Big League Stew - MLB

Whether you were waiting for it or not, the World Baseball Classic is here. The international shindig kicked off in Tokyo this morning and will run through the final at Dodger Stadium on March 23. In an attempt to get you quickly up to speed with what's going on, BLS has been running occasional team previews. This is, thankfully, the final installment.


Pool: C, Toronto

'06 WBC finish: Went 3-3, eliminated with 2-1 loss to Mexico in second round

First game: Saturday, March 7 vs. Canada

Five questions to ask about the U.S.

Is the United States *really* the team to beat? Sure ... well, at least it is if you're listening to manager Davey Johnson, who came out earlier this week and said as much. Whether or not the U.S. team will prove Johnson to be a forecasting genius remains to be seen, but we think it was a good ploy by the man who replaced Buck Martinez. As silly as it sounds, the United States could use the shot of confidence and swagger after hearing everyone say how deep and devoted some of the other countries are. Then again, Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones and others haven't been shy about waving Old Glory and the lineup looks fantastic, so perhaps it's all just a matter of perception.

Will the team travel to its games by ambulance? If it didn't have the luxury of last-minute roster replacements, it would be. Grady Sizemore, Brad Hawpe, Joe Nathan and B.J. Ryan all recently withdrew their names because of various ailments and were replaced with guys like Adam Dunn, Shane Victorino, LaTroy Hawkins and Heath Bell.  Meanwhile, Brian Fuentes says he won't play the first round so he can stay closer to his four young children. He'll be replaced by Washington's Joel Hanrahan. While Victorino and Dunn are suitable replacements for Sizemore and Hawpe, it's hard to see the called-up quartet of relievers replicating the success of what would have been a pretty formidable bullpen. Such a swing in quality is tough to swallow, especially in a tournament that limits its starters with pitch counts.

Speaking of the starters, what's the rotation look like? Considering that guys like CC Sabathia, Cole Hamels and Tim Lincecum are all sitting at home on their unpatriotic keesters, it could be a lot worse. The Padres' Jake Peavy is back for another tour, even though he went 11-14 with a 4.09 ERA after playing in '06, and Houston's Roy Oswalt will team with him to form a decent 1-2 punch. Chicago's Ted Lilly and Baltimore's Jeremy Guthrie will also be asked to start, though neither has proven as reliable as the top two horses.

The lineup is pretty fearsome, though, right?  Is it ever. David Wright, Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Braun can all bring the young power, Jimmy Rollins, Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter bring the veteran experience and Dustin Pedroia and Curtis Granderson should be able to solidify the top of the lineup. Would it have been nicer to have Sizemore batting leadoff? Sure. But the lineup still contains a decent amount of versatility with guys like Victorino and Mark DeRosa waiting in the wings. And though much has been made of who's NOT here (Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, etc.), a lot more should be made of who actually is.  

Does the United States have to win for the WBC to be considered a success? It seems a bit narrow-minded to say yes, but the truth is that a U.S. title would definitely help the long-term health of Bud Selig's pet project. This will be the case as long as television ratings and tickets sold to American stadiums dictate the WBC's future. But first things first, the United States must set the semis as its preeminent goal and then go from there.  Seeing as how they're playing in the same pool as Venezuela and first-round host Canada, it won't be easy. 

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Previous WBC previews: Korea (Jan. 9); Venezuela (Jan. 13); Australia (Jan. 21) Mexico (Jan. 27); Netherlands (Jan. 29); South Africa (Feb. 4); China (Feb. 16), Italy (Feb.17) Japan (Feb. 18), Canada (Feb. 20), Chinese Taipei (Feb. 23); Panama (Feb. 24); Dominican Republic (Feb. 26), Puerto Rico (March 2); Cuba (March 3)

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