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July 24, 2000

Olympic Prospectus

First in a Series

by Derek Zumsteg

The potential makeup of the United States Olympic Baseball team is becoming public, and there are ill omens for USA Baseball's chances against the world. There will be 24 players and six alternates on the team, so we can look for team manager Tommy Lasorda to take a more-or-less standard roster with 14 position players and ten pitchers, give or take one hitter or pitcher. The team will be announced August 23, after which there will be a one-week window to pull players off for emergencies. After September 1, players can't be pulled off the team.

Format

In the Olympic tournament, each team plays the other seven one time each. The top four teams then advance to the semifinals, where the top team plays the fourth-place team, and the two other teams play. The winners of those two games plays for the gold and silver, while the two losers play for bronze.

The eight nations competing are Japan, Cuba, South Korea, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands and South Africa. Here's the United States team's schedule:

Sept. 17: vs. Japan
Sept. 18: vs. South Africa
Sept. 19: vs. Netherlands
Sept. 20: vs. South Korea
Sept. 22: vs. Italy
Sept. 23: vs. Cuba
Sept. 24: vs. Australia
Sept. 26: Semifinals
Sept. 27: Finals

This schedule should impact the selection process, but USA Baseball is already indicating that it's not paying a lot of attention to details like this. With rest days on the fifth and ninth days of the tournament, Lasorda could go with four starters and use the extra roster spot to carry a platooner, an extra relief specialist or reinforce wherever the team may be short. Also, considering that the real threats are presumed to be from Cuba, Japan and South Korea, Lasorda would be well-advised to set his rotation with good matchups in mind: Ryan Anderson, for instance, could start against Japan, get an easy start against Italy and then pitch the final, all on four days' rest.

Roster News

Some good and bad news has come out about who might play for the United States team. Bill Bavasi and Bob Watson chair the selection committee and attended the Futures Game in Atlanta two weeks ago. While each has an extensive baseball background, including tours as a GM, neither man has a track record of success.

Baseball America reported that most of the players on the U.S. team at the Futures Game said they'd gotten a letter from USA Baseball asking if they would be interested in playing in the Olympics. So far, players mentioned specifically include Indians left-hander C.C. Sabathia, Oakland left-hander Barry Zito, the Mariners' Anderson and Reds shortstop Gookie Dawkins.

An interesting fact that has emerged is that clubs will have final say over a player's participation. This means that concerned GMs (and, through the club, the player's agent) may be able to extract pitch-count guarantees from USA Baseball as a condition of competition. This could serve as a check on Lasorda and pitching coach Phil Regan's demonstrated disregard for pitcher safety.

The list of players has reportedly been narrowed to 70 names. It's not public in the way that Cuba's list has been, probably due to the ongoing negotiations with the Players' Association over service time and pay, as well as club approval of participation.

Two of the candidates are college players who aren't in the minors: third baseman Xavier Nady, drafted by the Padres out of the University of California, and Mark Texeira, the Georgia Tech second baseman who was Baseball America's College Player of the Year. However, all the comments from the selection team and Lasorda indicate that they won't be picking college players at all or players in the low minors. Said Watson: "We have our work cut out for us. But Mr. Lasorda has given me the marching orders. He said, 'I'm not going 7,500 miles to lose.' So we are going to try to give him the best thing we can."

Speculation that retired major league players are being considered, as disturbing as that was, has been confirmed. While Wade Boggs and Chili Davis have now withdrawn from consideration, Boggs after some flirtation with the idea, still in the running are Terry Steinbach, Lance Johnson and Tim Raines.

This could be what costs Team USA in the end: roster spots and at-bats wasted on victory laps for the ghosts of players with familiar names, in a situation where every game can make the difference between making the medal round and going home. "We want to go there with the best club that is prepared to win now," Watson said. "There might be some veteran players that might not run as fast or throw as hard, but they know how to play the game, and they're professionals."

If you're really going to try to win, why would you even consider wasting precious roster spots on players who will do nothing but hamper your ability to do so? How much better would they say this professionalism makes a team? 10%? Less than 10%? The fact is that it's worthless, and they'd be just as well using a roster spot to have Britney Spears hang around as a celebrity pinch-runner for use in blowouts. While USA Baseball is talking about winning, its actions in considering these players indicate that they're either not committed enough to put a lot of thought into how they'll do it, or they're not smart enough to realize what they're already doing wrong. It's my hope that someone, anyone, will knock some sense into them before it's too late.

Derek Zumsteg can be reached at dzumsteg@baseballprospectus.com.

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