The US Olympic Baseball team starts a four game exhibition series with Team Canada Friday night in Cary, North Carolina.
It figures to be the beginning of a run to the gold-medal in August's Olympic Games in Beijing, China. They may not be the favorites to win it all, but the even mix of youth and experience might be enough to challenge international favorites Cuba and Japan.
Their first official match in the round-robin tournament is on the 13th of August against Korea. All eight teams face each other in the first round, with the top four teams advancing to the semi-finals where the teams are paired up. The winners of the two pairs face off in the Championship game on August 23
Baseball will be dropped at the 2012 Olypic games, so, before the upcoming World Baseball Classic next year, it would be as good time as any for the United States to re-stake their claim as the top country in the sport, considering it is our national pastime.
Cuba, with the exception of a loss to the United States, led by former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda in 2000 in Sydney, has dominated the Olympic stage. They are determined to win a fourth gold medal.
Tommy Lasorda and his pitching duo of Roy Oswalt and Ben Sheets aren't leading the charge, but that doesn't mean Team USA hasn't assembled a viable team. Here is what you need to know about the good-old ball players representing your country.
The 2008 Team: A Bunch of Unknowns?
I wouldn’t go as far as saying they are a team of unknowns. Sure, some of the team is comprised off fringe Major League talent. But, most of it is built off budding stars ready to break through their team's organizations. With the restriction of not using MLB players, USA GM Bob Watson did his best to fill out his 24-man roster with the best of the best. Before you see the 2008 team, here is a look at what some of the past teams have sent to the Olympics.
1992: Jason Varitek, Jason Giambi, Nomar Garciaparra, Charles Johnson, Phil Nevin, and Darren Dreifort
1996: Troy Glaus, Jeff Weaver, Mark Kotsay, Jacque Jones, Braden Looper, and Billy Koch
2000: Roy Oswalt, Ben Sheets, Adam Everett, Brad Wilkerson, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Jon Rauch
2004: The 2004 team did not qualify for play in Athens.
The 2008 squad is filled with some of the prime talent from Major League organizations; the big name being Cleveland Indians outfielder Matt LaPorta.
He was big name in the trade that brought CC Sabathia to Milwaukee and had much of the fan fair surround him at the MLB Futures Game last month. He's not the undoubted face of the US Olympic Squad.
Here is the complete roster and organization information for Team USA.
Brett Anderson LHP, Double-A Oakland
Jake Arrieta RHP, Single-A Baltimore
Trevor Cahill RHP, Double-A Oakland
Jeremy Cummings RHP, Triple-A Tampa Bay
Brian Duensing LHP, Triple-A Minnesota
Kevin Jepsen RHP, Triple-A Los Angeles (Angels)
Brandon Knight RHP, Triple-A New York (Mets)
Mike Koplove RHP, Triple-A Los Angeles (Dodgers)
Blaine Neal RHP, Triple-A Detroit
Jeff Stevens RHP, Triple-A Cleveland
Stephen Strasburg, RHP San Diego State University
Casey Weathers, RHP Double-A Colorado
Taylor Teagarden C: Triple-A Texas
Louis Marson C: Double-A Philadelphia
Brian Barden 2B, 3B, SS: Triple-A St. Louis
Matthew Brown 3B: Triple-A Los Angeles (Angels)
Jason Donald SS: Double-A Philadelphia
Mike Hessman 3B: Triple-A Detroit
Jayson Nix 2B: Triple-A Colorado
Terry Tiffee IF: Triple-A Los Angeles (Dodgers)
Dexter Fowler OF: Double-A Colorado
John Gall OF, 1B: Triple-A Florida
Matt LaPorta OF, 1B: Double-A Cleveland
Nate Schierholtz OF: Triple-A San Francisco
Three players return from the World Cup winning team in 2007 in closer Jeff Stevens, second baseman Jayson Nix, and left-handed pitcher Brian Duensing.
The US Team also features former players from the US National Team and U18 National Team. Taylor Teagarden from 2004, Matt LaPorta and Brett Anderson from 2005, and Casey Weathers from 2006.
Stephen Strausburg is the lone collegiate player on the roster, representing Sand Diego State University. Fear not, for Strausburg is a highly touted collegiate player and figures to be a high first round pick in next year's first year player draft.
The Colorado Rockies are the most represented team, sending three players from their farm system.
The team is centered on its young budding stars. Matt LaPorta, Cleveland's new slugging outfielder has 21 minor league home runs this year between Double-A Hunstville and Double-A Akron.
Joining LaPorta in the outfield is San Francisco Giants' prospect Nate Schierholtz, hitting .314 for Triple-A Fresno and Dexter Fowler, hitting .337 for the Double-A Tulsa team.
The catching tandem is made up of Texas' Taylor Teagarden and Philadelphia's Lou Marson. Teagarden got a short stint with the Rangers MLB club this year and hit his first career home run, while Marson is hitting .319 in Double-A Reading.
Mike Hessman is the big baseball bashing third baseman from the Detroit organization. He leads the entire International League in home runs for Triple-A Toledo.
Jayson Nix is the lone position player returning from the 2007 World Cup team. He may be getting tired of the level, but he's having his best season for the Rockies Triple-A club. Nix is hitting .300 with 17 home runs.
Versatile veterans such as Terry Tiffe and John Gall balance out the young position players.
The pitching staff is led by a pair of 20-year olds in Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill out of the Oakland organization. Since getting called up to Double-A Midland, Anderson has an ERA of 1.80 in five starts and has struck out 29 batters over 25 innings. Cahill has headed down the same path, starting 6 games with an ERA of 2.19, striking out 33 hitters for the Rockhounds.
Jake Arrieta, Brian Duensing, Kevin Jepsen, and Casey Weathers are some more of the younger pitchers for the USA squad. Triple-A Buffalo closer Jeff Stevens shut the door for the World Cup team last year and could do the same for Team USA in Beijing. Stevens has closed out all six save opportunities this year between Akron and Buffalo.
The oldest player, Brandon Knight, leads the veterans of the pitching staff that includes Jeremy Cummings of Tampa Bay who has a 2.92 ERA for Durham. Former Marlin and Indian reliever Mike Koplove, who currently plays for the Dodgers organization, should be a presence in the bullpen.
They are all lead by former Mets skipper Davey Johnson, who won a World Series with New York in 1986. Joining him on the coaching staff as hitting coach is Reggie Smith, who compiled over 2,000 hits and 300 home runs in his Major League career.
Now you know the players representing the United States, but what about the rest of the world?
Players to watch outside the United States
The biggest name is without a doubt Japanese sensation Yu Darvish. Darvish is expected to make a Daisuke Matsuzaka-like entrance into the MLB at some point.
Darvish could use the Olympics and next year's World Baseball Classic (much like Matsuzaka did) as a stepping stone into showing he belongs with the best of the best in the Major Leagues. The scary thing about Darvish is that he will just turn 22 three days after baseball play in the Olympics begins.
Darvish brings a low 90's fastball and an aray of pitches such as the knuckle-curve, slider, and sinker to the mound. He figures to be the most watched baseball player in this year's olympics and next year's WBC.
Japan has always fielded a team with future MLB-stars on its roster. Previous Olympians include: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kenji Johjima, Kosuke Fukudome, Hiroki Kuroda, Masahide Kobayashi, Tadahito Iguchi, and Hideo Nomo.
Japan is probably has the longest list of Major League Ball players to play in the Olympics. But that doesn't mean other countries have sent some players to the Majors. That list includes: Matt Stairs (Canada), Ryan Rowland-Smith (Australia), Jose Contreras, Alexei Ramirez and Orlando Hernandez (Cuba), and Chien-Ming Wang (Chinese Taipei).
The favorite to take home the gold is none other than 2004 Gold Medal Winner Cuba. Cuba is led by 24 year old infielder Yulieski Gourriel, who is four years older and four years better than he was in 2004. Gourriel is another player that has been expected to make the jump to the majors, including a false report of him defecting after 2006's WBC.
The Final Consensus
The United States has a long road ahead of them. Both Cuba and Japan have All-World talent, but are also teams that have experience playing together. Cuba's long running history of dominating the World events such as the Olympics and the WBC are enough of a reason for them to be the favorites.
However, this is just the second time the United States has sent minor league prospects to the Olympics. After a failed attempt to make the games in 2004, they are back and are loaded with young talent.
The only question that remains is if that young talent can gel quick enough to make the final four and knock off the likes of Cuba and Japan.
Nino Colla is following the US Olympic Baseball Team all August for Bleacher Report. You can follow his posts and the team’s progress on the Summer-Olympics Baseball page.