MLB teams force Team USA to cobble lineup

Bob Watson glanced at his cell phone. He recognized the area code and shook his head. This couldn’t be good news. Not for him and certainly not for the United States’ Olympic baseball team.

“Well,” Watson said two minutes later, “that was the Twins’ GM. We’re not getting Denard Span.”

Watson shrugged his shoulders. It was somewhat inevitable, Minnesota telling Watson that it planned on keeping the hot-hitting Span in the major leagues and thus rendering him ineligible to compete in Beijing. And yet it was painful.

This was supposed to be an all-smiles day. Major League Baseball had arranged this year’s All-Star Futures Game so that the United States’ roster could serve as a final tryout for the Olympic team, and Watson, the team’s general manager, was eager to see what his cadre of scouts had culled from the minor leagues for him.

Granted, it wasn’t the best team possible, which is a shame considering baseball may not have a future as an Olympic sport. While Japan takes the two best players from each of its dozen teams and Korea and Taiwan shut down their professional leagues to send only the best players, the United States – the birthplace of baseball – won’t even muster a team of its best minor leaguers.

Not that Watson or USA Baseball is at fault. A number of teams, including the three with the deepest farm systems in baseball – Tampa Bay, Boston and the Los Angeles Dodgers – went unrepresented on Team USA at the Futures Game, which the World won 3-0 Sunday afternoon.

Absent was David Price, the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft and among the game’s best pitching prospects. A year after letting Evan Longoria compete for Team USA in international competition, the Rays withheld Price, figuring he might help the team in August or September if need be.

Gone, too, was Michael Bowden, the latest in the Red Sox’s cache of pitching talent. As if Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson weren’t enough for one organization to produce in a two-year span.

And no Clayton Kershaw, either, the left-handed starter with the 97-mph fastball and out-of-this-world breaking ball confined by the Dodgers to the Southern League.

“They’re not in business to help us. They’re in business to win,” Watson said. “Especially teams that are on the bubble. They’re not going to let you have David Price. There are some guys I’d love to have, but it ain’t gonna happen.”

The sentiment rings true. The allure of a team winning a World Series trumps an individual winning a gold medal.

Still, to see players wearing jerseys with their names on the back, USA striped across the front and an American flag patch stitched on their left shoulder – and to see, really, how they swelled at the moment: in Yankee Stadium, playing for their country, trying to win a spot on their Olympic team – was the type of moment that a Price, a Bowden and a Kershaw surely would relish.

“It’s playing for your country,” said Trevor Cahill, Oakland’s 20-year-old right-hander and the presumptive staff ace. “We all want to do that.”

Cahill knows the stories, especially the one of 2000, when Ben Sheets and Roy Oswalt led the United States to an improbable gold. Tommy Lasorda waddled on the field to celebrate and Doug Mientkiewicz went nuts and USA Baseball, after years of defeats to Cuba, finally had its crowning achievement.

So, yeah, this means something, perhaps more than some executives give it credit for, and it’s why after getting cut twice at the University of Arizona from a Team USA full of college players, Jason Donald so relished Sunday and what could come of it.

“Representing your country is so much bigger than you, so much bigger than your family,” said Donald, a Double-A shortstop in the Philadelphia organization. “It’s your country. To even have an opportunity to do so, especially with everything going on in the world, it’s like it all stops and you’re in the middle of it.”

The nerves, accordingly, were heavy. Donald airmailed a throw in the first inning that led to an unearned run. He followed with one of only three Team USA hits, the others from Cleveland third baseman Wes Hodges and Indians outfielder Matt LaPorta, the centerpiece of the CC Sabathia trade. On the other hand, the pitchers fared well. Cahill struck out two in a scoreless inning. St. Louis’ Jess Todd and San Diego’s Will Inman, control specialists, pitched scoreless innings. And Colorado’s Casey Weathers, a closing candidate, worked around a hit and two walks with three strikeouts.

All of which made for an interesting, albeit long, evening. Back at the Roosevelt Hotel, the principals of Team USA – Watson, USA Baseball CEO Paul Seiler, team manager Davey Johnson and about a half-dozen others – planned to sequester themselves in a room and choose the 24 players to represent the United States in the 2008 Olympics.

Previously they had penciled in a few names, like longtime minor leaguers Terry Tiffee and Jason Smith, who can play utility roles. Johnson needs such players to offset Watson’s decision to bring 12 pitchers among the 24 players, something he promised team executives who were worried about arms getting abused.

USA Baseball will announce the roster Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET and the team will have only four exhibition games against Canada together before it takes off Aug. 4 for Beijing.

Until then, Watson will go through his usual routine. He has seen the Denard Span scenario play out enough times, losing Chris Davis to Texas and Brett Gardner to the New York Yankees and almost a dozen total off the 60-man provisional roster, that he has built some reading into his breakfast.

“When we get the morning news, we don’t look at the headlines,” Watson said. “We see the transactions to make sure guys didn’t get called up.”

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Jul 13, 2008