USA Baseball Preview
Team USA Gears Up for IBAF World Cup and 2008 Summer Olympics
Oct. 24, 2007
By Conor Nicholl/MLB.com
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Paul Seiler, the executive director for USA Baseball, has a template for Team USA: the Colorado Rockies.
The Rockies, who are on a 21-1 run and will start the World Series against Boston on Wednesday night, has become one of baseball’s best teams through the correct combination of veterans, stars and rookies.
It’s a formula that Seiler hopes Team USA can replicate at the upcoming IBAF World Cup in Taiwan and at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
“It is about putting the right pieces of the puzzle together,” Seiler said. “The Rockies are a prime example of that right now. They have the right mix of veteran leadership, experience, youth, prospects. Having the right pieces of the puzzle in terms of what happens on the field, but also the chemistry on and off the field.”
Team USA -- which features several top draft picks, budding stars, players with Major League experience and six-year Minor League free agents -- started their run at Colorado-esque success Monday afternoon at Scottsdale Stadium.
Twenty-four players and a coaching staff headlined by manager Davey Johnson engaged in drug testing, physicals, gear dispersal and a two-hour orientation.
Unlike other international squads, Team USA –- which consists of players not on 25-men rosters –- constantly changes every year because players reach the Major League level. As a result, few players on the 2007 roster knew each other well before Tuesday.
“To be truly successful, you have to become a family and we really stress that,” Seiler said. “You are not a Yankee, you are not a Mariner, you are not a Dodger, you are not a Phillie, you now represent your country. We have the players stand up and introduce themselves and tell us something about themselves. We need to know about you.
I am not saying that we need everybody’s personal background data, but at the same time we need everyone to come together as a team in the chemistry sense of the word as quick as possible. If you can get that type of bonding and camaraderie, I am a big proponent and big believer that will translate into being successful once you step between the lines.”
Then, Team USA engaged in an afternoon workout on two backfields. The team will practice for two days and play a week of games against Arizona Fall League teams before traveling to Taiwan for the 16-team World Cup that lasts from Nov. 6-18.
The tournament will fulfill two goals: allow the players to experience a taste of international competition and provide the coaches with a core group for the most important tournament: the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
“I want to win this medal, but I really want to gain experience for 08,” general manager Bob Watson said.
Seiler believes this year’s squad is “as strong or stronger” than any of the past USA squads. The team, bookended by 20-year-old catcher and Cardinals prospect Bryan Anderson and 30-year-old closer and Washington farmhand Chris Booker, features several of the top young players in baseball. All players have reached at least Double-A and eight players saw Major League time this season.
“When we look at this roster, from one to 24, or from 24 to one, we feel very fortunate and very blessed with the depth and quality of the players that we have,” Seiler said. “Across the board.”
Stars-wise, the team includes Evan Longoria, arguably the best player in the Arizona Fall League. Longoria, the likely third baseman for Team USA, was the No. 3 overall selection in the 2006 Draft and hit a combined .299 with 26 homers and 95 RBI at two Minor League stops this season.
He headlines an infield that includes corner infielders Steve Pearce and Andy LaRoche and middle infielders Jayson Nix, Brian Bixler and Michael Hollimon.
“We tried to be balanced, tried to have some power and tried to have some foot speed,” Watson said. “On paper, it looks like we have that.”
The outfield includes 2006 first round pick Tyler Colvin and Dodgers prospect Delwyn Young. A budding talent, Young hit .338 for Triple-A Las Vegas this season and batted .382 in a September callup.
Colby Rasmus, 20, is the second youngest player on the team. Rasmus, a five-tool player and the projected Cardinals’ starting center fielder in 2009, is considered –- along with Anderson -– as a possible cornerstone for the 2008 Olympic team.
Jay Bruce, Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, was a late scratch to the roster because of a hamstring injury. However, the team added a fine player in Justin Ruggiano, who hit .309 with 20 homers and 26 steals in Triple-A this year.
“I think probably one of the highest compliments a baseball player can be given is when a coach or an evaluator calls him a gamer and that is the word that you hear about Ruggiano,” Seiler said. “All he does is goes out and performs.”
The pitching staff is viewed as the possible make-or-break part of the club.
“We will go as far as our pitching is always the name of the game, but I think to be really honest with you, we are going to score a lot of runs. I think our defense is going to be more than adequate,” Watson said. “We just have to be able to make pitches when we need to. What does make pitches mean? Throw pitches other than a fastball in a fastball count. I don’t care what league you are in.
Guys in a fastball count can hit fastballs. If you can get something else over --- slider, curveball, split, changeup, whatever -- and throw it in a fastball count, then get it over and keep them off-balance. You look at what Colorado has done, you look at what Boston has done.”
The starting pitching includes left-hander Josh Outman (12-7, 2.99 ERA at two levels), Yankee prospect Jeff Karstens, Twins’ prospect Brian Duensing and Dallas Trahern from the Tigers. Kansas City’s Matt Wright was a late addition to the team and replaced Heath Phillips, a member of the 2006 squad.
Lee Gronkiewicz, the only returning member from the 2006 team, headlines a reliever corps that includes Booker, Cardinals’ prospect Chris Perez, Royals’ left-hander Neal Musser and Jerry Blevins.
Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com.