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September 19, 2000

Olympic Prospectus

Exhibition Roundup

by Derek Zumsteg

Olympic Prospectus series: | Olympic Outlook | Team USA Pitching | Team USA Hitting

(Ed. note: This isn't another NBC joke. Derek filed this prior to the Olympic competition began, only to see it disappear on the editorial desk. Our apologies to you readers.)

I have two things to get off my chest before I get to the exhibition roundup and outlook for the United Stated baseball team in Sydney.

Every time I pick up a sports magazine with an Olympic preview, the capsule of baseball reads, more or less, "Despite allowing professionals to compete and hopes for a basketball-style 'dream team', the U.S. will be sending a team largely composed of unknowns to Sydney, where Cuba will win." Hey, if you don't follow the sport enough to know who Sean Burroughs, Kurt Ainsworth, Adam Everett and C.C. Sabathia are, I suggest that you ask someone who does. Knowing the Olympic schedule--and IOC drug testing--everyone knew that Mark McGwire and company weren't going, and sure, Cuba has a good team, but it's not perfect (unlike those cool Cuban umpires), and this kind of disrespect for some of the best prospects in baseball riles me.

That's the chip off one shoulder.

The second? Tommy Lasorda is an idiot. He was granted one of the best pitching prospects in baseball in C.C. Sabathia. The Indians made a reasonable request for an organization loaning a pitcher to a Tommy Lasorda/Phil Regan combination: they wanted Sabathia to start games and work on strict pitch counts.

Instead of using him that way, which would have been the smart move in the any case, Lasorda decided that Sabathia would start only one game and pitch out of the bullpen the rest of the time. The Indians, rightfully angry that Lasorda had breached their understanding, recalled Sabathia to the States, costing Team USA one of its best pitchers.

The logic behind using Sabathia for one start and then having him relieve is that the team doesn't need four starters (which, as I pointed out last time, is clearly not the case). They're intimating they'll use Ben Sheets, Kurt Ainsworth and Roy Oswalt. Sheets will pitch against Japan on the September 17, get five days off, pitch against Cuba and then, if needed, pitch again on three days rest in the gold-medal game.

This is amazing stupidity. They could have set up a great four-man rotation, no silliness required, of Ainsworth/Oswalt/Franklin/Sabathia. Everyone gets four days off between starts, everyone pitches two games, the first starter throws three times. Instead, Team USA has decided to make Sheets the ace despite having four better options, and use him in the three most important games, including the final on three days' rest. And, in order to make this dumb idea come to fruition, it cost them their sixth-best pitcher, a flame-throwing intimidation machine.

That said, Team USA went 5-1 in exhibition play against a bunch of weak opponents, but we can look at what went on and see some interesting patterns.

September 7: U.S. 11, Italy 2

Team USA comes to town and promptly lights up Simontacchi like he was Norm Charlton, scoring six runs in three innings. No Italian pitcher gives up less than two hits (though none give up any walks). Rick Krivda, who will likely get the cheap win against Italy in the actual competition, manages to give up four hits in four innings to one of the Games' weakest lineups.

Fortunately, Ryan Franklin and Bobby Seay can pitch, and they toss four shutout innings. Todd Williams closes for Team USA, establishing a fine precedent for the use of a traditional closer, though he's clearly not as good a pitcher as, say, anyone else on the team. Anthony Sanders starts in center field, weirdly. Brad Wilkerson hits two doubles, because he's cool.

September 8: U.S. 3, Australia 1

After cleverly managing to get Luke Prokopec called up by the Dodgers so the team wouldn't have to face him, Pastaman reaps his evil rewards. Sanders starts again in center field, Marcus Jensen starts at catcher. I'm glad to see Jensen is going to be getting some playing time, but it's clear that the team misses the superior veteran experienced pitch-calling of Pat Borders, as Roy Oswalt strikes out seven in four innings. Williams closes again. The team steals three bases.

September 9: U.S. 5, Australia 3

Travis Dawkins starts, due to his international experience over Adam Everett. Sanders is still out there in center field. Doug Mientkiewicz is thrown out stealing. Go small baseball. Meanwhile, Sabathia earns Pastaman's wrath by striking out a man an inning and allowing six hits over five innings.

September 10: U.S. 17, South Africa 1

Some highlights: Dawkins starts at shortstop. His international experience allows him to make an error and steal a base. Jensen catches. Kurt Ainsworth frightens the Afrikaaners and small children with a terrifying five-inning shutout in which he strikes out seven (just under half the batters he faced) and allows only two hits. Tim Young and Shane Heams each throw two innings of shutout relief.

September 11: Holland 4, U.S. 3

Didn't see that coming, did you? Dawkins sucked it up starting at shortstop while Everett, put in later, went 2-for-2 with a double and scored. Jon Rauch gets drilled, putting on ten runners in five innings, four on walks, and gives up all four runs. Ex-San Francisco Giant Rikkert Faneyte, playing center field for Holland, drives in three of those runs and then gets the save pitching. Mike Kinkade starts at third base again, so we can be fairly sure that Team USA isn't carrying him as a catcher after all. No-walk Sanders plays center field and doesn't do anything. Jensen catches again instead of Borders.

September 12: U.S. 15, Korea 0

Korea supposedly didn't use its top pitchers and didn't play home-run titan Lee Seung-Yeop, but did field their national all-stars and got beat like Richard Butler at a Black Panther reunion. Ben Sheets pitched well for five innings, striking out six and allowing only two hits, and Williams again closed the game. The right outfield played (Ernie Young/Brad Wilkerson/Mike Neill), Everett got the start at shortstop over Dawkins, and Kinkade again started at third base. Why is Kinkade starting over Sean Burroughs? No idea.The team struck out 15 times and walked eight times, hit three homers and got caught the only time they tried to steal.

So what does the lineup look like? While we can safely assume that Lasorda was goofing off with some of this, here's what it looks like:

C:     Pat Borders/Marcus Jensen
1B:    Doug Mientkiewicz
2B:    Brent Abernathy
SS:    Adam Everett
3B:    Mike Kinkade/Sean Burroughs
RF-LF: Brad Wilkerson/Mike Neill/Ernie Young
CF:    Anthony Sanders/Wilkerson
DH:    John Cotton/Mike Coolbaugh

Not too bad, given what they have to work with. The four-headed outfield is annoying: clearly, Wilkerson, Young and Neill should get the vast majority of plate appearances.

Now the baserunning: cut that out, Tommy. I know it's exciting and it makes it look like you're doing something, but the fact is that none of these guys can steal well enough to make it worth it.

Now, to the pitching. Ryan Franklin pitched really well in relief, and even with Sabathia out it's unlikely he'll get the chance to start. Meanwhile, there's a bizarre fixation with Ben Sheets pitching as many games as possible, even if it will mean the team has a significantly worse chance at the finals.

Besides which, if I was the Brewers, I'd be thinking about pulling Sheets at this point. Lasorda clearly doesn't have his head on straight if he's thinking about starting one of your best prospects three times in 11 days, especially given the Pastaman's historic blind spot for pitch counts and Phil Regan's awful record protecting his pitchers from abuse.

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

Related Content:  Sean Burroughs

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