August 17, 2006
by Zach McCann / Special to

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  • KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Twenty-four Minor League prospects piled into the clubhouse at Osceola County Stadium Thursday, many of them meeting for the first time and just a day removed from Minor League life.

    They'll have to get familiar quickly, as this collection of top prospects will make up the USA Olympic qualifying team that debuts Friday night in an exhibition game against Puerto Rico. The team will play five games over the next six days against Puerto Rico and Canada as part of the International Friendship Series.

    Thursday marked the only practice before their first game, so manager Davey Johnson had a close eye on the talent. All of the players took batting practice, and the infielders took ground balls.

    "I'm evaluating to see who will fit where in the lineup," Johnson said. "We're going to get after it for these five games and see where we're at."

    The exhibition games in Kissimmee are preparation for the COPABE Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Havana, Cuba, Aug. 25 to Sept. 5.

    After winning Olympic gold in 2000, the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2004 Athens Games, something the players are trying to keep out of their heads.

    "We're just focused on what we have to do now," said shortstop Brandon Wood, part of the Angels organization. "We want to be part of a team that can qualify this country for the Olympics."

    This year there weren't as many Minor Leaguers to choose from as usual.

    "It's tough because so many teams are competing for Wild Card spots," Johnson said. "I've been working on this for a couple of months, and I'm happy with who we've got in here."

    Work while they're young

    Coaching Minor League prospects is something different for Johnson.

    Though Johnson did manage Team USA at the 2005 CONCEBE Regional Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Phoenix, he's spent most of his post-playing career managing the Mets, Reds, Orioles and Angels, including the 1986 World Series-winning Mets team. But mentoring young talent is a welcome change.

    "It's a great thrill to work with young prospects before they get to the big leagues," he said. "Watching them develop is a lot of fun."

    Still though, he's managing baseball. And no matter who you're coaching, it's still about managing the team.

    "No matter what level, you want to put a guy in the best situation to shine," Johnson said. "This is similar to working with a young player at the big-league level. Most of the game is mental. The more successes they have, the better they'll be."

    Kinkade reminisces

    Infielder Mike Kinkade was part of the 2000 gold-winning USA team, the only player from that team on the current squad. He likes what he's seen of this year's team, but he doesn't want to draw any comparisons just yet.

    "That team was so talented," Kinkade said. "It's great looking back to see what some of the players have done since then."

    Some of the players from that team include Astros' pitcher Roy Oswalt, who posted 40 wins in the previous two seasons, and Ben Sheets, who has a career 3.88 ERA for the Milwaukee Brewers.

    "That team was carried by our pitching," Kinkade said. "I had never faced any of them until we started practicing, and I was impressed. They had great stuff. This year I haven't seen any of these guys pitch, but I've heard good things. We'll see what they have when the games start."

    Other players on that 2000 team included Doug Mientkiewicz, Brad Wilkerson and Adam Everett.

    Familiar faces

    White Sox Minor League pitchers Heath Phillips and Jeff Farnsworth were happy to hear who their Olympic pitching coach would be -- Chicago's Minor League pitching coordinator, Kirk Champion.

    Farnsworth is in his first year with the White Sox, but Phillips has been pitching under Champion's tutelage for a few years.

    "I trust him, and I know what he wants," Phillips said. "He knows how far I can go. He can get the best out of me and know when it's time to go."

    No All-Star break

    Just because most of the players are stars on their professional teams doesn't mean the U.S.'s strategy will be that of an All-Star Game. While all of the positional players will likely play, there won't be benching of top players after one at-bat or any games with nine pitchers throwing one inning apiece.

    "When the games count, we're going to play to win," Johnson said. "The starting pitchers will go as long as they can go. If the starters go six or seven innings, I'll be pleased."