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August 31, 2000
One of the things that I heard the Olympic Committee really wanted to get was "foot speed". I read that over and over, and it made me think that maybe they were going to go out of their way to get former major leaguers, like Vince Coleman, so they could steal some bases.
They didn't. I'm happy about that. The big speed threat is Brent Abernathy, who was 21-for-36 in steal attempts when I pulled his stats on selection day. Foot speed, apparently, has run out.
Here's how a good-hitting lineup would be set up:
OF Brad Wilkerson OF Mike Neill DH Shawn Gilbert OF Ernie Young 1B Doug Mientkiewicz SS Adam Everett 2B Brent Butler 3B Sean Burroughs C Pat Borders
I've got Brad Wilkerson batting leadoff because he hits doubles and he walks and he has some speed on the basepaths to score. After that, it's Mike Neill's on-base skills followed by mashers Shawn Gilbert and Ernie Young and the surprising on-base and power combination of Doug Mientkiewicz.
I nearly had this laid out in order of OBP, with some weighting to power towards the middle. Lineup order doesn't make that much of a difference, though, and in international play, not having a long string of left- (or right-) handed hitters prevents getting hit too hard by one reliever.
As a lineup, Team USA doesn't match up that well against what Cuba is reportedly fielding, but it looks pretty good compared to Japan and South Korea. They'll look worse by sticking bad bats like Travis Dawkins in there. However, there's a lot of good strike-zone controllers and some extra-base power to boot. The team could well introduce the small-baseball, advance-the-runner, looks-good-in-uniform international baseball scene to the Earl Weaver style of hitting home runs with men on base.
Still, I can't help but wish they'd picked better players, that teams had been willing to sacrifice the ten, twenty ABs they were going to get out of September call-ups in order to ensure America finally taught those Cubans the lesson they've been begging for. I want Russ Branyan on this squad, frankly, and all his ilk.
On to the pitching, which you're likely aware I'm much more happy about.
There's been some talk of using a three-man rotation, which is clearly silliness. This team isn't carrying ten starters for no good reason. Here's the 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
It's absolutely critical that the team uses its best pitchers against Japan, South Korea and Cuba. Not only because they need the wins; because each team faces every other team once, it's critical to tag as many of those three with losses as you can to ensure you head to the gold-medal game and they play for the consolation prize. Unfortunately, the schedule doesn't work out that well for trying tricky moves. So here's the rotation:
Kurt Ainsworth (Japan, Italy, Finals) Roy Oswalt (South Africa, Cuba) Ryan Franklin (Netherlands, Australia) C.C. Sabathia (South Korea, Semifinals)
Here's the logic: Kurt Ainsworth rules, and gets to lead off by smoking Japanese's finest like so much illegally harpooned whale meat, He follows that with a tune up against the Italians and then heads into the finals. Roy Oswalt cooks with gas and doesn't give up the long ball, while Cuba is a power-hitting team that he might eat alive. Ryan Franklin has a longball problem, so he's not the guy you want on the mound. So roll the dice-Oswalt is young but if he's on, Cuba won't stand a chance. Franklin, then, cleans up against the Netherlands and Australia. Then C.C. Sabathia gets to pitch against the tough South Koreans and in the semifinals.
This would be awesome: a dominant starting rotation that puts very few runners on, and well suited to their potential competition. From public statements and Baseball America's eerily prescient speculation so far, though, it appears that Ben Sheets will start, likely in front of Sabathia, and Rick Krivda may get a start against Italy, the Netherlands or South Africa.
So here's the solid-gold question: can they win it all, and go on to lucrative careers as gold-medal wearing professional wrestlers? There's been a lot of carping lately that they're already screwed and might as well save the airfare. I don't believe that. This is a squad with some great pitchers who can dominate a game, a well-stocked bullpen with a mix of left- and right-handers, of control and heat, and a lineup of good hitters who will play solid defense and score the American way.
The really big question I've been thinking over as I've tried to work out probable outcomes centers on manager Tommy Lasorda. Will he be smart enough to give pitchers early hooks, and confident enough in his bullpen to take over games early? Will he have enough patience to let his hitters do what they're good at: get on base and, for some of them, hit for power?
Or will he hang Ainsworth out against Japan for 140 pitches, making him so tired that he'll get shelled against Italy, and will he get so nervous the first time Mike Neill walks that he'll have him steal and be thrown out at second?
When a major league manager decides to rest his regulars and play an all-scrub lineup, or make a series of terrible tactical decisions, the maximum loss is one game out of 162. The benefits of resting the regulars and keeping the scrubs sharp might make that up. But in a seven-game season, one loss can, and will, be the difference between being in the gold-medal game and playing for consolation prizes.
It's possible that the United States team will pitch well, that Mike Neill will be so happy he'll hit nothing but homers and every game will end 12-1 U.S., and the manager won't even matter. That's unlikely, and I think Lasorda's management will be directly attributable to the U.S. winning the bronze in Sydney, and having to put up with another spate of fawning stories about the continued dominance of those amazing international Cuban teams.
Derek Zumsteg can be reached at email@example.com.