USA Baseball names Olympic team
Former big league skipper Johnson to lead squad in Beijing
The full U.S. Olympic delegation of athletes headed for China in three weeks is now up to 580 of 590 spots to be filled, thanks to the announcement Wednesday of the baseball team that will try to win gold in the Summer Games.
Many of the names on the USA roster will be recognizable to baseball fans -- some of them currently on Major League clubs' 40-man rosters and some with past MLB service. Most of them will become even more recognizable after the team opens against Korea on Aug. 13 at Wukesong Baseball Stadium in Beijing.
USA Baseball revealed 23 of the 24 members on a team that will be led by Davey Johnson, who won World Series championships as a player (Orioles) and manager (Mets). His team features 12 pitchers and 11 position players, and the final roster spot will be filled in the coming days -- ahead of Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad's cut-off date next Tuesday.
"We are proud of the ballclub we have assembled," USA Baseball executive director/CEO Paul Seiler said. "The team is strong from top to bottom, and we are confident it will succeed in Beijing. We applaud our coaching staff and selection committee for their tireless work in putting together an excellent team."
Team USA will be together on the field for the first time with four exhibition games against Canada in North Carolina from Aug. 1-4. Johnson said he will have a better idea of his lineup and five-man rotation at that point. Then the team will depart for Beijing, where Opening Ceremonies are scheduled for Aug. 8 -- portending good fortune, according to Chinese proverb. The Olympic Medal Round will be on Aug. 23, a day before the Closing Ceremonies, and only then will anyone know just how powerful this team is on a global stage where so many nations seem to be getting better and better at baseball.
The U.S. Olympic Baseball Team's roster is stockpiled with bright prospects, including 14 players currently at the Triple-A level and multiple players who are on Major League 40-man rosters. Any athlete not on a 25-man roster at the time of selection is eligible to compete.
Headlining the group are such prized prospects as outfielder Matt LaPorta (Indians, Double-A Akron) and San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg.
LaPorta was recently dealt by the Brewers to the Indians as the key piece of a trade that brought 2007 American League Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia to Milwaukee. Baseball America ranks LaPorta as the top prospect in Cleveland's farm system, and the slugger was also a member of the 2005 collegiate USA Baseball National Team. He had one of the US Team's three hits in its 3-0 loss to the World Team during Sunday's XM All-Star Futures Game at Yankee Stadium.
"It's been a roller-coaster, with some good things and some bad things that have gone on last couple weeks," LaPorta said, using fiancée Dara's cell phone because of "too much text messages and stuff coming in" on his phone. "Overall it's very exciting and I'm just thankful to have this opportunity to represent my country and play baseball for USA.
"I'm excited to see everything there in China that has to do with the Olympics. There are a couple of guys I know who are going to be out there, who I went to (the University of Florida) with, and it'll be exciting to watch those guys participate in the Games, too. I can't say enough how great an honor it is to be able to represent the USA."
Strasburg, who turns 20 on Sunday, is considered a possible high first-round pick -- maybe even a No. 1 overall selection -- in next year's First-Year Player Draft. He made national headlines with a 23-strikeout performance against Utah on April 11, part of a breakthrough sophomore season. He is currently anchoring the pitching staff on the 2008 USA Baseball National Team. The team of collegiate all-stars is fresh off a first-place finish at Haarlem Baseball Week in the Netherlands, including two victories over the Cuban National Team.
"[Using] our reports from Eric Campbell [GM of USA national teams] and looking at what [Strasburg] did, he was pitching great even before he started throwing for that collegiate team in Europe," Johnson said. "He's a power pitcher in the high 90s [98-99 mph] and he throws strikes. That's a rarity for guys even in Triple-A."
Among the other players on the Team USA roster are third baseman Matt Brown and relief pitcher Kevin Jepsen of the Angels' organization. Brown and Jepsen are currently teammates at Triple-A Salt Lake.
On paper, the club is deep up and down the roster. Johnson said he is going to manage using a three-man bullpen A and a three-man bullpen B, with a long reliever as a swing man. Hitting coach Reggie Smith said the team will try to play "knockout ball" -- with the hopes of utilizing the international 10-run mercy rule and giving pitchers as much time off as possible. But Johnson knows the road ahead is a difficult challenge.
"Baseball around the globe is tough," Johnson said. "There are quality arms and teams. Especially Japan. LaPorta's really going to enjoy facing some of the best pitchers on this Earth. It ain't gonna be no cakewalk. We got our work cut out for us. But it's going to be a great stepping-stone for these players."
There could be some remaining drama between now and Tuesday because Major League parent club needs could dictate some tweaking depending on possible deals in advance of the July 31 Trade Deadline. Multiple entities continue to work jointly to make the best Olympic representation happen, while balancing the need to compete at all costs in Major League Baseball's most competitively balanced era.
"Just like Matt was traded from Milwaukee over to Cleveland, there are some types of players we have on this roster who might be included in one or more types of deals like that," said Bob Watson, USA Baseball general manager of professional teams. "We just hope the club that is getting this type of player will still have the mentality to let us have him, like Cleveland has with Matt.
"The situation with Colorado back in '04, it was unfortunate that the Rockies couldn't let Jeff Francis pitch for Canada, but the club is looking out for itself, and he's their No. 1 or No. 2 pitcher in that rotation now. If you go back and ask, they'd probably tell you that was [their] timeframe and sorry they weren't able to accommodate Team Canada."
Obviously not every Major League organization is represented with this team, and several clubs have two at most. Seiler explained that "obviously there are other things that come into play there for availability. If the Oakland A's, for example, were asked for an inordinate amount of players, that's handled by an oversight committee of representatives made up of Major League Baseball, the Players Association and the IBAF. Then you get approval or non-approval from the clubs."
Those A's, for the record, are represented by left-hander Brett Anderson and right-hander Trevor Cahill -- both pitchers on the organization's Double-A Midland affiliate in the Texas League. That's a respectable chunk of a Minor League club.
While the roster certainly can be viewed as "fluid" because of the uncertainty with MLB clubs, Seiler emphasized that it is not viewed that way at all by USA Baseball. He used the example of outfielder Dexter Fowler and right-hander Casey Weathers from the Rockies organization, two players announced on the USA roster.
"Prior to releasing this roster, Bob spoke to every organization and asked if it was OK to announce it, and they said yes," Seiler said. "Is it fluid from USA Baseball's side? Not at all. The 23 names on this list, there's no fluidity from our perspective. Every one of their organizations gave approval to be named to this roster."
In addition to the 14 players currently a step away from the bigs, the 23-man USA roster features seven players in Double-A, one in Class A and one at the collegiate level. When asked about that Class A pitcher -- righty Jake Arrieta (Orioles, Class A Frederick), Johnson said he got a good look at him and had no doubt.
"One thing about pitchers, if they can throw a couple pitches in the strike zone, they could be at A-ball one day and the next day in the big leagues," Johnson said. "He's kind of intimidating. He can look at you like you don't want to mess with him in a dark alley. He kept the ball down, had really good poise on the mound. He's between 93 and 96 (mph), he's got good movement, and he's got a hard breaking ball. He went right after them and it looked pretty easy."
Watson said they were looking for a roster of experienced players, and examples of that are seen in the form of possible closer Brandon Knight (Mets, Triple-A New Orleans, spent three years in Japan) and righty Mike Koplove (Dodgers, Triple-A Las Vegas).
"We knew going in that we wanted a veteran club -- a team of guys who have been battle-tested, so to speak," Watson said. "But we wanted younger prospects as well; guys with the fire to go out and showcase their talents on the international stage."
It was quite a 24-hour period for Watson. As his "day job," he also is Major League Baseball's vice president of on-field operations. The center of the universe the night and wee hours before had been Yankee Stadium, where Watson watched as the American League beat the National League in a 15-inning All-Star Game that lasted an incredible 4 hours, 50 minutes.
"Very hectic. But I tell you what, enjoyable," Watson said. "It was just an awesome thing to see the tremendous stadium hold all of baseball's living greats, along with the 2008 All-Stars. I don't think there will ever probably be an assemblage of that much baseball talent and greatness. And then I don't know if people ever have seen this B2 stealth bomber (which did a flyover during Sheryl Crow's rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner). I wouldn't want to see that thing if you were an enemy. If you saw it, it's probably too late. The crowd there was just awed by just the spectacle."
The 2008 Olympic Games will be the ninth time USA Baseball has utilized Major League-affiliated professional players for international competition, including the 1999 Pan Am Games, the 2000 Olympic Games, the 2001 World Cup, the 2003 Olympic Qualifier, the 2005 IBAF World Cup, the 2006 COPABE Olympic Qualifying Tournament and the 2007 World Cup.
Team USA did not qualify for the Olympics in 2004. Cuba will be back again in its customary role as one of the favorites, having won three of the four Olympic gold medals since baseball became a medal sport in 1992. The lone exception was settling for silver in 2000 when it was upset by the U.S., which won gold on Ben Sheets' three-hit shutout.
"We had the best team in 2004," Watson said recently. "We gave up two runs and didn't qualify. The thing we learned the most from the not qualifying in 2004 is to have some semblance of balance. We had great pitching, but it wasn't a balanced-hitting club. Dave likes power, speed, balance. So we're going down that path now."
It's almost time for Beijing 2008. Final participants are still to be announced for women's volleyball, female gymnastics, men's soccer and the dressage team in equestrian. But now, with one lone exception at the end of the roster, the United States has its baseball team. The world will be watching.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.