Creating a United States Team That Can Win the 2017 World Baseball Classic
The World Baseball Classic is back—or it will be this spring, with the fourth installment of the international baseball tournament scheduled to kick off on Mar. 6 and the championship game slated for Mar. 22 at Dodger Stadium.
The United States team enters the upcoming tournament still searching for its first World Baseball Classic title.
In fact, it has yet to finish higher than fourth, with that result coming back in 2009. It also has an eighth-place finish in 2006 and a sixth-place finish in 2013 to its credit.
Japan claimed the first two WBC titles, with the Dominican Republic besting Puerto Rico last time around to give the tournament a new defending champion.
So what will it take for the U.S. team to come out on top?
Convincing more of the country's elite-level talent to participate would be a good first step.
That strategy is already off to a rocky start, though, as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were both left off the preliminary 50-man roster and appear unlikely to participate, per Joel Sherman of the New York Post.
However, there's still a wealth of talent that could find its way onto the Team USA roster, and what follows is one attempt at assembling a U.S. team capable of winning it all.
Note: The 2013 U.S. team featured 15 pitchers (four starters and 11 relievers) and 13 position players (three catchers, six infielders and four outfielders). While those roster parameters are not a requirement, they were used as a blueprint in the following exercise.
During the last World Baseball Classic in 2013, the United States team carried three catchers—Joe Mauer, Jonathan Lucroy and J.P. Arencibia—and you can expect it to do the same this time around.
Buster Posey had a down season by his standards, but he remains the best all-around backstop in the game and an easy choice to be the starting catcher on the U.S. squad.
On top of his solid offensive production, Posey just put together his best defensive season to date by throwing out 37 percent of base stealers and ranking as the best pitch-framer in the game, per Stat Corner.
His primary backup is a relatively easy choice as well, as Jonathan Lucroy also brings a good mix of offensive skills and receiving ability. His 24 home runs this past season were a new career high, and he has past WBC experience to his credit.
With a right-handed heavy roster, the left-handed hitting Brian McCann seems like a reasonable choice as the third catcher. He's not the offensive force he once was, but he still calls a good game and would provide some pop off the bench.
Stephen Vogt (OAK), Matt Wieters (BAL)
The infield is where the most difficult decisions will come for manager Jim Leyland—at least for the position players.
Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod at first base over Freddie Freeman, Eric Hosmer and Brandon Belt, all left-handed hitting options if the team feels the need for more lineup balance.
On top of his obvious run-production abilities, Goldschmidt is a stellar defender at first base and would provide the offense with a base-stealing threat after swiping 32 bags on 37 attempts.
Ian Kinsler and Daniel Murphy could split time at second base, with Murphy also capable of serving as a backup at both first and third base.
Kinsler has quietly been a standout defender at the position, racking up 62 defensive runs saved over the past four years and winning his first Gold Glove this season. Murphy, on the other hand, gets a spot strictly for his bat, and he'd be a candidate to see time as the designated hitter as well.
National League Rookie of the Year Corey Seager is the easiest pick ahead of guys like Brandon Crawford and Addison Russell, as the breakout star provides a much-needed left-handed presence in the lineup without sacrificing anything defensively.
With no other natural shortstop on the roster, Seager would be penciled in there every game, with the versatile Ben Zobrist capable of playing short in a pinch. The veteran would also serve as an outfield option and a switch-hitting bat off the bench with big-game experience.
Third base is the hardest decision, with Nolan Arenado getting the call over Josh Donaldson, Kyle Seager and Evan Longoria, among others.
Arenado is the superior defender in that group, and with an .832 OPS, 16 home runs and 48 RBI away from Coors Field this past season, his gaudy offensive numbers are by no means a product of his environment.
Chicago Cubs star and NL MVP Kris Bryant fits better on this roster as a corner outfielder, so we'll get to him in a moment.
Pitchforks and torches down, Cubs fans.
Brandon Belt (SF), Brandon Crawford (SF), Josh Donaldson (TOR), Brian Dozier (MIN), Freddie Freeman (ATL), Eric Hosmer (KC), Jason Kipnis (CLE), Evan Longoria (TB), Wil Myers (SD), Dustin Pedroia (BOS), Addison Russell (CHC), Kyle Seager (SEA)
Ryan Braun, Adam Jones and Giancarlo Stanton made up the starting outfield during the 2013 WBC, and all three will be candidates for the roster once again. We're going to go a different route, though.
The lineup needs a leadoff hitter, making Charlie Blackmon an attractive candidate for the center field job on the heels of a breakout season that included a .381 on-base percentage and 111 runs scored.
Just like teammate Nolan Arenado, Blackmon's huge numbers weren't driven by playing his home games at Coors Field. He posted a .313/.363/.563 line with 20 doubles and 17 home runs on the road.
The right field spot has to go to Mookie Betts, one of the game's budding superstars and arguably the most complete player in baseball, given his mix of power, speed and defensive ability.
Power was the missing piece, and with his home run total jumping from 18 in 2015 to 31 in 2016, he's the closest thing Team USA would have to Mike Trout.
The left field job then goes to Kris Bryant, allowing both Bryant and the aforementioned Arenado—two of the best young sluggers in the game—to fit into the starting lineup.
Bryant's versatility was invaluable to the Chicago Cubs during the regular season, and it gives Team USA plenty of options as well.
Christian Yelich may be the most surprising inclusion here, given the alternatives, but he came into his own in 2016. After hitting just 20 home runs over his first three seasons, he went deep 21 times in 2016, and his OPS climbed from .782 to .859 in the process.
Despite playing primarily left field in Miami, Yelich is capable of manning all three outfield positions, so he fits as a fourth outfielder on this roster.
For that matter, Betts is also capable of sliding over to center field, and Ben Zobrist is still an option in left or right.
Jackie Bradley Jr. (BOS), Ryan Braun (MIL), Adam Eaton (CWS), Dexter Fowler (FA), Curtis Granderson (NYM), Adam Jones (BAL), Matt Kemp (ATL), Andrew McCutchen (PIT), George Springer (HOU), Giancarlo Stanton (MIA), Mark Trumbo (FA)
A lack of willing participants among the league's elite starting pitchers was the biggest issue for Team USA last time around, as it wound up featuring a rotation comprised of R.A. Dickey, Ryan Vogelsong, Derek Holland and Gio Gonzalez.
Teams are understandably skeptical about letting their star players participate in an exhibition tournament, but that goes double for the front-line starting pitchers they are counting on to lead their rotations in the upcoming season.
That being said, this article is all about best-case scenarios, and that's what we've laid out above.
Clayton Kershaw has been noncommital to this point, but he could be added to the roster for the semifinals or finals—both of which will be held at Dodger Stadium—even if he's not on the initial roster.
The rules have changed this year to allow players to be added to the roster between rounds, so he'd be a candidate for a late add if the Dodgers prefer he not participate in the full tournament.
As for the preliminary four-man rotation, we opted for an even split of righties and lefties and stuck with four pitchers who have proved themselves as workhorses and who could stand to add some relatively high-stress innings to their workloads.
Madison Bumgarner and Chris Sale are the picks for the two lefty spots, with Jon Lester and Cole Hamels also receiving serious consideration.
Given his big-game pedigree, Bumgarner seems like the perfect player to front the staff, and Sale will be one of the most talked about players of the offseason, even if he isn't moved by the Chicago White Sox, so giving him a chance in the spotlight makes sense.
Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander are both proven veterans who won't shy away from the spotlight, and they get the nod ahead of Noah Syndergaard and Corey Kluber among right-handed starters.
When he's on, Scherzer might have the best stuff in all of baseball, while Verlander enjoyed a return to health and front-line production in 2016.
The likelihood of all four of these pitchers being available for the tournament is low, but the pool of options the U.S. has to work with is incredibly deep, and it should have no problem fielding a better staff than it did four years ago.
Jake Arrieta (CHC), Jacob deGrom (NYM), Michael Fulmer (DET), Zack Greinke (ARI), Cole Hamels (TEX), Kyle Hendricks (CHC), Rich Hill (FA), Dallas Keuchel (HOU), Corey Kluber (CLE), Jon Lester (CHC), Rick Porcello (BOS), David Price (BOS), Noah Syndergaard (NYM)
This is where the tournament's rules could benefit the U.S. team, even if it isn't able to field a dynamic starting rotation.
Andrew Miller proved to be an invaluable weapon for the Cleveland Indians during their run to the World Series, and he could serve in a similar capacity for Team USA.
There is a rule that no pitcher can pitch in three consecutive games. Luckily, the field of potential bullpen options for the Americans is incredibly deep.
Zach Britton, Craig Kimbrel, Mark Melancon and Cody Allen are all top-tier closers, and Dellin Betances and Brad Brach earned places on the American League All-Star team this past season for their work in setup roles.
Tony Watson would give the pen a third lefty alongside Miller and Britton, Addison Reed was phenomenal in the eighth-inning role for the New York Mets and Brad Ziegler would offer a different look with his sidewinder delivery.
The bullpen will likely be rounded out by a swingman capable of going several innings in the event that a starter is forced into an early exit. Simply carrying a fifth starting pitcher is one option there, but David Phelps thrived in that exact role with the Miami Marlins.
The right-hander was used primarily as a reliever, but he did make five starts (2-1, 2.22 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 11.8 K/9) and he has 64 career starts under his belt, so he's more than capable of bailing out a starter or pitching in a high-leverage relief spot.
Kyle Barraclough (MIA), Cam Bedrosian (LAA), Jerry Blevins (FA), Brett Cecil (STL), Jake Diekman (TEX), Ken Giles (HOU), Jason Grilli (TOR), Will Harris (HOU), Nate Jones (CWS), Ryan Madson (OAK), Darren O'Day (BAL), Dan Otero (CLE), Kevin Siegrist (STL), Tyler Thornburg (MIL)
Full 28-Man Roster and Projected Lineup
CF Charlie Blackmon (L)
LF Kris Bryant
RF Mookie Betts
3B Nolan Arenado
DH Daniel Murphy (L)
1B Paul Goldschmidt
SS Corey Seager (L)
C Buster Posey
2B Ian Kinsler
C Jonathan Lucroy
C Brian McCann (L)
IF/OF Ben Zobrist (S)
OF Christian Yelich (L)
LHP Madison Bumgarner
LHP Chris Sale
RHP Max Scherzer
RHP Justin Verlander
RHP Cody Allen
RHP Dellin Betances
RHP Brad Brach
LHP Zach Britton
RHP Craig Kimbrel
RHP Mark Melancon
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP David Phelps
RHP Addison Reed
LHP Tony Watson
RHP Brad Ziegler