitchers Thursday in a 6-5 loss to Italy, and the closer, the Giants' Sergio Romo, threw 26 pitches in the ninth inning -- and Team USA also appears to have the talent and depth to finally win the WBC after disappointing showings in 2006 and 2009. The question is whether this team will deliver a championship.

"It's America's pastime," said pitcher Derek Holland, who will start Sunday against Canada. "We should be able to go out and win this thing.''

The WBC is hugely popular in other countries. It draws Super Bowl-type television ratings in Japan, and the Dominican Republic president publicly urged his country's players to win this year. Interest is far lower in the United States, and that probably won't change until America plays for the championship. And that could also be important in keeping the Classic alive for the future.

"I make the analogy [to the World Cup] in the hopes that it will gain momentum much like soccer has gained momentum," Dickey said. "But we have got to continually produce good teams that show well in it."

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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