Pitching will lead Team USA to World Baseball Classic title

By Dave Fultz

The first round of the second World Baseball Classic starts Thursday, and I still haven’t picked a winner, so here goes nothing. I need to preface this by saying that my predictions are usually very hit-or-miss, and without a lot of statistical information on a lot of the players that are not big leaguers, it might be even worse.

The very idea of picking someone to win a short tournament in baseball (just like the MLB postseason) is one that gives me pause because it isn’t always the best team that comes out on top. All that said, it’s a fact that most people like you – readers of baseball columns like this one – love prediction columns, so who am I to argue?

As is often the case with WBC talk, it might be more productive to first look at the notable names that aren’t on the national teams’ rosters rather than start with the ones who are.

It was announced Monday that big-league closers Joe Nathan and B.J. Ryan had withdrawn their names from the Team USA roster due to health concerns, but the Americans have still have a very deep stable of pitchers and shouldn’t be hurt too much by their absence. Others who declined invitations to play for the U.S. team include CC Sabathia, Joe Mauer, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira and Chase Utley.

The list of players who aren’t participating for Team USA could be confused for an All-Star Game roster, but they shouldn’t be as hurt by the absences as other teams will.

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The Dominican Republic’s squad, which is loaded with talent and among the favorites to win the tournament, will suffer heavily from the absences of pitchers Ervin Santana, Francisco Liriano and Fausto Carmona. While Albert Pujols will also be forced to sit out because of insurance concerns over his surgically repaired elbow, the team’s lineup can afford to lose a bat while the starting rotation now looks very light on quality arms.

Venezuela and Japan, which were also near the top in terms of talent, have both been hurt by key absences. Johan Santana and Carlos Zambrano won’t be participating for Venezuela and Japan will miss Hideki Matsui, among others, from its WBC-winning roster that took the title in 2006. Both would have the potential of powering their way through the tournament if at full strength and now will have to overcome a little adversity to take this year’s crown.

Other notable absences include starters Rich Harden, and Ryan Dempster for Canada, and young guns Yovani Gallardo and Matt Garza for Mexico.

You’ll notice a pattern here: Most of those missing from the WBC rosters are pitchers who are afraid of injury. This is an unavoidable side effect of holding the tournament during spring training, when pitchers do most of their work to get their arms ready for opening day. Some say that the WBC should be moved to another time during the year, but there really is no good time in a sport that has become a year-round game of preparation for the MLB season that already lasts from late February to early November.

The outcome is that the countries who are deepest in pitching talent are hurt less by the absences because they have talented players to fill the void. This plethora of live arms, combined with the fact that I think the Americans are hungry to prove their early exit in 2006 was a fluke, is the reason I’m picking the U.S. to win the 2009 WBC.

I’m certainly not saying that they are 100 percent going to win, and I’m not going to deny that there isn’t a sniff of sentimental favoritism, but I do think that Team USA has the most talent available to them. This is particularly true when it comes to pitching. Even without Hamels, Sabathia, Nathan, Ryan, Cliff Lee and Brad Lidge, the U.S. is still able to field a team that is highlighted by a 14-man pitching staff with 10 big-league relievers. Jake Peavy and Roy Oswalt will anchor the rotation while major-league closers Brian Fuentes, Jonathan Broxton and J.J. Putz lead the deepest bullpen of any team in the tournament.

The United States doesn’t have the strongest lineup, but Japan’s superior pitching carried them to the title in 2006, and my best guess would have the American arms doing the same this year.

Dave Fultz is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected].